In the nineteenth century, no artist was more coolly heroic than William Bradford. Known as “The Painter of the Polar World,” Bradford traveled throughout the Arctic in search of its sprawling glaciers and sublime icebergs. Born in the whaling town of New Bedford, Massachusetts, the artist was exposed to boats and seamen from a young age. The central themes of his oeuvre—odyssey and exploration—seem to have been preordained: before his birth, his father entered the whaling business with a schooner called the Telemachus, named for the young hero of Homer’s epic Odyssey. Years later, another young explorer named Herman Melville left Bradford’s father’s ship to become a writer, turning his experience into the most iconic American novel of the nineteenth century: Moby Dick. It was in this environment that William Bradford developed his view of whaling life, combining profound technical knowledge with the Romantic lure of seafaring adventure.
Bradford began painting detailed portraits of whalers and clippers in 1852, acquiring his Romantic polish from the Dutch marine painter Albert Van Beest. Van Beest introduced the young artist to the techniques of the Dutch tradition and steered his pictorial ambitions toward the drama of man and sea. In the following years, Bradford charted his instructor’s craft into a “crosscurrent” of influence, absorbing further inspiration from the wide perspectives of Canaletto, the precision of Robert Salmon, and the Luminism of Fitz Hugh Lane. By 1855, he had made enough of a name for himself to have Henry David Thoreau visit his Fairhaven studio.
Bradford made his first journey to the Arctic in 1861, returning six times over the next seven years. It was there, in the perilous North, that he found his subject, awed by the stark beauty of the icy frontier. As his fame grew, people paid for the “privilege of accompanying him” on his voyages to Newfoundland, Greenland, and the Labrador Coast. Bradford also brought photographers, writers, and geologists on his expeditions to document everything from the quality of Northern light to the fossils beneath its shores. The power of his work lies in its seamless blend of empirical truth and romantic fiction—through his art, Bradord experienced and staged the classic themes of mythological adventure, transforming himself into a modern day Ulysses.
Bradford exhibited at venues including the National Academy of Design, the Boston Athenaeum, the Brooklyn Art Association, and the Royal Academy in London. The New Bedford Whaling Museum organized a major retrospective of his life and work in 2003. His paintings are also in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.