Alfred Thompson Bricher (1837–1908)

Master marine painter of realistic and sublime New England coastal scenes

By William Tylee Ranney Abbott

The seascapes of Alfred Thompson Bricher embrace both realism and sublimity. While his works are masterpieces of beauty in great detail, they are also mesmerizing in their commitment to conveying atmospheric serenity. The widespread popularity that Bricher experience during his time, proven by his significant exhibition history, is a testament to his ability to capture both literal excellence in nature as well as its figural beauty.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Reading

I. Biography

The well-known nineteenth-century marine painter Alfred Thompson Bricher was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on April 10, 1837. Soon after, the Bricher family moved to Newburyport, Massachusetts where Alfred attended local schools. Upon his completion of school Bricher moved to Boston, where he was employed in a dry goods store in 1851 and possibly studied at the Lowell Institute.[1] Seven years later, at the age of twenty-one, the largely self-taught artist opened a studio in Newburyport, Massachusetts and began his artistic career.

In the years that followed, Bricher traveled on sketching tours throughout New England. In the same year that he opened his studio, 1858, he visited Mt. Desert Island, Maine with his friend William Stanley Haseltine.[2] By the next year, Bricher had abandoned his studio in Newburyport for a new studio in Boston. At the time, it was recorded that he had completed some twenty paintings of Long Island, New York, the Catskills, and the White Mountains. By 1864, the precocious young man was exhibiting at the Boston Athenaeum and sketching on the lower Hudson River as well as in the mountains of New Hampshire. In the mid-1860s, Bricher began to work closely with L. Prang & Company, a Boston business responsible for inventing the chromolithograph. The artist offered prints of his paintings through their catalogue.

In 1866, the adventurous Bricher, likely encouraged by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” traveled up the Mississippi River to Minnesota.[4] At the time, this location represented a fresh, natural, and untamed wilderness which served as inspirational subject matter for visiting painters like John Frederick Kensett, Eastman Johnson, Albert Bierstadt, Robert S. Duncanson, and Bricher. This area proved especially attractive for these artists because of its similarities to the previously unspoiled Tappan Zee in the Catskill Mountains of New York.[5]

By 1868, Bricher had moved his studio to 40 West 30th Street in New York City. This relocation soon paid off with the artist’s first exhibitions at the National Academy of Design and at the American Society of Painters in Water Colors. Bricher continued a close relationship with both of these organizations throughout his career, exhibiting with each until his death. In 1870, he also exhibited at the Brooklyn Art Association before travelling on sketching trips up and down the Hudson River and throughout New Hampshire. The following year, Bricher embraced the subject that he would become most recognized for, seascapes along the Atlantic coast, on Long Island, and at Narragansett, Rhode Island. The artist’s style of this period is represented in Time and Tide (1873, Private Collection), which was exhibited at the National Academy the same year of its completion, and exhibits the meticulous, luminous, accuracy employed to convey intense tranquility.[6]

The 1870s were productive years for the artist. Bricher received favorable criticism in publications, donated works to the Artists Fund Society, was elected an Active Member of the American Society of Painters in Water Colors, illustrated for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, and experienced considerable commercial success through Gill’s Art Galleries of Springfield, Massachusetts. During this surge in his early career, Bricher, who was especially well read, embraced European ideals of aesthetics and transferred them into images of Esopus Creek, Gloucester, Narragansett, and New Hampshire.[7] This resulted in stunning paintings such as Morning at Grand Manan (1878, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis) which capture both the transcendent and serene. In 1879, Bricher was elected an Associate Member of the National Academy of Design.

In the 1880s, Bricher traveled extensively throughout New England and New Brunswick, sketching both landscapes and seascapes. In 1880, the now firmly established artist was asked to join the New York Artists’ Fund Society on a drawing tour up the Erie Canal and ending at Niagara Falls. Possibly due to the economic hardships of the late 1870s, Bricher experimented in the early 1880s with genre painting for a short time. Paintings like Baby is King (1880, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco) were both popular and cost effective, and likely filled the emotional void that Bricher may have felt following his first brief marriage.[8] In 1881, the year after completing this work, Bricher married Alice L. Robinson of Southampton, Long Island and began spending much of his time in this area. 1884 was very eventful for Bricher, as he joined the Art Union, exhibited at the Southern Exhibition, sold works at the American Art Association, and welcomed his daughter, Florence Boker Bricher. Although the artist registered a studio at 2 West 14th Street in New York City in 1886, he continued to sketch at places like Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts and eventually built his family home in New Drop on Staten Island. In the same year that he moved to Staten Island, 1890, Bricher also executed a lengthy sketching trip to New Jersey, visiting Beach Haven, Toms River, and Monmouth Beach.

It was during the last decade of the 1800s that Bricher began to experience considerable commercial success. Exhibiting with the Schenck Art Gallery, in 1892 he sold some seventy-one watercolors and four oils for a total of $1,818.50. His reputation continued to be greatly supported when he exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago the next year. Although Bricher continued to experience popularity among the masses, he remained focused on natural scenic content, employing his skilled draftsmanship to realistically capture these scenes. His approach grew less popular as realism began to be challenged by the onset of Impressionist painting in France.[9] For the remainder of the 1890s, Bricher exhibited works at the National Academy of Design and the American Water Color Society, illustrated for The Quarterly Illustrator, and traveled on sketching trips to White Rocks and Monhegan Island, Maine. In 1898, his work was carried by the Fifth Avenue Art Galleries.

In the twentieth century, Bricher continued to travel, paint, and show his work extensively. In 1905, he exhibited with the American Water Color Society at the Cincinnati Museum and sketched near Casco Bay, Maine. In 1908, the revered seascape painter passed away at his home in New Drop, Staten Island on September 30.

The elegant marine seascapes of Alfred Thompson Bricher have been praised for both their attention to detail and commitment to portraying the serenity of nature. While his waves, cliffs, and sandy beaches are near-scientific renditions of nature, the culmination of these elements along with Bricher’s sunsets and luminous highlights result in an overall effect of great sublimity. The impressive list of exhibitions in which Bricher participated during his lifetime has been supplemented posthumously by the national museums that continue to collect his works, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Smithsonian Institutions. While impressively prolific, Bricher’s paintings remain highly coveted among private collectors throughout America.

II. Chronology

1837 Born on April 10 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire
1840 Family moves to Newburyport, Massachusetts, attends local schools
1851 Employed in a dry goods store in Boston
1858 Opens a studio at Newburyport, Massachuetts; draws near Mt. Desert Island, Maine with William Stanley Haseltine
1859 Establishes a studio in Boston, Massachusetts
1861 Sketches at Lovells Pond, Nameless Brook, and Saco River, New Hampshire, as well as Catskill, New York
1864 First exhibit at Boston Athenaeum; sketches on the lower Hudson River
1865 Sketches throughout New England, Newburyport, Massachusetts, Byfield, Massachusetts, Hudson River and Kingston, New York, Mt. Chocorua, New Hampsire, and Bald Mountain, New York
1866 Travels up the Mississippi River through Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota
1868 Marries Susan A. Wildes of Boston; moves to 40 West 30th Street, New York City, New York; exhibits for the first time at the National Academy of Design and at American Society of Painters in Water Colors
1870 Exhibits at the Brooklyn Art Association; sketches in New Hampshire and on the Hudson River
1871 Sketches in Long Island, New York, Narragansett, Rhode Island, and at Niagara Falls, New York
1873 Donates work to the Artists’ Fund Society; elected Active Member of American Society of Painters in Water Colors
1878 First exhibition with Gill’s Art Galleries of Springfield, Massachusetts, where he continues to exhibit throughout his life; illustrates for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine
1879 Included in G. W. Sheldon’s American Painters; elected Associate Member of the National Academy of Design
1880 Travels with New York Artists’ Fund Society on the Erie Canal to Niagara Falls; sketches near New Rochelle, New York
1881 Marries Alice L. Robinson of Southampton, Long Island, New York
1883 Spends summer in Southampton, New York; sketches on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, and Narragansett, Rhode Island
1884 Exhibits at the Sothern Exhibition and becomes member of the Art Union; daughter Florence Boker Bricher born; sells with the American Art Association
1886 Has studio at 2 West 14th Street, New York City; sketches at Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts
1890 Builds his family home in New Drop, Staten Island; sketches at Beach Haven, Toms River, and Monmouth Beach, New Jersey,
1893 Exhibits at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois
1894 Illustrates for The Quarterly Illustrator
1895 Sketches near White Rocks, Maine, Seal Cove, Grand Manan, and Monhegan Island, Maine
1905 Exhibits with the American Water Color Society at the Cincinnati Museum; sketches around Casco Bay, Maine
1908 Studio is located at 32 Union Square, New York City; continues to sell with Fifth Avenue Art Galleries; dies at home in New Drop, Staten Island

III. Collections

The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio
Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Dallas Museum of Art, Texas
Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, de Young Museum, California
George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, Springfield, Massachusetts
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut

IV. Exhibitions

1864 Boston Athenaeum, Massachusetts
1866 Boston Athenaeum, Massachusetts
1868–69 Boston Athenaeum, Massachusetts
1868–71 American Society of Painters in Water Colors, New York, New York
1868–1905, 1907 National Academy of Design, New York, New York
1870 Brooklyn Art Association, New York
1871–72 Boston Athenaeum, Massachusetts
1873 Brooklyn Art Association, New York
1873–77 American Society of Painters in Water Colors, New York, New York
1874–81 Inter-State Industrial Exposition of Chicago, Illinois
1874–86 Brooklyn Art Association, New York
1875, 1879, 1881–83 Cincinnati Industrial Exposition, Ohio
1878 Paris Exposition Universelle, France
1878–1902 American Water Color Society, New York, New York
1881 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
1882 Salmagundi Sketch Club, New York, New York
1884 Art Union, Sothern Exposition, Louisville, Kentucky
1885–89 American Art Association, New York, New York
1890 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Illinois
1898 St. Louis Exposition and Music Hall Association, Missouri
Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition, Omaha, Nebraska
1899 Art Club of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
1905–08 American Water Color Society, New York, New York
1909, 1913 National Academy of Design, New York, New York
1948 Brooklyn Museum, New York
1957 Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences, New York
1972 The Holyoke Museum of Natural History and Art
1973 Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana
1974 George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, Springfield, Massachusetts
1976 National Academy of Design, New York, New York

V. Memberships

Active Member of American Society of Painters in Water Colors, 1873
Art Union, 1884
Associate Member, National Academy of Design, 1879
Board of Control, American Society of Painters in Water Colors, 1874

VI. Notes

1. Jeffrey R Brown, Alfred Thompson Bricher 1837–1908 (Indianapolis: Speedway Press, 1973), 13.
2. Ibid,. 14.
3. Ibid,. 15.
4. Rena Neumann Coen, “Alfred Thompson Bricher’s Early Minnesota Scenes.” Minnesota History 46, no. 6 (1979): 233.
5. Ibid,. 234.
6. Brown, 19–20.
7. Ibid,. 22.
8. Ibid,. 25.
9. Ibid,. 27–8.

VII. Suggested Resources

Brown, Jeffrey R. Alfred Thompson Bricher 1837–1908. Indianapolis: Speedway Press, 1973.