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by Richard C. Kugler

William Bradford (1823-1892) recalled later in life, "I early felt a desire to paint, but had no idea I would ever do anything very special in this line or make it a life calling."1 How he came to do something very special in that line and make a career of it is traced in detail in the retrospective exhibition on view at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, through October 26, 2003. Consisting of paintings, drawings, prints, and photographs, many of the exhibited works have only come to light during the three decades since the one previous Bradford exhibition in 1969.

Fig. 2: New York Yacht Club Regatta off New Bedford, 1856. Oil on canvas, 38-1/8 x 66-1/4 inches. Courtesy of the Edgartown Yacht Club, Mass.

William Bradford at about age 40. Carte de visite photograph by Augustus Marshall, Boston, ca. 1863. Courtesy of New Bedford Whaling Museum, Mass.

A direct descendant of Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony, the artist William Bradford was born in 1823, in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, across the harbor from New Bedford. Both towns were committed to the business of whaling, and within Bradford's own family, his father and an uncle participated in the trade as whaling merchants on a modest scale, while another uncle and a cousin built whaleships in Fairhaven and nearby Mattapoisett.

As a youth, Bradford worked in a New Bedford dry-goods store for six years; he later opened a clothing store with the financial support of his father. He married the daughter of Nathan Breed, a prominent Lynn, Massachusetts Quaker with a fortune made as a shoe manufacturer. Yet Bradford said, "All this time my love for drawing was growing stronger," and in 1852, having "spent too much time painting to succeed," his business failed, bringing insolvency to his father as well. To save the Bradfords from ruin, Breed came to the rescue, providing the funds that ironically freed his son-in-law, then age 29, to pursue what many Quakers regarded as a frivolous profession.2

At the outset of his art career, Bradford painted the subject he knew best, the whaleships of New Bedford and Fairhaven. While his initial portraits of these vessels testify to his knowledge of their hull forms, masts, and rigging, they also demonstrate the limits of self-instruction. In these early works, a broadside view of a ship, shown riding at anchor in the harbor, fills most of the canvas, leaving little room to develop a background or to introduce such elements as small craft or human figures that might add interest to the scene.

In addition to the harbor's whaleships, Bradford traveled to Boston to paint the clipper ships of that port, also with little attention to broadening the composition beyond the expectations of the shipping merchants who commissioned the portraits. By the end of 1853, Bradford declared that "the broadside of a vessel grew absolutely loathsome to me," and he set out to find a mentor to help him break free from the formulaic requirements of ship portraiture.

Fig. 1: Whaling Bark J. D. Thompson, 1855. Oil on canvas, 20-1/4 x 30-1/8 inches. Courtesy of New Bedford Whaling Museum, Mass.

In 1854, Bradford went to New York where he met Albert Van Beest (1820-1860), a recent arrival from Rotterdam trained in the tradition of Dutch marine painting. In return for room, board, and studio space, Van Beest agreed to live with the Bradfords in New Bedford and to share William's studio on the Fairhaven waterfront. During the next three years, he demonstrated to his student the enlarged possibilities of marine painting. Bradford responded with a heightened awareness of sky, sea, and atmosphere, if not with a full-blown Romantic enthusiasm for depicting man confronting the turbulent forces of nature, which characterized much of Van Beest's work.

Among the early indications of the Dutchman's tutelage is Bradford's 1855 painting of the whaling bark J. D. Thompson (Fig. 1). Described by one authority as "the splendid fruition" of Bradford’s early style, it places the newly built vessel, preparing to depart on her maiden voyage, within a scene of recognizable landmarks in New Bedford Harbor.3 With the inclusion of two attending sloops, and a schooner in the distance, the bark painting is "nearly as much a port scene as a ship portrait," complete with convincingly painted water and a well-developed sky. This work also serves as a prelude to the most successful collaboration of the two artists, a large 1856 painting, New York Yacht Club Regatta off New Bedford (Fig. 2, previous page).

Fig. 3: Stowing Sails off Fairhaven, 1858. Oil on canvas, 14 x 20-1/8 inches. Courtesy of a private collection.

Although only Bradford's signature appears on the work, Van Beest's contributions are evident, both in preliminary drawings and in discernible elements within the painting. Bradford’s precisely drawn yachts sail on Van Beest's sea, and probably under the Dutch artist's clouds and sky as well. The small boat with cheering figures is clearly from Van Beest's repertoire, while the general animation of the scene may also safely be attributed to him.

In attendance at the same regatta was another painter, Fitz Hugh Lane (1804–1865), who had an important but less direct influence on Bradford’s development. Lane’s luminous views of Boston Harbor were certainly known to Bradford, and are evident not only in his own paintings of that scene, but in such works as Stowing Sails off Fairhaven (Fig. 3). This view, which features the pilot schooner Moses Grinnell, captures a moment in time when the quality of light at the end of the day evokes the pervasive stillness found in many of Lane’s evening scenes.4

The lessons of Van Beest and Lane were helpful, but by the early 1860s Bradford had absorbed their influence and emerged with his own recognizable style. From a series of paintings that resulted from visits north of the Gulf of Maine to Grand Manan and the Bay of Fundy, Making Harbor of 1862 (Fig. 4) exhibits characteristics of Bradford’s artistic maturity, including the precise rendering of vessels set in believable water. This view depicts a sloop and topsail schooner seeking refuge from an approaching storm near Eastport, Maine. Little in the painting suggests the work of Lane, and from Van Beest come only stylistic suggestions of drama and tension as the two vessels seek to round a crib dock. The range of colors Bradford employed also shifted, perhaps due to the starker spectrum displayed in northern latitudes. As he continued northward in the 1860s, the changes in Bradford's palette would become more noticeable.

In search of grander subjects, Bradford sailed farther north in 1861, on the first of six voyages to Labrador. Rarely visited, except by summer fishing fleets from Newfoundland, the barren coast offered vast panoramas of sea and ice on which sealers and fishermen wrested a living. Of engrossing interest were the icebergs, drifting slowly south from their "calving grounds" in the glaciers of Greenland, varying widely in size and shape, with shifting colors reflected by the changing light of the northern sun. On three of his voyages, Bradford brought professional photographers to record on glass-plate negatives the bold headlands, picturesque ice formations, and crude summer settlements of fishermen. Bradford himself sketched an inventory of images and color schemes to draw on in his studio, then located in New York's Tenth Street Studio Building.

Fig. 4: Making Harbor, 1862. Oil on canvas, 12-1/2 x 18 inches. Courtesy of a private collection.

In order to paint the Arctic at its most sublime, Bradford mounted a final, climactic expedition in 1869. His chartered bark, Panther, a stoutly built sealing vessel equipped with auxiliary steam power, traveled the west coast of Greenland to the high Arctic. The voyage lasted for three months, taking him up to 75-degrees North latitude, where the redoubtable ice pack of Melville Bay blocked further progress. Retracing his course to St. John's, Newfoundland, he returned with about eighty oil sketches and pencil drawings, and between three and four hundred photographs taken by the two professionals who accompanied him (Fig. 5). From these studies, Bradford went on to produce a body of work depicting the Arctic world with a realism that had not been seen before (Fig. 6). In doing so, he joined two contemporary American artist-explorers, Frederic E. Church (1826-1900) and Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), another New Bedford native, in venturing to remote territories little known to most of their countrymen. Whether of the Andes, the Rockies, Yosemite, or the Arctic, their paintings created a national vision of the continent’s spectacular frontiers and beyond.

Fig. 5: "The Farthest Point Reached" [by the steamer Panther], 1869. Albumen photograph by John L. Dunmore and George Critcherson, 11 x 15-1/4 inches. Plate 103 in William Bradford, The Arctic Regions (London, 1873). Courtesy of New Bedford Whaling Museum, Mass.

A stay in England, with its longstanding popular interest in the Arctic, brought Bradford his greatest financial rewards. From 1871 through 1874, he spent the art season in London, maintaining a studio and lecturing widely on the "Wonders of the Arctic World." Queen Victoria commissioned a painting--the first royal commission of an American artist’s work since the time of George III and Benjamin West--as did her daughter Princess Louise and members of the nobility. The queen also headed the subscription list for The Arctic Regions, Bradford's elaborately published account of the Panther's voyage, with 141 tipped-in albumen photographs.5

From 1875 to 1880, Bradford spent portions of each year in San Francisco, where he at first painted Arctic and Labrador scenes, then views of Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Nevada mountains. By this time, his reputation had begun to ebb in the face of changing tastes in the art world, as it had for Church and Bierstadt.

Fig. 6: Whalers Trapped in Arctic Ice, ca. 1870s. Oil on canvas, 28 x 44 inches. Courtesy of the Manoogian Collection.

Bradford died in New York City in 1892, leaving a legacy of marine and Arctic paintings that attracted little scholarly or art market attention. Not until 1969, a century after the Panther voyage, did Bradford receive his first one-man exhibition. The rediscovery of many of his most important works since then, now on view at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, should encourage a reassessment of Bradford’s contributions to American art.

Director Emeritus of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Richard C. Kugler served as Guest Curator of the exhibition William Bradford: Sailing Ships and Arctic Seas, and is the author-editor of its accompanying catalogue.

All illustrated paintings are works by William Bradford included in the exhibition
William Bradford: Sailing Ships and Arctic Seas at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Mass., on view now through October 26, 2003.

  1. This and subsequent Bradford quotations are from F. H. Kasson, "William Bradford," in Leonard Bolles Ellis, History of New Bedford and Its Vicinity, 1602-1892 (Syracuse, N.Y., 1892), Part II, 99-101.

  2. For biographical details, see Richard C. Kugler’s essay, "William Bradford," in his exhibition catalogue William Bradford: Sailing Ships and Arctic Seas (New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Mass., 2003), 1-46.

  3. Erik A. R. Ronnberg Jr, "William Bradford: Mastering Form and Developing a Style," in Kugler, William Bradford: Sailing Ships and Arctic Seas, 67-68.

  4. Ibid.

  5. William Bradford, The Arctic Regions, Illustrated with Photographs Taken on an Art Expedition to Greenland (London, 1873). See also Adam Greenhalgh, “The Not So Truthful Lens: William Bradford and The Arctic Regions,” in Kugler, William Bradford: Sailing Ships and Arctic Seas, 72–86.

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