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Albert L. Operti: chronicler of Arctic exploration

  • Douglas W. Wamsley (a1)

Abstract

The great wave of immigrants to the United States during the late 1800s brought many talented individuals who enriched American culture and society. Notable among them stands the Italian-born artist, Albert L. Operti (1852–1927), a versatile painter, illustrator and sculptor. For much of his professional career, Operti served as a scenic artist for the Metropolitan Opera House and later as an exhibit artist for the American Museum of Natural History. However, he maintained an avid personal interest in polar explorers and the history of polar exploration, ultimately turning his artistic skills to the subject. Operti served as official artist for Robert E. Peary during his Arctic expeditions of 1896 and 1897, producing paintings, drawings and even plaster casts of the Inuit from the expedition. Over the course of his lifetime he painted a number of ‘great’ pictures depicting, in a factually accurate manner, important incidents in Arctic history along with numerous smaller paintings, sketches, illustrations and studies. The quality of his work never rivaled his more talented contemporaries in the field of ‘great’ paintings, such as the prominent artists William Bradford and Frederic Church. Nonetheless, Operti achieved some recognition in his time as a painter of historical Arctic scenes, but the full extent of his contributions are little known and have been largely unexamined. Unlike the explorers themselves whose legacy rests upon geographic or scientific accomplishments and written narratives, Operti's legacy stands upon the body of distinctive artwork that served to convey, in realistic and graphic terms, the hardships and accomplishments of those explorers. This article recounts the life of Operti and his role as an historian in disseminating knowledge of the polar regions and its explorers to the public.

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(Abbreviations of names of public depositories: AMNH=AmericanMuseum of Natural History, New York, NY; AGS=AmericanGeographical Society Archives, Madison, WI; SC=SeaverCenter for Western History Research, Natural History Museumof Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, CA; STEF=Rauner SpecialCollections, Stefansson Library, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH; WL: Wellcome Library, Townsend Thorndike Collection:Albert Operti (1852–1927), London).
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Albert L. Operti: chronicler of Arctic exploration

  • Douglas W. Wamsley (a1)

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