Wednesday 8 November 2023

William Bradford - part 1

Marine painter William Bradford devoted his career to depicting the frozen north in images drawn from first-hand exploration. Bradford, son of a Quaker whaling merchant, was born in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, across the harbor from New Bedford, at a time when both towns’ fleets dominated the American whaling industry. Failing in the dry-goods business because he was more interested in art, the young Bradford began to paint ship portraits notable for their convincing detail. He was undoubtedly familiar with the tranquil harbor and shore views of marine painter Fitz Henry Lane, who sometimes painted in New Bedford. In the mid-1850s, Bradford and the New York-based Dutch artist Albert Van Beest (1820–1860) collaborated on harbor and shipwreck scenes. The characteristic tight drawing and still, light-infused compositions that Bradford appears to have absorbed from Lane changed under Van Beest’s influence to include dynamic arrangements and active subjects.

Bradford’s individual style developed in response to the influence of the light and subjects he encountered in the Arctic. After several initial visits to Labrador in the mid-1850s, he visited the coast of Maine and the Bay of Fundy, producing views that established his reputation. At a time when the public—and American artists—were increasingly fascinated by exotic regions and climatic extremes, Bradford’s paintings began to command high prices. He moved to New York in 1860 and worked in a studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building, where his fellow tenants included the landscapist Frederic Edwin Church,* painter of mammoth canvases of exotic South American and Arctic scenery. Intent on staking out the far north as his trademark subject, Bradford joined the ranks of such artist-explorers. In 1861, with the backing of a Boston patron, he chartered a schooner for the first of six summer voyages to Labrador and beyond. In 1869, Bradford ventured some five thousand miles into the Arctic in the company of noted explorers. Photographers sometimes joined these expeditions; Bradford himself eventually took up photography as a studio aid in painting dramatic, detailed scenes of frozen oceans, towering icebergs, and stranded vessels.

Bradford went to England in 1871 to capitalise on intense interest there in the Arctic. In addition to commissioning a painting, Queen Victoria headed the list of subscribers to Bradford’s ornate, photographically illustrated publication The Arctic Regions. In England, Bradford began an active second career as lecturer on his northern travels. He returned to the United States in 1874, the same year he was elected an associate of the National Academy of Design in New York, and continued to paint with increasing reliance on photography as an aid. In his last decades, Bradford traveled and painted in the far west, using a studio in San Francisco as his base. As his style and subjects became outmoded toward the century’s end, Bradford increasingly confined himself to delivering public lectures about his earlier adventures. When he died in New York just before his sixty-ninth birthday, his art had largely been forgotten.

This is part 1 of a 4-part series on the works of William Bradford:

1850 American Ship and Fishing Port
oil on board 22.5 x 33 cm

1850-70 Fairhaven Waterfront
brush and grey and brown wash over graphite pencil 44.8 x 72.8 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

1852 Clipper Ship 'Golden West' of Boston, outward bound
oil on canvas 81 x 122 cm

1854 Clipper Ship 'Northern Light' of Boston
oil on canvas
MIT Museum, Boston, MA

1854 The Whaleship 'Emma C. Jones' off Round Hills, New Bedford
oil on canvas

1855 'Dashing Wave' clipper ship off Boston Light
oil on canvas 59 x 89.5 cm
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, PA

1855-65c Coastal Rocks, Nahant: A Sketch
oil on panel 50.2 x 34.9 cm
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas

1857 The Schooner Jane of Bath, Maine
oil on canvas 30.8 x 51.1 cm
Art Institute of Chicago, IL

1859 Whaler off the Vineyard--Outward Bound
oil on fibreboard 40.7 x 51 cm
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC

1860 Coastal Scene
oil on panel
(details not found)

1860 Fresh Breeze off Sandy Hook
oil on canvas 81.2 x 121.9 cm

1860 The Kennebec River, Waiting for Wind and Tide
oil on canvas
Private Collection

c1860-61 Shipwreck off Nantucket
(Wreck off Nantucket after a Storm)
oil on canvas 101.6 x 162.6 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

On August 8, 1859, the whaling ship Nantucket ran aground during the night at Nashawena Island, Massachusetts, part of the Elizabeth Islands at the entrance to Vineyard Sound. The next day, Bradford left his studio in New Bedford to observe the scene in preparation for painting this large, epic depiction of the shipwreck. He had recently worked alongside Albert Van Beest, who had been trained in the tradition of Dutch marine painting, and the dramatic effect of heavy seas and tilting ship show the other artist’s influence. Bradford’s impressive knowledge of seagoing vessels, however, is seen in the careful delineation of the deck of the whaler and the small craft that surround it.

c1860 Labrador Coast
oil on canvas 46 x 76.5 cm
The Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio

1860c Sunset Calm in the Bay of Fundy
oil on board 33 x 48.2 cm

c1860 Transatlantic packet ships off a Northern headland
oil on canvas 61 x 91.5 cm

1861 Fishermen on the Bay of Fundy
oil on canvas 50.8 x 76.2 cm

c1865-70 Sunset
oil on paper mounted to cardboard 22.6 x 36 cm
Harvard Art Museums-Fogg Museum Photo
© President and Fellows of Harvard College

1866 Sealers Crushed by Icebergs
oil on canvas 182.9 x 304.8 cm

1866 Sealers Crushed by Icebergs

This large Arctic painting portrays the ship Mary being crushed by ice, dismasted with her starboard bulwark broken and debris to her stern, Sailors are working on board, and one is carrying belongings to a group in the centre foreground loading two ship's boats. Out in the sea there are ships sailing free of ice, and the wrecked sailors, who had been hunting seals, hope to reach these ships and safety. The burning ship was abandoned and set on fire so it would not be a floating hazard when the ice receded.

1866 The Coast of Labrador
oil on canvas 72 x 113.3 cm
Art Institute of Chicago, IL

1868 Golden Rays on the Labrador Coast
oil on canvas 71.1 x 111.7 cm

after 1869 A Whaler in the Ice, Chopping Out
charcoal and thinned oil paint on grey primed canvas, varnished 75.7 x 121.2 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

1869 Ice Floes under the Midnight Sun
(details not found)

1869 The Panther, Icebound
(details not found)

after 1870 Caught in the Ice Floes
(Melville Bay/Greenland Coast)
oil on canvas 55.2 x 90.8 cm
Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA

The Panther, which was built expressly for Arctic navigation. As the voyage was undertaken "solely for the purpose of art," a painting studio and a photographic darkroom were set up on board. Bradford was accompanied by the distinguished Arctic explorer Dr. I. I. Hayes and the professional photographers John Dunmore and George Critcherson. Moored alongside the iceberg, The Panther was nipped by the ice floes and remained stuck for two days before being able to continue its journey. In his painting, Bradford heightened the incident by depicting a whaling vessel crushed in a field of ice with the crew abandoning ship. Pictorially, he utilised the purity of the vast, barren wilderness to express his own awe and fear, as well as to emphasise man's minute scale and limited mortality.

c1870-80 Cloud Study
oil on buff wove paper 30.5 x 45.7 cm
Harvard Art Museums-Fogg Museum
Photo © President and Fellows of Harvard College

c1870 Arctic View
oil on paper 16.7 x 27.3 cm
Wichita Art Museum, Kansas

1871 An Arctic Summer: Boring through the Pack in Melville Bay
oil on canvas 131.4 x 198.1 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

This painting, based on photographs and sketches produced during Bradford's final trip, in 1869, shows the artist’s steamer, Panther, plying its way through the summer ice along the northern coast of Greenland. Panther was one of numerous vessels engaged in the search for the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. According to Bradford’s journal, the ship’s crew had decided to hunt the polar bear seen in the foreground, “anxious to possess so fine a skin,” but the bear made a parting glance over its shoulder before heading for the water, managing to escape its pursuers.

c1871 The Ice Blockade on the Labrador Coast
oil on canvas
(details not found)

1872 Floe - Ice
oil on canvas 54.3 x 92.7 cm
Terra Foundation for American Art,
Daniel J. Terra Collection, Chicago, IL

1873 Steamer and Iceberg
photograph, albumen print 27.3 x 35.8 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

The photographers George Critcherson and John Dunmore, from the studio of J. W. Black in Boston, accompanied the artist on the voyage of the Panther in 1869 to Greenland to take photographs to guide his paintings. However, these photographs were considered to be wonderful works of art in their own right, and were published in 1873 in The Arctic Regions. The photographs provide a fascinating glimpse at the Arctic, with images of both the scenery of Greenland and Inuit who live there.

1873 The 'Panther' in Melville Bay
oil on canvas 46 x 76.1 cm
Royal Collection Trust, UK

The steamer Panther, specially built for Arctic navigation, was commanded by Captain John Bartlett. The expedition, solely for the purposes of art, left St John’s, Newfoundland, on 3 July 1869 flying the U.S. flag, and returned on 3 October. Melville Bay is a coastline of nearly 250 miles from Wilcox Point to Cape York on the north-west coast of Greenland. Bradford sketched the midnight sun and the amazing scenery along the coast. The kinds of hazards the expedition faced are recorded in the painting. The artist noted that the picture depicted a moment ‘when the steamer came near to being lost by being forced on the Icebergs by pressure of the field of ice... ‘. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1875.

1873 View near Cape Charles on the Coast of Labrador
oil on board 22.9 x 35.6 cm

1874 Labrador Coast
oil on board 50.8 x 76.2 cm

1874 Ship and Icebergs
oil on board 22.9 x 35.6

1875 A Calm Afternoon, the Coast of Labrador
oil on canvas 50.8 x 76.2 cm

c1875 Icebound Whaling Ship
oil on canvas 50.8 x 76.2 cm
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA

1877 Arctic Sunset with Rainbow
oil on canvas tacked over panel 76.2 x 121.9 cm

1877 Looking out of Battle Harbour
oil on canvas 50.8 x 76.2 cm
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC

1878 Midnight Sun, The Arctic
oil on canvas 76.8 x 122.6 cm

1878 Polar Night, Labrador
 oil on canvas 45.7 x 76.2 cm

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