William Bradford (1823-1892)

William Bradford, a marine painter of the 19th century, was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic for his arctic scenes. Born a Quaker in 1823 in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, (near New Bedford, Massachussetts) Bradford liked art from an early age, but was educated more practically in business. Since he lived in a seaport town, ships were available subjects. Bradford painted many of them, selling the ship portraits and earning a good income. His paintings were so popular that Queen Victoria purchased one in 1873. Bradford extended his studies of ships to views of shore and sea, visiting picturesque regions along the North Atlantic coastline. He is known for his remarkably accurate representations of coastal scenes in New England, Nova Scotia and Labrador.

During several trips to Labrador, including exploratory polar expeditions, Bradford photographed and made original studies of this frozen world. He saw remarkable colors in icebergs–blue, green, purple, and gray, shot through with saffron.

Bradford’s art can be found in numerous museums and private collections throughout the world. In 2003 the New Bedford Whaling Museum presented a major exhibition of Bradford’s art and published a 178-page book to accompany the exhibition, authored by Richard Kugler.

The Northern Light

by William Bradford (1823-1892)

Medium DetailOil on canvas
Dimensions24 x 36 inches; Framed: 28 ¾ x 41 inches
Signed LocationLower right
Date Createdc. 1851
ProvenanceIndia House Club Collection; Private collection, acquired in 1940; Christie’s, New York, American Paintings, December 1, 2010, lot 93; Christie’s, New York, Important Americana, January 20, 2022, lot 304
LiteratureA Descriptive Catalogue of the Marine Collection to be found at India House (New York, 1936), pp. 26-27, no. 54;
R.C. Kugler, William Bradford: Sailing Ships & Arctic Seas, exhibition catalogue (New Bedford, Massachusetts, 2003), p. 63, fig. 34 (as Fitz Hugh Lane, Clipper Ship Northern Light).
CommentsHistorical Note: The Northern Light was an American Clipper Ship designed by Boston-based naval architect Samuel Hartt Pook and built by the Briggs Brothers in South Boston in 1851. The ship was 1,021 tons register and it measured 180 feet (55 m) long, 36 feet (11 m) wide, and 21 feet 6 inches (6.55 m) deep. In 1853 she sailed from San Francisco, California to Boston, Massachusetts via Cape Horn with Captain Freeman Hatch at the helm in a record-setting 76 days, 6 hours. The Northern Light held this record fir 140 years, until it was finally surpassed in 1993. She rank in 1861 after a collision.

Attribution Note: There is no better flattery for an artist, when a painting has been considered for many years to be by the finest marine painter America ever produced. Before the cleaning and subsequent locating, of the Wm. Bradford signature in the lower right, this oil was considered for 100 years to be a fine example of Fitz Henry Lane’s work. Fitz Henry Lane (1804-1865) was the predominant painter of American harbor and coastal scenes as well as ship portraits. Bradford was a brilliant young painter in New Bedford, and in his early years influenced by and painted in the Lane style. His work was so accomplished, to the degree that many of his oils are almost indistinguishable from the older master. When this oil entered the India Collection, it was viewed in these rooms for many years without anyone questioning the Lane attribution. This oil was even reproduced in the New Bedford Museum recent Bradford retrospective as a Fitz Henry Lane. It is now presented in its correct light, as an exceptional example of Bradfords early ship portraiture. Bradford went on to paint exotic locations in the north like Labrador and the Arctic.

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