My Favorite Things: Marc Onetto on “Shipwreck off the Coast of Alaska” at Seattle Art Museum

My Favorite Things: Marc Onetto on “Shipwreck off the Coast of Alaska” at Seattle Art Museum

December 9, 2019 0 By Kailee Schamberger


Good morning. I’m Marc Onetto, I love boating, I love the sea, and every year I go up to Alaska with my boat and I go even places where La Pérouse, the man of the painting, has been. And that’s why I’m here today, to speak about this painting and my link with it. La Pérouse for France is a bit the equivalent of Captain Cook for United Kingdom. So, we all learn about him in history, but I reconnected with him in America, in fact. When I visited a mission in Carmel, I discovered in the bookstore there, an extract of the log book of La Pérouse. And then I discovered that he had been all over our coast here. And then as I went up to North I did some research and tried to go to know where he had been, and I had the opportunity to go two or three places where he was physically in 1786. This painting is in fact very good when you think about the fact that the painter only had a sketch from the log book and some description, to paint that–he had never seen it. I’ve seen it, I’ve been there. And honestly, I mean, this is not a bad painting, particularly the middle glacier here is perfectly in place. These mountains are a bit too dramatic, but they’re really there. In fact, by the way this is Mount La Perouse now. And the positioning of the island, for example, and the bluff in the island, that’s exactly true. All these sources allowed the painter to represent pretty faithfully the first boat, that is already taken by the storm, and you can see that the boat is now breaking down. And then the second boat who tried to save the first boat, and came in and the two brothers, which are the two officers commanding that boat, trying to save these people. In fact they did not manage to save the other boat but even, they lost their own boat and there was a total of twenty-one people killed. And so what he did is he instructed the officer that was in charge of this boat who was doing soundings because La Pérouse was in charge of a maritime expedition and the role of an explorer is to discover for the world what you are finding and one of the things, of course, very important for navigation is, what’s the depth there. And so he instructed this boat to go and do soundings, but he did tell the officer not to approach the pass before 7 am, because he knew that before 7 am there was ebbing current and it was dangerous. This young officer made a mistake, went too close and was taken by the current–they could not row against it. It was so strong. And was therefore thrown into the breakers. And that’s what happened, and that’s the natural phenomena which create–which was the root cause of the drama.