Published: August 26, 2003
The New Bedford Whaling Museum, a fascinating interpreter of the history of global whaling, is celebrating its centennial this year with a grand exhibition of the works of native son William Bradford. His minutely accurate depictions of the sailing vessels of his day, particularly in the netherworld of the frozen Arctic, tell stories of courage, deprivation, disaster and success.
“William Bradford: Sailing Ships and Arctic Seas,” on view until October 26, showcases 68 oil paintings, along with prints, drawings, sketchbooks and photographs, that document the artist’s adventurous life and oeuvre. Many paintings feature small but carefully delineated ships, moored or stranded amidst giant icebergs, in frigid, blue and white landscapes. Often, tiny figures underscore man’s insignificance compared to nature’s grandeur. Occasionally, polar bears add a touch of menace to scenes.
With the possible exception of Frederic E. Church (“The Icebergs,” 1861), no one has captured the magnificent spectacle and spectacular colors of the awful yet beautiful icebergs of the northern lands as well as Bradford. This exhibition should go a long way toward restoring Bradford’s high standing among Nineteenth Century American painters.
A lineal descendant of Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford, the artist (1823-1892) was born and brought up in Fairhaven and New Bedford. It was a period when the whaling industry peaked in New Bedford; in 1856 the area’s whaleships constituted two-thirds of the vessels in America’s whaling fleet.
Young Bradford’s effort to run a clothing store failed in 1851, because he “spent too much time painting to succeed,” Bradford said. He had married in 1847.
In the early 1850s he began painting and selling straightforward views of local and Boston sailing vessels. “Whaleship Jirah Swift of New Bedford,” 1853, demonstrates Bradford’s knowledge of whaling vessels and his ability to depict them in highly detailed and accurate broadside views. His advancing skills were reflected in the more dramatic “Whaleship Twilight of New Bedford,” 1853, a portrait animated by choppy seas.
Before long Bradford tired of painting ship likenesses. At the same time the self-taught painter recognized that he needed to learn more about his craft. In 1853 his lifetime friend, the up-and-coming local artist Albert Bierstadt, left New Bedford to study in Dusseldorf. As Richard Kugler, the museum’s director emeritus, writes in his useful catalog essay, Bierstadt’s “departure reinforced Bradford’s desire to escape from the now confining role of a court paint-er to the whaling merchants of New Bedford and shipping merchants of Boston.”
Through association with a traditional Dutch marine painter, Albert Van Beest, who came to paint with him in New Bedford, Bradford honed his skills and expanded his vision beyond ship portraits. Bradford began to paint harbor scenes, as well as ships in distress, yachting regattas and coastal views of Maine and the Bay of Fundy.
Among the standouts from this period are “Ships in Boston Harbor at Twilight,” 1859, featuring schooners backed by a brilliantly tinted sky; “New York Yacht Club Regatta off New Bedford,” 1856, alive with ships racing and spectators watching from boats; and “Shipwreck off Nantucket,” circa 1860-61, showing a foundering vessel, from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In “The Kennebec River, Waiting for Wind and Tide,” circa 1860, one of the artist’s Maine images, he achieved a Fitz Hugh Lane-like luminosity.
Over the years Bradford maintained a studio in Boston and then in New York City, along with homes/studios in Fairhaven.
Starting in 1861, Bradford began traveling to Labrador and the Arctic, where he made sizable, precise drawings and colorful oil sketches, compiled information about fishing in the region and took photographs or had them taken, that formed the basis for the dramatic polar paintings upon which his fame rests. During six cruises to Labrador on chartered schooners, the ice-clogged harbors, distinctive northern light and rude fishermen’s huts provided ample subjects for his brush. Professional photographers usually accompanied the artist, taking what may be the earliest surviving photos of Labrador.
One of Bradford’s first blockbusters was the enormous (six by ten feet) “Sealers Crushed by Icebergs,” 1866, showing a hapless vessel wrecked on a huge iceberg, with its stranded crew huddled in the icy foreground and a burning ship on the horizon. Understandably, this Great Picture, as it was labeled, attracted large audiences on a multicity tour, and sold for an artist’s record price of $12,000. It is now owned by the host museum. A chromolithograph of the work further advanced Bradford’s reputation.
Determined to explore even further north, in 1869 Bradford chartered Panther, a three-masted bark with auxiliary steam power, that sailed up the coast of Greenland to Melville Bay. Along the way the artist marveled at and sketched varied shaped and colored icebergs in all manner of light and shade. Works like the dramatically lit “Ice Dwellers Watching the Invaders,” circa 1870, in which seals eye a sailing ship moored among icebergs, “established his reputation as the Painter of the Polar World,” observes Anne B. Brengle, the museum’s executive director.
In pursuit of new patrons, Bradford spent time in England, 1871-1874, where he wined and dined in British society and found eager buyers for his Arctic scenes. An impressed Queen Victorian commissioned “The Panther in Melville Bay,” 1873, a large folio volume with text by Bradford and numerous photographs.
Between 1878 and 1881 Bradford was in and out of San Francisco, where he stayed at the Palace Hotel in Bierstadt’s former rooms and studio. Collis P. Huntington, Leland Stanford and Baron Edmund Rothschild bought polar canvases. Responding to appeals to do something other than “his everlasting Arctic pictures,” Bradford traveled to Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada. The resulting works are competent but unexciting – particularly compared to the awesome vistas of the West recorded by Bierstadt and Thomas Moran.
After a quarter century of travel, Bradford settled for the remainder of his career in the Manhattan Studio Building at 42 East 14th Street. He also used a studio in Fairhaven, overlooking New Bedford Harbor. From there he took steam yachts to photograph and sketch whaleships and other vessels plying the waters around the port.
By 1880, Bradford’s standing, like that of Bierstadt and Church – other creators of Great Pictures of natural beauty – had begun to decline. A hauntingly evocative charcoal-and-chalk drawing, “Arctic Shipwreck,” circa 1880s, suggests that although he may have lost his audience Bradford had not lost his touch. In spite of slow sales, he continued painting marine and Arctic scenes into the 1890s.
Bradford died in 1892, just short of his 69th birthday, and is buried in Fairhaven’s Riverside Cemetery. The boulder marking his grave is inscribed with lines from a poem his friend and fellow Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier dedicated to him:
“Something it has – a flavor of the sea,
And the sea’s freedom – which reminds of thee.”
Bradford died before the New Bedford Whaling Museum was founded, but his wife and daughter were charter members. Today the museum is the largest repository of Bradford’s works, many of which are stars of this show.
The museum is a centerpiece of historic New Bedford, with its handsome old houses, venerable custom house, cobblestone streets and busy fishing port. According to museum officials, the institution is the “world’s leading interpreter of the global whaling story. The museum relates this story on a broad canvas, tracing the triumphs and tragedies of the whaling trade when it was one of America’s major industries and New Bedford was the world’s leading whaling port.”
On view are collections of marine paintings, model ships, nautical gear and all manner of whale and whaling-related objects. A favorite: “The Little Navigator,” circa 1810, a painted white carving that stood for years outside a watchmaker’s shop continually tracking the sun with his quadrant.
After years of near oblivion, revival of interest in Bradford’s work was stimulated by a retrospective, organized by eminent art historian John Wilmerding (now at Princeton University) and shown at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in 1969. The current exhibition appropriately marks the museum’s 100th anniversary by displaying the full range of the native son’s significant achievements.
The excellent, 178-page catalog, lavishly illustrated, contains a valuable, informative chapter by Kugler, plus essays by art historians Erik A.R. Ronnberg, Adam Grrenhalgh and R.M. Riefenstahl on aspects of Bradford’s career.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum is at 18 Johnny Cake Hill. For information, 508-997-0046 or www.whaling museum.org.
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