“We Turned Our Eyes Away”: A Visual History of Nansen’s Dogs

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Editor’s Note: This is the third post in Part II of the Visual Cultures of the Circumpolar North series edited by Isabelle Gapp and Mark A. Cheetham.


An exhausted Fridtjof Nansen was shuffling across Franz Josef Land on mismatched skis on the seventeenth of June, 1896 when he heard a familiar but impossible sound. Nansen and expedition partner Fredrik Johansen had endured a brutal winter in their unsuccessful quest to reach the North Pole, and, just days before, had incurred a damaging walrus attack which left them once more fearing for their survival.

Bark. Bark! 

Rising above the calls of loons, auks, and kittiwakes more common on the Arctic archipelago, it sounded again. Ten months earlier in August of 1895, according to plan, the pair had killed the final two members of the twenty-eight sledge dog team with whom they had begun their Northward trek in March. Perhaps this was a “vision,” “dream,” or “illusion” — another reason to question whether things were “what they seem” in a life of “incessant vicissitudes” on the ice.

However improbable, “[o]ut of the shadow-land of doubt,” the dog’s barking rose “more distinctly than ever” above the squawking birds. At last, the dog’s “dark shape” came into sight. Soon, another form emerged: “[i]t was a human being.” He skied faster. Nansen recognized the man quickly: it was Frederick George Jackson. The young English polar explorer who had once asked to join his party now lead his own expedition funded by print magnate Alfred Harmsworth. The men shook hands on the ice, barking dog not far from their side.1

Fig. 1 “Cape Flora Meeting,” Farthest North, Vol. II, Chapter IX, The Journey Southward. Project Gutenberg.

The chance encounter was reenacted for a formal photograph: the men stand against a sweeping background of ice, the “dark shape” of a dog on lookout in the middle-ground. The photograph, later included in Nansen’s Farthest North (1897), was heavily used as a reference point on which many future lithographs and sketches of their meeting were based. What for Nansen began as a trek which “started off in doubt” across Cape Flora had, at a bark, ended with a meeting between two polar explorers, each endeavouring to be the first to reach the North Pole, each with the aid of sledge dogs.2

Because he was an explorer whose legacy is critiqued and celebrated for his relationship with animals domestic and wild, the bark of Jackson’s dog is a particularly appropriate starting point for my discussion. Where critics have lamented that neither Jackson nor Nansen “was a good leader of men,” animal historians record Jackson as the more effective leader of dogs.3 Yet the photographs, sketches, pastels, and lithographs included in Nansen’s Farthest North tell a compelling story of their own. How might considering these images improve our understanding of Nansen’s story — of both animal and art history — and improve understanding of human-canid relationships in polar worlds?

Nansen’s relationships with canids had changed fundamentally by the time of his rescue. Indeed, the sound of the very creatures whose hierarchical squabbling, harassment of wildlife, and noisy barking had once prompted the Norwegian explorer to describe them as “wretches” in October of 1893 had, by 1896, aroused his hopes, his sympathies, and ultimately, resulted in the rescue of two men many presumed dead.4

Fig. 2 “Mr. Jackson At Home With His Two Best Bear-Dogs, Nimrod and Räving,” The Illustrated London News, 2 November 1895, p.554. Detail image from copy in the library of the author.

The importance of dogs to nineteenth-century polar exploration is reflected in both visual culture and in the record of animal history. To place Nansen’s relationship with dogs in context, these fields must themselves shake hands. Dogs were of great use to polar explorers — many of whom derived their technique from Indigenous ways of life and which proved difficult to master on first attempt.5 Dog sledges were difficult to learn how to drive, and difficult and time-consuming to build. Harnesses had to be specially-constructed, and the weight and cost of the dogs’ feed (however nutritionally-insufficient), had to be accounted for.6

Fig. 3 “Stopping a Dog Fight,” Farthest North, Vol. II, Chapter II, The New Year, 1895. Project Gutenberg.

When necessary, the dogs themselves were rationed, either in accordance with a preconceived plan, as in the case of Nansen and Johansen, or as emergency food for their fellow dogs and for the explorers themselves. Dogs were beasts of burden, objects of use, producers of new sledge dogs, alarms against danger, defenders, and sources of food and textile. They were beaten, per Nansen’s later, regretful admission, “mercilessly” when they could not perform to the expectation of their human handlers, but attended them “faithfully” until the last:

It was undeniable cruelty to the poor animals from first to last, and one must often look back on it with horror. It makes me shudder even now when I think of how we beat them mercilessly with thick ash sticks when, hardly able to move, they stopped from sheer exhaustion.

Farthest North, Vol. II, Fridtjof Nansen (Project Gutenberg)

Where Farthest North records the eventual, reflective outcomes of Nansen’s close working relationship with dogs in his own words, the evolution of this relationship cannot be fully understood without careful analysis of the accompanying imagery. Nansen did not immediately take to sledging or to dogs: he disliked their aggressive, loud behaviour, insinuated their almost-pitiable stupidity at their every displeasing dog-like reaction, and fell on his first attempt to drive a dog team (to his great personal embarrassment).

Fig. 4 “My First Attempt at Dog Driving (Drawn by A. Bloch),” Farthest North, Vol I, Chapter VI: The Winter Night. Project Gutenberg. Wrote Nansen of his frustrations: “I lost the board I should have sat on, then the whip, then my gloves, then my cap—these losses not improving my temper. Once or twice I ran round in front of the dogs, and tried to force them to turn by lashing at them with the whip. They jumped to both sides and only tore on the faster; the reins got twisted round my ankles, and I was thrown flat on the sledge, and they went on more wildly than ever. This was my first experience in dog driving on my own account, and I will not pretend that I was proud of it. I inwardly congratulated myself that my feats had been unobserved” [290]

His fraught relationship with the dogs is most evident in the imagery which precedes the outset of his ill-fated voyage with Johansen in March of 1895. Compositions prior to this point center the human: their tools and the other-than-human beings which functioned as tools.7 Canid figures shown at the expedition’s outset do depict them in scenes of intimacy and as members of the expedition, but observed from a distance. Their presence in compositions, and in conversation with Nansen himself, evolves most dramatically over the course of Nansen’s trek with Johansen.

Fig. 5 “The Stern of the ‘Fram.’ Johansen and ‘Sultan’” Farthest North, Vol. I, Chapter VII: The Spring and Summer of 1894. Project Gutenberg.

The trek with Johansen forced a new acquaintance between Nansen and the sledge dogs and is represented plainly in compositions to follow the pair’s departure from their expedition ship, The Fram. According to plan, one by one, the men killed their team — first to sustain the dogs which remained, then, to sustain themselves. Yet even in death the dogs disappointed, depressed, and confounded Nansen: they proved difficult to kill and to skin, and he quickly learned to dislike canid fur, finding it too absorptive of the sweat of the wearer.8 The starving dogs who remained often refused the meat of their comrades and ate up the straps of the sledges which bound them. In time, as their numbers dwindled, though he aimed to hold defectors to human standards and punish them with death, Nansen’s resolve began to fail, “disarmed” by the trust of the dogs.9

It made one’s heart bleed to see them, but we turned our eyes away and hardened ourselves. It was necessary; forward we must go, and to this end everything else must give place […] those splendid animals, toiling for us without a murmur, as long as they could strain a muscle, never getting any thanks or even so much as a kind word, daily writhing under the lash until the time came when they could do no more and death freed them from their pangs—when I think of how they were left behind, one by one, up there on those desolate ice-fields, which had been witness to their faithfulness and devotion, I have moments of bitter self-reproach.

Farthest North, Vol. II, Fridtjof Nansen (Project Gutenberg)

Fig. 6 “Crossing a Crack in the Ice,” depicts a brief kayak journey of Johansen, Nansen, and dogs Kaifas and Suggen. Farthest North, Vol. II, Chapter VI: By Sledge and Kayak. Project Gutenberg.

As the circumstances of their journey became increasingly dire, a greater visual familiarity with canines emerges. At once brutal and intimate, these renderings refocus the composition of Nansen’s journey to include his eventual consideration of these more-than-human characters as beings closer to exploration partners than tools or automatons. The intensity and trauma of these later compositions retrains the human lense to focus on more-than-human perspective in accordance with Nansen’s own growth. Struggle, confliction, regret, familiarity, and desire of dog community are recorded across these images. When at last only the pair’s two favourite dogs remained, only words accompany closed eyes: “I shot Johansen’s and he shot mine.”10

Fig. 7 A composite image of “Kaifas,” left, and “Suggen,” right, the favourite dogs of Nansen and Johansen, respectively. Both images originally featured in Farthest North, Vol. II, Chapter VI: By Sledge and Kayak. Project Gutenberg.

Where the human gaze turns away from the realities of other-than-human communities in service to the settler-colonial project, the visual record which exists is vital.

While the photographed handshake between Nansen and Jackson was widely interpreted within nineteenth-century print media (aided by connections to the Harmsworthian print empire), Jackson’s dog plays a more elusive role. In some representations, Jackson’s dog is featured. In others, it is entirely absent. “The visual absence of [dogs]” in print media of this era, Eavan O’Dochartaigh explains, “signals a desire on the part of whoever was influencing the publication of the lithographs” to convey a “more perilous and difficult” scene or expedition at large.11 If “words govern visual images,” to animal history, this is erasure.12 Lacking the critical eye of visual culture, this seemingly-minor compositional exclusion adds meaningful presence to the existing visual narrative.  

Looking for the presence — and absence — of canine figures thus proves uniquely inspiring to the study of polar worlds. Dogs are many things, and have been assigned many roles in the history of polar exploration — but rarely performed exactly as expected by the humans controlling them. They are disruptors of expectation, dependable companions (and sometimes, agents of chaos), both historically and in the present.

Where both Jackson and Nansen failed to reach farthest north in many senses, both of them learned this intimately.

Fig. 7 “My Last Dog, Kaifas,” Farthest North, Vol. II, Chapter VI: By Sledge and Kayak. Project Gutenberg.

Applying a critical take to human-dog relationships in the circumpolar north moves the field towards a future which is less reliant on binary narratives of attainment, glory, and competition. The sight and sound of dogs reveals a future, as it did for Nansen, which disrupts the pursuit of so singular a scholarly outcome. The sound of a bark, or the exclusion of a dog, strike a different chord when placed in the context of a greater composition. Taken together, they help to write the more-than-human history of the polar north.

The renderings in Farthest North convey Nansen’s relationship with dogs in a more-than-human context. Nansen’s actions reflect an age in which domestic dogs were not the partners of polar explorers, but tools of their conquest, as dispensable as they were invaluable. Nevertheless, at the penultimate hour of his last dog, Kaifas, man and dog hauled together; Nansen alone carrying the weight of their parting into the future.

Fig. 8 “Incredibly Slow Progress,” Farthest North, Vol. II, Chapter 7: Land at Last. Project Gutenberg.


Further reading: Jon T. Coleman, Vicious: Wolves and Men in America, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004); Stephanie Rutherford, Villain, Vermin, Icon, Kin, (Montreal & Kingston, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022).
[1] Fridtjof Nansen, Farthest North: Vol. II, chap 9. All quotations and context in this section taken from Chapter 9. 
[2] Roland Huntford, Nansen (London: Duckworth, 1997), chap. 52.
[3] Huntford, Nansen, 1997, chap. 52.
[4] Nansen, Farthest North: Vol. I, chap. 7.
[5] Eavan O’Dochartaigh, Visual Culture and Arctic Voyages: Personal and Public Art and Literature of the Franklin Search Expeditions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022), 76.
[6] Sara J. Fraser-Miller, Jeremy S. Rooney, Keith C. Gordon, Craig R. Bunt, Jill M. Haley. Feeding the team: Analysis of a Spratt’s dog cake from Antarctica. Polar Record, 2021; 57 DOI: 10.1017/S0032247421000103
[7] Nansen, Farthest North: Vol. II, chap. 3.
[8] Nansen, Farthest North: Vol. II, chap. 1.
[9] Nansen, Farthest North: Vol. II, chap. 5.
[10] Nansen, Farthest North: Vol. II, chap. 7.
[11] O’Dochartaigh, Visual Culture and Arctic Voyages, 173.
[12] Gretton, T. (2010), The Pragmatics of Page Design in Nineteenth-Century General-Interest Weekly Illustrated News Magazines in London and Paris. Art History, 33: 680-709.

Feature image: “Preparations for Nansen and Johansen’s polar trek, 14 March 1895” via Wikicommons. Public Domain. A version of this image, labelled to indicate the identity of the human figures from left to right is also featured in Nansen’s Farthest North, Vol. II, p. 112, captioned: “The Start from the “Fram.” March 14, 1895.” Both the dog at farthest left of the image and the dog farthest right bear striking resemblance to Kaifas and Suggen, respectively.
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