Painting within Tent: Icefast on the coast of Greenland

William Bradford (1823–1892), Ice Dwellers, Watching the Invaders (c 1870-79), oil on canvas, 87.6 x 132.7 cm, New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, MA. The Athenaeum.

There hasn’t been another expedition like it, sponsored in full by a banker who wanted to add unusual paintings to his art collection. But in 1869, LeGrand Lockwood, a railroad and banking magnate in New York, did just that. He’d already developed a taste for paintings of wild country, and two years earlier had paid the renowned landscape artist Albert Bierstadt $25,000 commission for the huge Domes of the Yosemite to hang in the octagonal rotunda of his mansion in Norwalk, CT.

This time, though, it wasn’t Bierstadt who was chosen to paint for Lockwood’s collection, but a self-taught artist from Fairhaven, MA: William Bradford (1823–1892). When Bradford was in his teens, Fairhaven and the adjacent city of New Bedford were major whaling and fishing ports. In 1838, Fairhaven alone had 24 vessels working the whaling grounds, and Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick (1851), had sailed from its port on a whaler.

Bradford opened his studio in Fairhaven in 1854, having failed as the owner of a clothing store in New Bedford. With marine industries being dominant, and abundant seafaring motifs on his doorstep, he was destined to become a marine artist. He travelled to the growing city of Boston to paint commissions of clipper sailing ships engaged in international trade there.

In 1861, he sailed for the first time to Labrador, and north to the coast of Greenland, which turned what had been an interest in the Arctic into a passion. By 1866, the huge paintings he made following trips to Newfoundland and Labrador were proving popular and lucrative when they toured US cities, and had caught Lockwood’s eye and his wallet.

In 1869, Lockwood commissioned the ice-strengthened sealing ship Panther to take Bradford and others on an expedition to the Arctic. They sailed from St John’s in Newfoundland in July, and Bradford made copious drawings in pencil and oil sketches during the voyage, and recorded much of it in photographs.

By mid-August, the Panther had reached Melville Bay, at a latitude of 75˚ north, where it became trapped in pack ice for two days. The expedition was forced to turn back to work their way out of the pack, and returned to St John’s having covered a total of five thousand nautical miles. The account of this expedition, illustrated with 141 albumen photographic prints made by Bradford and others, was published in 1873. Bradford received many commissions for paintings of the journey, including one from Queen Victoria herself.

In style, Bradford’s paintings share the romanticism typical of the Hudson River School, which originated in the work of Thomas Cole from 1825, and reached a peak in the grand landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt between 1855-75. However, Bradford is not normally considered to have been a member of that school.

William Bradford (1823-1892), Looking out of Battle Harbor (1877), oil on canvas, 50.8 x 76.2 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Looking out of Battle Harbor (1877) shows what had been a major fishing port on the Labrador coast. Established in the late eighteenth century, it flourished over the following century, then entered decline in the twentieth century, becoming just a summer fishing station. It’s now a National Historic Site of Canada.

William Bradford (1823–1892), Near Cape St. Johns, Coast of Labrador (1874), oil on panel, 35.6 × 61 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Near Cape St. Johns, Coast of Labrador (1874) shows a smaller harbour near what is better known as Cape Saint John, with its green summer vegetation.

William Bradford (1823–1892), Fishing Boats and Icebergs (date not known), oil on canvas, 30.5 × 50.8 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Bradford’s undated Fishing Boats and Icebergs (above) is one of several paintings which he made showing fishing vessels around icebergs, off the Labrador coast. Fishing Fleet off Labrador (1884) (below) shows a similar scene.

William Bradford (1823–1892), Fishing Fleet off Labrador (1884), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, CT. Wikimedia Commons.
William Bradford (1823-1892), Whaler and Fishing Vessels near the Coast of Labrador (c 1880), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, IN. Wikimedia Commons.

In Bradford’s Whaler and Fishing Vessels near the Coast of Labrador (c 1880), a group of smaller fishing boats has been joined by a larger whaling ship, which would presumably have been on its way to whaling grounds to the north. Three fishermen are working in one of the ship’s boats, hauling in their net.

William Bradford (1823–1892), The Coast of Labrador (1866), oil on cardboard, 72.1 cm x 113.4 cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. The Athenaeum.

Some of Bradford’s coastal views are more scenic; The Coast of Labrador (1866) shows the raw beauty of the barren rock along sections of this coastline.

William Bradford (1823–1892), Ice Dwellers, Watching the Invaders (c 1870-79), oil on canvas, 87.6 x 132.7 cm, New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, MA. The Athenaeum.

When Bradford was back in his Fairhaven studio after the expedition, he created large finished oil paintings from his sketches made on board the Panther. Comparison of his photos and paintings has demonstrated that he also relied quite heavily on those photos, although they were of course all monochrome.

He has flooded this painting, Ice Dwellers, Watching the Invaders (c 1870-79), with the rich reds of dusk. Its title refers to the seals in the foreground, and the polar bear and cubs making their way across the ice at the right.

William Bradford (1823–1892), An Arctic Summer: Boring Through the Pack in Melville Bay (1871), oil, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

An Arctic Summer: Boring Through the Pack in Melville Bay (1871) shows the Panther working its way through pack ice close to the west coast of Greenland. The huge Melville Bay is on the island’s north-west coast, which was an important area for whaling fleets in the nineteenth century. Note the fragment of mast from a wreck, at the left.

William Bradford (1823–1892), Arctic Sunset (1874), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, RI. Wikimedia Commons.

In Arctic Sunset (1874), the Panther appears to be set fast in the ice.

William Bradford (1823-1892), An Incident of Whaling (date not known), oil on canvas, 55.9 x 91.4 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

An Incident of Whaling shows a whaling ship’s crew preparing to abandon their ship, which is stuck in ice. This would have been standard practice once the captain had decided that the ship couldn’t be freed, and its hull was at risk of being crushed by the ice. Even strengthened hulls couldn’t withstand those enormous pressures.

William Bradford (1823–1892), Abandoned in the Arctic Ice Fields (1876), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA. Wikimedia Commons.

Abandoned in the Arctic Ice Fields (1876) shows the end result, one of the many wrecks which had to be abandoned when they became stuck in the ice.

William Bradford (1823–1892), View of Sermitsialik Glacier (1873), oil on canvas, 45.7 x 76.2 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Bradford also painted some pure landscape views of the coast of Greenland, including this View of Sermitsialik Glacier (1873). This glacier is near the abandoned mining town of Ivittuut, close to Cape Desolation on the western side of the southern tip of Greenland. This was also the site of one of the Norse (‘Viking’) settlements, dating from about 985 CE, although I don’t think that Bradford painted any of the settlements on the island.

Bradford visited Britain during the 1870s, and worked in a seasonal studio in San Francisco during the late 1870s. Public tastes switched away from the Arctic in the 1880s, though, as European art started to become more influential, and by the time of his death in 1892 his art was already almost forgotten. His generous patron LeGrand Lockwood had died in 1872, so barely had time to enjoy the fruits of Bradford’s labours.