New Jersey Remembered: A Seventy-fifth Anniversary; Philadelphia Collection 75; October 2005
George Robert Bonfield
River Scene
Oil on canvas, 16 × 24 inches
Signed and dated in ink on verso: “River Scene/Designed & Painted by/G.R.Bonfield/1850.”

George Robert Bonfield was born in Portsmouth, England, the son of a stonecutter. As a child Bonfield was attracted to the sea and made sketches of the ships and views of Portsmouth Harbor. The family immigrated to the United States in 1816 and settled in Philadelphia.1 Bonfield followed his father’s profession and found employment with a local marble dealer carving inscriptions and ornaments on gravestones. He occasionally worked in Bordentown, New Jersey, at Point Breeze, the estate of Joseph Bonaparte, the brother of Napoleon Bonaparte and exiled former king of Naples and Spain. Bonaparte is said to have encouraged the youth’s interest in art and allowed him access to his collection of Dutch and French marine paintings. Bonfield is alleged to have attracted the attention of Joseph Hopkinson, the eminent Philadelphia attorney and president of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, who arranged for him to study painting with Thomas Birch (see plate 1).

Bonfield became one of the foremost American marine painters during the 1840s and 1850s, when such subjects appealed to Philadelphia merchants. Influenced by Dutch seventeenth-century seascapes, he eschewed the topographical style of his contemporaries and painted distinctly romantic scenes in a much freer, painterly style. Bonfield exhibited widely and was an active participant in Philadelphia’s cultural life. He was one of the founders of the Artists’ Fund Society in 1836 and exhibited with the group until 1845. He exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1847 to 1885, at the National Academy of Design from 1837 to 1844, at the Apollo Association and the American Art Union from 1838 to 1849, and at the Maryland Historical Society in 1848. He was elected an Honorary Trustee of the National Academy in 1845 and an Academician of the Pennsylvania Academy in 1847. Bonfield’s popularity declined after the Civil War. He was an avid print collector and helped his patron, the wealthy Philadelphia banker and art connoisseur James L. Claghorn, assemble a substantial collection that is now owned by the Baltimore Museum of Art. The antiquarian William S. Baker dedicated his American Engravers and Their Works (Philadelphia, 1875) to Bonfield.2

Bonfield spent the majority of his career in Philadelphia, where he painted views of the Delaware River. The titles of the paintings that he exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy indicate that he worked in such popular resorts Newport, Rhode Island, and Mount Desert, Maine. Bonfield lived in Beverly, New Jersey, from 1853 to 1854, Bordentown in 1856, and Burlington in 1857. In Beverly he stayed at his son Sylvester’s house on the banks of the Delaware, and many of his river scenes represent that area. Bonfield gave most of his marine subjects generic titles such as “Marine View” and “Coast Scene,” so their specific sites are difficult to identify. This “River Scene” is noteworthy for its stormy, dramatic quality.


1 . There is a discrepancy in the literature as to exactly when Bonfield immigrated to the United States and began to exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy; see WWWAM, vol. 1, p. 377.

2. For biographical information on Bonfield, see James McClelland and John M. Groff, George Robert Bonfield: Philadelphia Marine Painter, 1805–1898 [exh. cat.] (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Maritime Museum, 1978).

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