Important American Paintings - September 2010
William Bradford
Men Fishing in a Cove, Labrador, 1874
Oil on board, 12 × 20 inches
Signed and dated at lower right: "W. Bradford/74"

RS 2593

The marine painter William Bradford was born in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, across the harbor from New Bedford, the center of the New England whaling industry. He was a descendant of William Bradford, the Pilgrim governor of Plymouth Colony from 1621 to 1657. After his clothing store in New Bedford went bankrupt in 1852, he began to paint portraits of ships in the harbor. Bradford shared a studio for two years in Fairhaven with the Dutch artist Albert van Beest (1820–1860), who greatly influenced his artistic development. Bradford opened a studio in Boston in 1859, and another one in the famous Tenth Street Studio Building in New York. He exhibited at the National Academy of Design from 1860 to 1890, and intermittently at the Boston Athenaeum between 1857 and 1871. Later in life Bradford went to California and painted landscapes in Yosemite Valley. He died in New York after suffering a stroke. Bradford is best remembered for his views of the Arctic, especially Labrador. He traveled to the area seven times during the 1860s, making his most ambitious voyage in 1869. In that year he hired a 375-ton whaling steamer called The Panther and sailed as far north as Melville Bay, Greenland, accompanied by the well-known Arctic explorer Dr. Isaac Hayes and two professional photographers, John L. Dunmore and George Critcherson. Bradford made numerous sketches of his exotic surroundings that, along with photographs, served as the basis for oil paintings, such as this example, which he produced after returning from Labrador. During the early 1870s, a period that has been called "arguably the most important for the artist," Bradford "secured a host of high-profile commissions and established himself as the foremost painter of Arctic subjects."1 His paintings based on the Melville Bay expedition were popular in the United States and Great Britain, especially after Queen Victoria commissioned The Panther in Melville Bay (1873, Royal Collection, London) in 1872, and his lavishly produced tome The Arctic Regions: Illustrated with Photographs Taken on an Art Expedition to Greenland was published in London in 1873. Painted in England in 1874 (Bradford lived there from 1871 to 1875), this painting represents fishing boats in a cove on Melville Bay under the midnight sun; the ship in the shadow of the large iceberg in the background is one of the schooners associated with the expedition. The composition is closely related to a number of photographs reproduced in The Arctic Regions, such as plate 80, "The Midnight Sun in Melville Bay in August." The prepared millboard panel on which this work was painted retains its original Windsor & Newton supplier’s label.


1. Richard C. Kugler, William Bradford: Sailing Ships and Arctic Seas [exh. cat., New Bedford Whaling Museum] (New Bedford, 2003), p. 76.


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