Commodore Peary and Henson at the North Pole

William H. Johnson, Commodore Peary and Henson at the North Pole, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1983.95.54
Copied William H. Johnson, Commodore Peary and Henson at the North Pole, ca. 1945, oil on paperboard, 27 5835 12 in. (70.190.3 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Harmon Foundation, 1983.95.54

Artwork Details

Title
Commodore Peary and Henson at the North Pole
Date
ca. 1945
Dimensions
27 5835 12 in. (70.190.3 cm)
Credit Line
Gift of the Harmon Foundation
Mediums
Mediums Description
oil on paperboard
Classifications
Keywords
  • Waterscape — boat
  • African American
  • History — exploration — North Pole
  • Portrait male — Peary, Robert Edwin
  • Portrait male — Henson
  • Object — other — flag
Object Number
1983.95.54

Artwork Description

Johnson located Matthew Henson and Commodore Robert Peary in a landscape that attests to their greatest accomplishment---the discovery of the North Pole. The iceberg and ship behind them symbolize their arduous journey, the American flag, the nation for which they claimed victory. The two were an unlikely pair. In 1887 Robert Peary (1856--1920), a U.S. naval officer, hired Matthew Henson (1866--1955) to be his personal valet. By the time they planted an American flag on what they believed to be the North Pole on April 6, 1909, Henson was a co-equal explorer who had accompanied Peary on four earlier expeditions to the Arctic.

The 1908 to 1909 North Pole expedition was huge. More than fifty men, women, and children, most of them Inuit; 246 dogs; hunting equipment; coal; and seventy tons of provisions supported the venture. They traveled first by ship then on foot and by dogsled over the frozen land. Though in 1912 Henson published a book, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, which told the story of the trip, his role was eclipsed by Peary's until the 1940s, when Congress awarded him and five others silver medals for their accomplishments.  

Exhibitions

Media - 1967.59.1146 - SAAM-1967.59.1146_2 - 141130
Fighters for Freedom: William H. Johnson Picturing Justice
March 8, 2024September 10, 2024
William H. Johnson's Fighters for Freedom series from the mid-1940s is a tribute to African American activists, scientists, teachers, and performers as well as international leaders working to bring peace to the world.