Into the Arctic: A celebration of the paintings of William Bradford 1

William Bradford (1823–1892), Fresh Breeze of Sandy Hook (1860), oil on canvas, 81.2 x 121.9 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Tomorrow, 30 April, marks the bicentenary of the birth of the American marine artist and explorer William Bradford. This weekend I show a small selection of his paintings, and tell of his remarkable life. Most landscape painters find working in normal countryside quite challenging enough, and few take their art to the extremes, geographical and climatic, that Bradford did, when he painted ships set fast in the Arctic ice.

He was born in the port of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, which shares its harbour with the city of New Bedford. From the eighteenth century, Fairhaven and New Bedford had grown into major whaling and fishing ports. In 1838, Fairhaven alone had 24 vessels working the whaling grounds, and Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick (1851), sailed from its port on a whaler.

Bradford’s painting was largely self-taught. He 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.

William Bradford (1823–1892), Northern Light (1853), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Northern Light (1853) shows one of the most famous clippers, designed and built in Boston in 1851. She still holds the record for the fastest sailing from San Francisco to Boston via Cape Horn by a single-hulled vessel, set in the same year that Bradford painted her. In early 1862, though, she came to an untimely end, when she had to be abandoned following a collision during her first attempt to cross the Atlantic to Le Havre in France.

William Bradford (1823–1892), The Schooner Jane of Bath, Maine (1857), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.

The ship shown in Bradford’s painting of The Schooner Jane of Bath, Maine from 1857 is one of the many built in the small city of Bath, then the fifth largest seaport of the USA. In the left distance is a steam tender alongside a full-rigged ship, a sign of the future.

William Bradford (1823–1892), Whaler off the Vineyard – Outward Bound (c 1859), oil on fibreboard, 40.7 x 61 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Whaler off the Vineyard – Outward Bound from about 1859 shows the coast off Martha’s Vineyard, an island close to the eastern tip of Massachusetts. At the time it was a centre of the whaling industry, although that was soon to collapse with the introduction of petroleum as a source of fuel for lighting. The whaler is the largest of the three vessels shown.

William Bradford (1823–1892), Fishing Boats on the Bay of Fundy (c 1860), oil on canvas, 50.8 x 76.2 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Bradford painted Fishing Boats on the Bay of Fundy in about 1860. This enclosed bay lies between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, at the extreme end of the state of Maine, which at that time had several ports and many ships passed through. It also experiences the highest tidal ranges in the world, typically of 16 metres (52 feet) range. The smaller boat in the foreground appears to have lost or stepped its mast on its mooring.

William Bradford (1823–1892), Fresh Breeze of Sandy Hook (1860), oil on canvas, 81.2 x 121.9 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Fresh Breeze of Sandy Hook (1860) shows an interesting combination of vessels towards sunset. The more distant is an intermediate between sail and steam, with two masts and a pair of steam paddles, proceeding under power despite favourable winds.

William Bradford (1823–1892), Coastal Scene (1860), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Coastal Scene (1860) looks to have been set near Martha’s Vineyard, where a ship has been beached to transfer cargo.

William Bradford (1823–1892), After the Storm (1861), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.

After the Storm (1861) shows the remains of the masts and rigging after a sailing ship had weathered a severe storm. This appears to be an American warship, complete with a row of gun ports along its port side.

William Bradford (1823–1892), Coastal Rocks, Nahant: A Sketch (date not known), media and dimensions not known, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

Bradford’s undated Coastal Rocks, Nahant: A Sketch shows the shore near this small town on a peninsula on the north end of the coast of Massachusetts, composed of two near-islands and interlinking causeways.

Bradford 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 large paintings he made following trips to Newfoundland and Labrador were proving popular and lucrative when they toured US cities.

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.