Beyond Man's Footsteps. Briton Riviere, RA (1840-1920). Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1894. Oil on canvas. Measurements: 119 x 184.5 cm. Tate Gallery. Accession number: N01577. Acquisition method: presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1894. Image available on the Art UK website for sharing and reuse on the CC BY-NC-ND (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives) licence [click to enlarge the image]. Commentary by Jacqueline Banerjee.

Later in his career, Riviere turned to producing some "landscapes of solitary magnificence" (Reynolds). The Tate's gallery label for February 2016 explains that he was particularly interested in "Charles Darwin’s ideas on evolution and the relationship of animals to man," and that "Beyond Man’s Footsteps represents the Arctic as a place of extreme and sublime beauty where man is, as yet, nowhere to be seen and the polar bear reigns." Of course, the artist had never been to the Arctic himself, and he is thought to have used a polar bear from the zoo as his model, and first-hand accounts of Arctic explorations as an inspiration for the setting.

Taking a closer look at the painting, Diana Donald associates it with the continuing fascination exerted by the ill-fated Franklin Expedition of 1845 and the various searches for it, making the general point that it derives from a post-Darwinian sense of a demythologised but still wondrous nature. This in turn prompts her to question whether "the ‘sublime’ remains an appropriate term for the scientific phenomena which prompt this kind of response."

This painting is far removed from the cosy domestic scenes involving pets, and the other genre works that had made Riviere's name. In style and palette as well as theme it shows a much larger imaginative sweep. There is a much more profound sense here of a creature feeling more than it can possibly comprehend about the mysteries surrounding it.


"Briton Riviere: Beyond Man's Footsteps." Tate. Web. 6 October 2018.

Donald, Diana. "The Arctic Fantasies of Edwin Landseer and Briton Riviere: Polar Bears, Wilderness and Notions of the Sublime." Tate (Tate Papers). Web. 6 October 2018.

Reynolds, Simon. "Riviere, Briton (1840–1920), painter." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Web. 6 October 2018.

Created 5 October 2018