DescriptionThe Hon. Paul H. Buchanan, Jr. Collection
WILLIAM BRADFORD (American, 1823-1892)
Near Cape St. Johns, Coast of Labrador, 1874
Oil on mahogany prepared panel, label verso: Windsor and Newton, London
14 x 24 inches (35.6 x 61.0 cm)
Signed and dated lower right: Wm Bradford / 74
Sotheby's, New York, May 30, 1985, lot 29;
Purchased from Kenneth Lux, New York, September 2, 1986 (label verso).
The American marine painter William Bradford was to the arctic what Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran were to the American West: a pioneering adventurer. In 1861, following the death of his close friend and erstwhile artistic collaborator, Albert Van Best, and just before the Civil War began, the Massachusetts-born Bradford decided to sail for Labrador, where he could paint and photograph icebergs. His interest in icebergs from an artistic standpoint followed closely upon the heels of Frederic Church's remarkable painting of the subject. However, William Bradford's sensibility yielded a different type of image from Church's theatrical vision of colossal frozen mountains: his icebergscapes were far more realistic presentations of the icy forms within their actual settings. He paid close attention to the unusual effects of northern light.
Bradford made trips north every summer, with only one exception, between 1861 and 1869. The excursions of 1865 and 1869 were particularly well-documented through a careful log and an elegant book published after the 1869 trip. In addition to the written descriptions of the Labrador and Greenland coasts, Bradford make records of the types and nature of icebergs, Eskimo life, and polar bears. The hundreds of photographs and sketches he produced provided him with material he would mine for years to come.
Bradford's Labrador landscape of 1874 in the Buchanan collection shows icebergs offshore at sunrise. Banks of heavy clouds and fog partially obscure the green hills and the little harbor on the left, while the sun is just beginning to rise off to the right, outside the frame of the image. Fishing boats are just setting out, and a few have already gotten as far as the icebergs on the right. The icebergs are small features within this composition which is as unassuming as Bradford's views along the gentle curve of Narragansett Bay. Only their strange bright profiles signal this scene as something more exotic than the New England coast. To heighten the impact of the icebergs within this work, Bradford painted the them with thick impasto, and contrasted their bright white highlights and intense blue shadows against the green of the hillside, and the orange-tinted rocks and water reflecting the rising sun. One of the most magnificent passages in the painting are the shallows on the right. With a palette of delicate oranges, browns and greens - and virtually no blue at all - Bradford used crisp linework to describe the ripples on the water as well as the hints of rocks and stones beneath the surface. This careful style of rendering gradually disappeared from Bradford's work during the course of the 1870's, after his popularity soared following his sale of a painting to Queen Victoria in 1875. His technique became broader and his imagery became, to some extent, more grandiose.
A closely related work by Bradford depicting the same site from a vantage point opposite this one is in the collection of the Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, Amherst Massachusetts (Gift of Herbert W. Plimpton: The Hollis W. Plimpton (Class of 1915) Memorial Collection). Also dated 1874, the Mead Art Museum's painting entitled Near Castle Island, the Coast of Labrador is also on mahogany panel and measures a slightly smaller 12 x 20 inches.
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