The news hit the world like a blow:
"Titanic sinks four hours after
collision with iceberg; 1,250 presumed dead." Thus read the New York
Times headline of 16 April 1912. Only twenty-four hours before, an
unprecedented tragedy had been enacted 400 nautical miles off Newfoundland
in the Atlantic. More than hall the ship's passengers had died.
Not only had a stunningly elegant ship
gone down; with her sank the myth of modern times. Industrial man had
believed it could dupe nature with technology: the glittering new Titanic,
on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, was regarded as a
marvel of engineering and as
"unsinkable". Yet she fell victim to the vagaries of nature like so many
expeditionary vessels that had sailed into perilous waters a century
The Polar Sea, the capsized ship caught in the ice may be
the "Griper", which took part in expeditions to the North Pole that made
the headlines in 1819—20 and 1824. British Polar explorer Sir William
Edward Parry had become embroiled in a very dangerous situation whilst
seeking the Northwest Passage.
may well have been inspired by newspaper reports about Parry as well as by
heavy ice floes on the Elbe in the winter of 1820—21.
The painting has occasionally been
interpreted as having a religious meaning: the intransience of human life
before divine eternity. There are also political interpretations:
resignation in the face of the fruitless German wars of independence. And
yet The Polar Sea remains in the first instance a symbol of
the terrors of the icy wastes of the Polar regions - and of human
presumption, which no longer stands in awe of nature.