William Bradford (1823 - 1892)
Sailing in the Arctic, c. 1875
Oil on canvas
18 1/8 x 30 1/4 inches
Signed at lower left: Bradford
Dr. and Mrs. S. Andrew Kulin, Waltham, Massachusetts, before 1969
By descent in the family, until the present
De Cordova Museum, Lincoln, Massachusetts, 1969, William Bradford, no. 47, p. 46, lent by Dr. and Mrs. Andrew Kulin
John Wilmerding, William Bradford: Artist of the Arctic, An Exhibition of his Paintings and Photographs (1969), p. 46, no. 47
In the mid-1850s William Bradford began making trips to Labrador in northeastern Canada, an area he would visit regularly in the ensuing decades. There he gathered sketches that he would use during winter months in the studio to create his full-scale paintings. His most ambitious expedition was in 1869, when he and his crew pushed further north to Greenland and into the Arctic Circle. Resulting from this trip was a folio-sized book titled The Arctic Regions, which illustrated Bradford's text with 125 original tipped-in photographs.
The present work was executed in the following decade, a period during which Bradford's enthusiasm for the arctic peaked. R. M. Riefstahl describes a concurrent shift in his artistic practice as "his painting methods changed from the relatively smooth rendering of his early ship portraits to more complex applications of paint" [quoted in Richard C. Kugler, et al., William Bradford: Sailing Ships & Arctic Seas (2003), p. 161]. "It is almost as though he were physically trying to express the varying solidities of air, water, rock, and ice by differing the thickness and application of his paint." Riefstahl continued:
In the mid-1870s Bradford started to flatten some of the peaks of the impasto in clouds and ice with a palette knife, presumably in order to achieve a more brilliant contrast from the greater reflectivity of a flat, as opposed to a textured, surface that scatters light" [Ibid.].
The present work is a perfect case in point. Employing a composition similar to 1878's Afternoon on the Labrador Coast (The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio), the artists set the dark hulls of the ships against the glistening icebergs. John Wilmerding has described Bradford as "an especially sensitive colorist," and his carefully varied paint application carries much of the drama [John Wilmerding, William Bradford 1832-1892 (1969), p. 32]. Supporting the composition is Bradford's preference for wide-format canvases; Riefstahl suggests that "perhaps the panoramic, wide-screen aspect of the 20 x 30 inch, and especially the 18 by 30 inch, appealed to the artist for their utility in displaying barren expanses of land and ice" [Riefstahl (2003), p. 159]. Around the same time, Bradford moved into the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York, and a short time later he shifted from soft-pine stretcher bars to the much heavier panel stretchers on which works like the present were created. Riefstahl suggests that the move may have been influenced by the artist's neighbor in the Studio Building, Albert Bierstadt, a major proponent of the panel stretcher.