William Bradford (1823-1892)
William Bradford (1823-1892)

Midnight Sun, The Arctic

William Bradford (1823-1892)
Midnight Sun, The Arctic
signed and dated 'Wm Bradford/78' (lower right)
oil on canvas
30 ¼ x 48 ¼ in. (76.8 x 122.6 cm.)
Kennedy Galleries, Inc., New York.
Private collection, California, acquired from the above, 1964.
By descent to the present owner.
The Kennedy Quarterly, vol. IV, no. 4, June 1964, p. 271, no. 594, cover illustration (as Whalers in the Arctic).
San Diego, California, San Diego Museum of Art, Insight: Selections from San Diego Private Collections, April 23-June 12, 1983.

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Elizabeth Beaman
Elizabeth Beaman

Lot Essay

Midnight Sun, The Arctic is a superb example of William Bradford’s large-scale depictions of the rugged Arctic region and an important and evocative painting that demonstrates the artist at the height of his abilities. When Bradford was born on April 30, 1823 in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, the surrounding area, particularly New Bedford, was flourishing as one of the most productive whaling cities in the country. “To support an enterprise of this scale, the two communities [Fairhaven and New Bedford] devoted the greater amount of their managerial, financial, and productive efforts to build or acquire ships, outfit and provision them for voyages that could last four years or more, recruit men in the thousands to man them, then process and market the whale oil and baleen they brought home.” (R.C. Kugler, William Bradford, Sailing Ships & Arctic Seas, New Bedford, Massachusetts, 2003, p. 2). Bradford’s family, like so many, sought to build a fortune alongside New Bedford’s burgeoning upper class by developing interests in the business of whaling. Coupled with his family’s noted involvement in this expanding industry, Bradford’s proximity to the water and wharves allowed him to become well acquainted with the details of the ships and their sailors.

By 1852, after a failed stint as an owner of a New Bedford clothing store, Bradford committed himself fully to painting. From his beginnings as a draftsman and painter, Bradford sought to portray his scenes with the greatest accuracy. Focusing first on portraits of various whaleships and clippers, Bradford’s association with other ambitious New Bedford artists, most notably Albert Bierstadt, reinforced his desire for further study and development. In Albert Van Beest, a Dutch marine painter living in New York, Bradford found his ideal mentor. The two cemented their relationship in 1854 and Van Beest traveled to Massachusetts and worked alongside his distinguished pupil in the same Fairhaven studio. Van Beest passed away unexpectedly in 1860; however, his influence on Bradford was profound. “By the end of the 1850s Bradford’s style had emerged into something recognizably his own, a style that relied on the convincingly detailed presentation of vessels, naturally set on the waters where he found them, often framed by headlands or shoreside wharves and structures. Some relied on narrative events, placing vessels within the context of a time and place, whether in harbor or at seas, but usually interacting with other vessels. Sailors and fisherman are often introduced and treated with the fellow feeling of someone brought up among them.” (William Bradford, Sailing Ships & Arctic Seas, p. 12)

Likely inspired by Frederic Church’s Arctic expedition in June of 1859 and the writings of Elisha Kent Kane, Bradford first set out to the northernmost latitudes in the summer of 1861. As Gerald Carr writes, “Sparsely inhabited, largely unpenetrated, and legendarily dangerous, the Polar Regions enticed the unwary and wary as the Sirens had Homer’s Ulysses.” (Frederic Edwin Church: In Search of the Promised Land, New York, 2000, p. 77) Bradford’s final and most ambitious Arctic expedition occurred in 1869. The voyage was underwritten by New York financier Le Grand Lockwood and set its destination to Melville Bay. Richard Kugler writes, “On July 1869, Bradford departed St. John’s, Newfoundland, on the Panther, a three-masted bark with auxiliary steam power. Much larger than the schooners employed on his Labrador voyages, the Panther also differed in being strongly built for sealing or Arctic whaling and possessed a steam-driven screw propeller that could be called upon to make passages during periods of calm, maneuver through floe ice, push through leads in the field ice, or escape from threatening pack ice…A ‘picked crew of hardy Newfoundlanders’ made up the rest of the Panther’s working complement, all of whom, Bradford was pleased to note were ‘temperance men.’ (William Bradford, Sailing Ships & Arctic Seas, p. 26). The expedition lasted three months and took Bradford farther north than any previous excursion. Deemed a tremendous success, Bradford used the numerous photographs and sketches from this trip, and those that preceded it, to form the basis of his many later compositions in oil.

In 1866 Bradford launched onto the national stage when his monumental painting Sealers Crushed by Icebergs (1866, New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts) sold to Le Grand Lockwood for the staggering sum of $12,000. Surprising to some, this amount exceeded the price paid for Frederic Church’s iconic painting Niagara (1857, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas) in 1857 and Heart of the Andes (1859, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) in 1859. As noted by John Wilmerding, “an immensely successful career followed in the wake of his pursuit of the exotic, so similar to Church’s. Bradford got extensive backing for later trips, and was subsequently rewarded with publication of his accounts in England and the sale in 1875 of a painting to Queen Victoria.” (American Marine Painting, New York, 1987, p. 138)

In Midnight Sun, The Arctic, the artist depicts a heroic ship venturing through Arctic waters enveloped in the strong orange glow of the setting sun. Immersed in the shadow of the hulking vessel are a group of men, diminutive in the face of nature’s glory, who work tirelessly to break the ice and clear a safe passage. The fading light casts a pink glow across the endless expanse of ice, while shadows cast from the icebergs darken to a subtle greenish blue. The work exemplifies Bradford’s mastery of detail and light and his uncanny ability to carefully render every aspect of the scene. The rigging, the masts and the sails of the ship are painted with precision, while the surrounding icebergs are painted with vigorous brushwork, resulting in areas of rich impasto.

Writing about his experience aboard the Panther, Bradford captures a moment that mirrors the scene depicted in the present work. “The scene was wild, strange, and magnificent; a summer’s sun in the distance, shone out with the steady gleam of frosted silver. Not a breath of wind was stirring, and the deep blue of an Arctic sky was reflected in the water so strangely flecked with indescribably icy forms. None of the bergs very large, but no two were alike, and as the “Panther” moved rapidly along between and amongst them, the scene compared to nothing but the quick-changing views of a kaleidoscope. Nor were the colours wanting to carry out this illusion. From dead white to glossy, glistening satin; from the deepest green to all the lightest shades; and from faint blue to deepest ‘lapis lazuli’; and again, as some lofty berg passed between us and the sun, its crest would be bordered with an orange-colored halo, in which sometimes prismatic shades appeared.” (William Bradford, Sailing Ships & Arctic Seas, p. 74).

Midnight Sun, The Arctic focuses on the struggle inherent to man’s survival in the inhospitable waters of the Arctic, which is simultaneously threatening and starkly beautiful. Bradford creates a dynamic scene that conveys the formidable terrain, but despite the challenge before the ship and its men, a sense of calm pervades. Here Bradford presents a stunningly beautiful and daunting scene that conveys the raw power of nature and his strong visceral response to the Arctic region.

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