William Bradford

Artist Biography

By Jenny Lyubomudrova

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

I. Biography

William Bradford is known as one of the preeminent maritime painters of the nineteenth century. He began his career painting whaleships in the port of New Bedford, quickly garnering a reputation for his talent in depicting naval architecture with incredible accuracy. His journeys to northern locations such as Grand Manan and the Bay of Fundy, followed by his numerous expeditions to the Arctic, established him as the “Painter of the Polar World” and brought him international acclaim.

Bradford was born on April 30, 1823 in Fairhaven, Massachusetts. A descendent of William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony, the artist Bradford was born seven generations later on a tract of land purchased by his ancestor from the Wampanoag tribe, to Quaker parents Hannah and Melvin. In 1834, the family relocated to the coastal city of New Bedford to pursue an interest in the whaling business, and the eleven-year-old William was exposed for the first time to the world of whaleships and seafaring. [1]

After completing his education at the age of 16, Bradford went to work, first for his father, then for a dry-goods store in New Bedford, and shortly thereafter established his own clothing store, which quickly evolved into a burgeoning cloth and fabric business. Unfortunately, this business venture was short-lived, as Bradford soon realized that his desire to paint outweighed his entrepreneurial spirit. Shortly after the failure of his business, Bradford made his first profit as an artist, selling his painting Whaleship Fireh Perry off Clark’s Point, New Bedford (1852; Private collection) for twenty-five dollars. Successive commissions soon followed this first success, and by 1853, Bradford was working in a newly built studio in Fairhaven and maintaining a studio in Boston. During this period, Bradford primarily painted the newly designed “clipper whalers,” which were popular whaling ships built in the style of the larger, faster, and more famous merchant clippers. Bradford’s “portraits” of whaleships were praised for their meticulous attention to detail, and he quickly gained a reputation for his talent in depicting naval architecture with incredible accuracy. However, he soon tired of the relatively repetitive work of painting merchant ships, writing that “for eighteen months, I painted portraits of whalers and merchantmen, till the broadside of a vessel became absolutely loathsome to me." [2]

Fortunately, Bradford soon found renewed inspiration in the form of a mentor, the Dutch-trained marine artist from Rotterdam, Albert Van Beest, who came to New Bedford to reside with the Bradford family and share Bradford’s studio in Fairhaven. Van Beest formed an important contribution to Bradford’s career as an artist, encouraging him to develop a more sophisticated treatment of the ocean in his work in order to move away from naval “portraits” to more dramatic marine compositions. Bradford and Van Beest collaborated on several paintings, including The Port of New Bedford from Crow Island (1854; New Bedford Whaling Museum), View of Shipping in New Bedford Harbor (1855; New Bedford Whaling Museum), and most significantly, New York Yacht Club Regatta off New Bedford (1856; Edgartown Yacht Club), which was painted on the occasion of New Bedford inviting the New York Yacht Club to hold its annual regatta in Buzzards Bay instead of in Newport. Unfortunately, that same year, Bradford and his wife suffered a family tragedy when their only child, Esther, died at the age of six, bringing a temporary pause to Van Beest’s and Bradford’s collaboration. Van Beest returned to New Bedford a year later to collaborate with Bradford on a final painting, Boston Harbor (1857; Private collection), but soon after, Van Beest’s health seriously deteriorated, and in 1860 he died at the age of forty, bringing an end to one of the most significant mentorships of Bradford’s career.

Nevertheless, Bradford’s career continued to flourish, and the year of 1860 proved to be particularly productive for the artist. Bradford rented a studio in the Tremont Street Studio Building in Boston, alongside the artists John Frederick Kensett and Martin Johnston Heade. The same year, he completed work on the major painting, Shipwreck off Nantucket (1860–61; The Metropolitan Museum of Art). In this large-scale work, Bradford captured the sinking of the whaleship Nantucket, which ran aground at Nashawena on the night of August 8, 1859. The painting was praised both for its accurate depiction of the damaged vessel and for its rendering of the stormy sky and waves, painted with breathtaking drama and realism.

Following the success of Shipwreck off Nantucket, Bradford traveled to Grand Manan and the Bay of Fundy with the artist William M. Hart. The paintings Bradford produced during this trip marked a significant turning point for the artist, signaling a departure from his so-called portraits of vessels to more developed compositions, which combined dramatic landscapes with depictions of seafaring life. These paintings brought Bradford critical acclaim when they were exhibited at the Boston Artists’ Reception in the Tremont Street Studio Building. The Boston sculptor Thomas R. Gould was impressed with “Bradford, the young Quaker, with his marine views, excellent, projecting on gray, and heaving and foamy seas, red flannel shirts, blue caps and brown hands of fisherman, with lines and glints of intense light upon the water." [3] Another critic described Bradford’s paintings at the Tremont Studio Building, where Bradford’s art was displayed alongside that of John Frederick Kensett: “In the studio of Mr. Bradford was exhibited a new picture by Kensett, a study among the Catskills…contrasted finely with the marine views from Mr. Bradford’s own brush, charming and true all of them, as Bradford’s pictures uniformly are." [4]

In 1861, Bradford made the first of six voyages to Labrador, the northernmost point of Northeastern Canada, under the sponsorship of patron Dr. John C. Sharp. At his own expense, Bradford brought with him one of the first photographers to ever visit Labrador, and finding that the “voyage exceed anything they had anticipated,”5 returned yearly from 1863 through 1867. It was during one of these journeys to Labrador that Bradford found inspiration for his monumental painting Sealers Crushed by Icebergs (1866; New Bedford Whaling Museum). On the six-by-ten-foot canvas, Bradford depicted a crew of seal hunting vessels overcome by errant ice, bringing attention to the plight of the human form in the face of the arctic elements. It was this painting that launched Bradford into the international spotlight and solidified his position among the great American masters of his day. The work was purchased by New York financier Le Grand Lockwood, who was also a patron of Albert Bierstadt, and who provided Bradford with funding that enabled him to sail to the northernmost region of Greenland. Sealers Crushed by Icebergs was later acquired at auction by the Marquess of Lorne, who was married to Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise. By special invitation from the Queen, Bradford attended a reception for the viewing of the painting at Windsor Castle. Queen Victoria was so impressed by Bradford’s work that she commissioned a painting from the artist, as well as an elaborate album of albumen photographs of Bradford’s voyages: The Arctic Regions, Illustrated with Photographs Taken on an Art Expedition to Greenland (1873).

After his return to the United States, Bradford turned his attention westward, opening a studio in San Francisco and making a series of painting trips to the Yosemite Valley, as well as to the Mariposa Groves, and Mounts Shasta, Hood, and Ranier. After spending some time in California, Bradford returned to the East Coast and rented a space in the Manhattan Studio Building at 42 East 14th Street in New York, which was to become his home base for the remainder of his life (though he did also continue to maintain a studio in Fairhaven). In his final decades, Bradford regularly lectured about his experiences in the arctic for the American Geographical Society in New York, as well as in other eastern cities such as Cleveland, New Haven, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. On April 23, 1892, after giving a lecture at the Amateur Photographers Club in New York, Bradford suffered a stroke. Taken to New York Hospital, he passed away two days later, thus bringing an end to his overwhelmingly successful and prolific career. Laid to rest on the bank of the Acushnet River in Fairhaven, his grave was marked by a boulder from the shore and inscribed with an epitaph from a poem John Greenleaf Whittier dedicated to Bradford during the Civil War: Something it has—a flavor of the sea, / And the sea’s freedom—which reminds of thee. [6]

II. Chronology

1823 Born on April 30 in Fairhaven, Massachusetts
1834 The Bradford family moves to 45 William Street in New Bedford
1839–40 Finishes school at age 16 and begins to work in New Bedford dry-goods and clothing stores
1846 Opens his own clothing business, trading in cloth and fabrics
1847 Marries Quaker Mary Swett Breed on December 15 in Lynn at the Salem Monthly Meeting of Friends
1851–52 Loses his clothing business, later attributing his failure to spending “too much time in painting to succeed”[7]
1852 Sells his painting, Whaleship Fireh Perry off Clark’s Point, New Bedford for twenty-five dollars, his first sale as an artist; paints merchant clipper ships in Boston
1853 Begins working in a newly built studio in Fairhaven, and maintains a studio in Boston
1854 Travels to New York; in New Bedford, begins to collaborate with Dutch marine artist Albert Van Beest
1856 Travels north of Cape Cod for the first time, visiting Grand Manan and the Bay of Fundy; collaborates with Van Beest on the painting, New York Yacht Club Regatta of New Bedford (1856; Edgartown Yacht Club); loses only child, Esther, at the age of 6
1857 Participates in an exhibition organized by Albert Bierstadt and John Hopkins, alongside works by Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Frederic Edwin Church, and Sanford Robinson Gifford; daughter Mary Eastman Bradford is born
1858–60 In the winter, rents a studio in the Tremont Street Studio Building in Boston, alongside artists such as John Frederick Kensett and Martin Johnston Heade; participates in auctions at the Boston Artists’ Receptions
1860–61 Paints the major work, Shipwreck off Nantucket (1860–61, Metropolitan Museum of Art)
1861 Makes the first of six voyages to the coast of Labrador, financed by Boston physician Dr. John C. Sharp, just a few months after the start of the Civil War
1862 Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier dedicates a poem to Bradford, crediting his “sea pieces” as a source of comfort to the Union during the turmoil of the Civil War
1863–65 Makes several trips to Labrador, accompanied by photographers; reestablishes a studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York
1866 Completes the monumental six-by-ten-foot painting Sealers Crushed by Icebergs (1866, New Bedford Whaling Museum); takes paying guests to Labrador; spends two months working with Albert Bierstadt
1867 Sells Sealers Crushed by Icebergs for $12,000 to New York financier, Le Grand Lockwood
1869 With funding from Le Grand Lockwood, charters a steamer to Greenland, producing three hundred photographs, fifty oil sketches, and over one hundred drawings over the course of three months
1871 Begins to regularly exhibit paintings at the Century Club; travels to England, where he meets the British Arctic Explorers, as well as Lady Jane Franklin, the Marquess of Lorne, and Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria
1872 The Marquess of Lorne purchases Sealers Crushed by Icebergs for $8,000 at auction; is invited to a reception for its viewing by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle; the Queen commissions a painting and an elaborate album of albumen photographs of Bradford’s arctic voyage
1873 Bradford’s album of albumen silver prints, The Arctic Regions, Illustrated with Photographs Taken on an Art Expedition to Greenland, is published
1875–76 Opens a studio in San Francisco
1877–80 Makes several painting trips to Yosemite Valley, as well as to the Mariposa Groves, and Mounts Shasta, Hood, and Ranier
1881 Returns from California and takes rooms in the Manhattan Studio Building at 42 East 14th Street; continues exhibiting in New York and Boston
1882 Establishes a summer studio in Fairhaven
1885 Lectures on his arctic voyages for the American Geographical Society in New York, as well as in Cleveland, New Haven, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and smaller cities in Massachusetts
1886 Exhibits twenty-seven paintings at the Minneapolis Industrial Exposition
1889–90 Produces several etchings and photogravure reproductions of his paintings
1892 Suffers a stroke after lecturing at the Amateur Photographers Club in New York on April 23; dies in New York Hospital on April 25, five days short of his seventieth birthday; his grave on the bank of the Acushnet River in Fairhaven is marked by a boulder from the shore and inscribed with an epitaph from Whittier’s poem: Something it has—a flavor of the sea, / And the sea’s freedom—which reminds of thee. A posthumous auction of Bradford’s estate, organized by friend and patron William F. Havemeyer, realizes $13,000 to $15,000.

III. Collections

Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts
The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois
The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio
The Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio
The Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire
de Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, California
Denver Art Museum, Colorado
Edgartown Yacht Club, Massachusetts
Fairhaven Town Hall, Massachusetts
Francis Russell Hart Nautical Museum, MIT Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts
The Haggin Museum, Stockton, California
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Ithaca, New York
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia
History, Colorado, Denver, Colorado
Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, Tennessee
Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington, Indiana
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana
Lowe Art Museum, Coral Gables, Florida
Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, Virginia
Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Massachusetts
Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
Museum of Art at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah
Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island
Mystic Seaport, Connecticut
New Bedford Free Public Library, Massachusetts
New-York Historical Society, New York
Old Dartmouth Historical Society, New Bedford, Massachusetts
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts
Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut
Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts
Yosemite Museum, Yosemite National Park, California


1860–90 National Academy of Design, New York, New York
1857, 1859, 1862, 1864–64, 1871 Boston Athenæum, Massachusetts
1858 New Bedford Art Exhibition
1864–74, 1882, 1891 Brooklyn Art Association, New York
1875 Royal Academy of Arts, London, England
1877 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
1877 Boston Art Club, Massachusetts
1881 Ellis’s Fine Art Gallery
1881 Williams and Everett’s Gallery, Boston, Massachusetts
1882 San Francisco
1887 Lawton’s Art Gallery
1892 Fifth Avenue Galleries, New York, New York
1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, California
1939 Golden Gate Exposition, San Francisco, California
1970 DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Lincoln Massachusetts and New Bedford Whaling Museum, Massachusetts
1973  Kennedy Galleries, New York, New York

V. Memberships

The Century Club
National Academy of Design, Associate Member, 1874

VI. Notes

1. Richard C. Kugler, William Bradford: Sailing Ships & Arctic Seas (New Bedford, MA: New Bedford Whaling Museum, 2003), 1–3.
2. Ibid., 7.
3. Ibid., 21.
4. Ibid., 21.
5. Ibid., 15.
6. Ibid., 42.
7. Ibid., 4.

VII. Suggested Resources

Falk, Peter Hastings, ed. Who was Who in American Art 1564–1975: 400 Years of Artists in America. Vol I: A–F. Madison, CT: Sound View Press, 1993.
Inner Light: The World of William Bradford: Art and Artifacts from the New Bedford Whaling Museum. New Bedford, MA: Old Dartmouth Historical Society / New Bedford Whaling Museum. 2016.
Kugler, Richard C. William Bradford: Sailing Ships & Arctic Seas. New Bedford, MA: New Bedford Whaling Museum, 2003.

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