Saturday, August 21, 2010

TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH


Raised in a Quaker family in Massachusetts, William Bradford (1823 – 1892) showed an early interest in painting. He was, however, prevailed upon by his father, who disapproved of art as a profession, to enter the family retail dry goods business. Bradford none the less spent much time developing his artistic skill and eye by copying from a book of English drawings and sketching in a precise, thin line the ships in the harbours of New Bedford and Lynn. Gradually he broadened his vision to include the coastal scenery. In 1853 he was at last able to devote his time exclusively to painting, and between 1854 and 1857 he made several trips to Labrador. He set up his own studio in Fairhaven in 1855 and accepted commissions for portraits of merchant and whaling vessels. His studio was shared for several years by Dutch marine artist Albert Van Beest, whose European training had a beneficial influence on Bradford’s style, loosening his painstaking line and teaching him the merits of a more fluid, suggestive expression.
(University of Toronto/Université Laval)


Fishing Fleet off Labrador
Oil on canvas
Public collection
From ARC


Fishermen off the Coast of Labrador
Oil on canvas
Public collection
From ARC


Labrador Fishing Boats near Cape Charles
Oil on canvas, 1862
Public collection
From ARC


Fishing Fleet off Labrador
Oil on canvas, 1884
New Britain Museum of American Art
(New Britain, Connecticut, United States)
From ARC


Recognition of Bradford beyond his native area came gradually as his interests turned increasingly to portraying the mysteries of the northern ice-choked seas. The disappearance of the 1845 expedition led by popular explorer Sir John Franklin had sparked tremendous public and artistic interest in the Arctic. Two accounts of searches for Franklin, published in the mid 1850s by American explorer Elisha Kent Kane with illustrations by James Hamilton, made a profound impression on Bradford, who later wrote: “I was seized with a desire, which had become uncontrollable, to visit the scenes they had described and study Nature under the terrible aspects of the Frigid Zone.”
Bradford was probably inspired also by the work of the well-known American artist Frederick Edwin Church, who had accompanied Isaac Israel Hayes on his 1860–61 search for an open polar sea. With the help of various financial backers, from 1861 to 1867 Bradford himself organized annual voyages along the coasts of Nova Scotia and Labrador for the purpose of painting northern scenery and icebergs. In 1869 he mounted his last and most ambitious expedition, for which he chartered the Scottish steamer Panther.
(University of Toronto/Université Laval)


Coast of Newfoundland
Oil on canvas
Public collection
From ARC


His party of 40 men included Captain John Bartlett, Hayes, a crew of Newfoundlanders, and two photographers, John B. Dunmore and George B. Critcherson. Departing from St John’s on 3 July, they sailed as far north as Baffin Island (N.W.T.) and Melville Bay, Greenland, where as many as 200 icebergs could be sighted at one time. Bradford returned with a collection of photographs and a vast number of sketches of the rugged landscape and the details of Inuit life.
(University of Toronto/Université Laval)


Arctic Harbor
Oil on canvas
Public collection
From ARC


Arctic Whaler Homeward Bound Among the Icebergs
Oil on canvas
Public collection
From ARC


Crushed in the Ice
Oil on canvas
Public collection
From ARC


'Panther' in Melville Bay,1873
From picasaweb.google.com


Based on photographs but bolstered by memory and imagination, Bradford's paintings depict an Arctic simultaneously alluring and dangerous. The "Panther" in Melville Bay (above), for example, portrays the region as beautiful but barren, both a paradise and a wilderness. It is fitting that this painting, an exemplary image of the Arctic as it existed in the Victorian imagination, was commissioned by Queen Victoria herself.


Ice Dwellers Watching the Invaders
Oil on canvas, 1870-c1879
New Bedford Whaling Museum
(New Bedford, United States)
From ARC


Indeed, many of Bradford's paintings deal more in metaphor than reality. Ice Dwellers Watching the Invaders (above) for example, is based on a specific episode described in The Arctic Regions but also illustrates the elemental struggle between man and nature and the risk involved in the eternal quest for the unknown. Bradford's large-scale paintings reveal themselves not as "incontrovertible truth," but, more accurately, as symbolic portraits of a mythical and romantic Arctic that had captured the Victorian imagination.
(ARCTIC DIARY)


Morning on the Artic Ice Fields
Oil on canvas, c1880
Public collection
From ARC


Arctic Invaders
Oil on canvas, 1882
Public collection
From ARC


Icebergs in the Arctic
Oil on canvas, 1882
Public collection
From ARC


The Arctic was a source of great interest during the nineteenth century. As explorers strove for the Pole, a fascination blossomed in the public imagination, which was manifest in a widespread desire for images, factual and fantastical, and stories of the region. Bradford, a seasoned artist-explorer, was able to provide both. On the strength of the perceived veracity of his paintings and photographs--The Art Journal declared Bradford's to be "the only works which profess incontrovertible truth in the representation of the northern regions"-- he helped to satisfy the public's passion for all things Arctic.
(ARCTIC DIARY)

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