William Bradford was born in Fairhaven, Massachusetts in 1823. After attempts at joining both his father's mercantile business and his father-in-law's farming business, Bradford decided to pursue a career as an artist. Despite little support from his parents, he became one of the most sought-after marine painters of the nineteenth century. Bradford began painting and drawing along the shores of Fairhaven and New Bedford. Whaling ships and cargo vessels crowded the waters, and for twenty-five dollars, owners and captains commissioned Bradford to sketch or paint images of their ships. In the 1850s, Bradford shared a studio with the Dutch painter Albert Van Beest in Fairhaven. Bradford developed a dramatic approach to light and detail; his own style is characterized by precision, controlled alterations of dark and light forms, cool light reflections, and use of pale green-blue hues.
In 1861, Bradford visited Labrador, Newfoundland where he painted and photographed icebergs and the local culture. He made summer trips to the area for the next eight years, sketching details of ice formations and the activities of Eskimos and polar bears. The sketches and photographs were then used to create culturally and geologically specific paintings in his New York City studio. Because of this propensity for verisimilitude, his works were used to document the Arctic’s topography in the nineteenth century.
Bradford moved his family to England in 1871, where he incorporated the new surroundings into his work. In 1874 he moved back to America and continued to paint from his photographs and sketches of his journeys. The following year he sold a painting to Queen Victoria entitled The Panther off the Coast of Greenland Under the Midnight Sun, making him well-known and celebrated in both England and America. In his later years, Bradford kept a studio in San Francisco, and traveled across the western United States, painting the Yosemite and Mariposa valleys and the Sierra Nevada mountain range, often with his fellow New Bedford artist Albert Bierstadt. He also gave a lecture series on arctic regions that took him around the country. Bradford returned to New York City, where he later died in 1892.
Bradford’s paintings hang in the most prominent collections and have been used to document the Arctic's topography in the nineteenth century. He ranks among the most popular marine painters in America, known for his masterful luminist style. His works are in the following collections: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; National Museum of American Art, Washington D.C; Art Institute of Chicago; Mariners Museum, Newport News, Virginia; Peabody Museum, Salem, Massachusetts; Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts; and the New Bedford Whaling Museum, Massachusetts.
Richard Kugler, William Bradford: Sailing Ships and Arctic Seas (New Bedford, MA: New Bedford Whaling Museum, 2003)
Peter Hastings Falk, Who Was Who in American Art: 1564-1975 (Madison, CT: Soundview Press, 1999)
Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-75 (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1995)