The Seafaring World of Arctic Artist William Bradford

Sometimes the most spectacular canvases in an art exhibition are the pieces not in it. Cheekwood Museum of Art is a dazzling place full of wonderful works of art both inside and out, and hosts traveling art exhibitions regularly. The famous pieces draw the multitudes to gaze on them for a time, then they move on to another display in another hall in another town. However, the resident works displayed year-round on those venerable halls are just as striking, if not more, than the other more traveling famous works. Such was the case on a visit in March of 2023 to the Cheekwood Mansion’s Morning Room, where next to a large marble fireplace and mirror hangs the realistic landscape painting titled Sunset in the Arctic, painted by American artist William Bradford in the early 1870s.

Sunset in the Arctic by William Bradford, circa 1870
Sunset in the Arctic by William Bradford, Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville, TN

This oil on canvas measures approximately twelve inches by sixteen inches in an ornate, gold-gilded frame. While the frame is more eye-catching than the piece itself when passing through the beautiful breakfast room, the pale and muted colors Bradford blends to capture this twilight and frigid sea-faring scene in wonderful detail are spectacular.

            Sunsets are traditionally vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows, and make the sun the focal point. This scene shows the opposite side of that color palette with use of blues, violets, and whites with a tone of reflection as the sun sets behind and to the right of the viewer. The colors in the painting are cool and give the viewer a sense of the impending loss of light and warmth. This use of diminishing light gives the piece a temperature that is dropping by the minute. The main source of light and warmth is quickly fading away in a part of the world where days may last twenty-four hours or as short as one, leaving the cold sea and icebergs to the cool onset of night. The two largest shapes are traditional rectangles of sea and sky that would make up most landscape paintings and are split by the horizon line. The foreground objects in the landscape, both man-made and natural, are all triangular. Even the small fishing boat on the right hold the shape of an inverted triangle that only part of is seen.

Sunset in the Arctic by William Bradford, Cheekwood Museum of Art, Nashville, TN

The dominant division line in the painting is the distant horizon, dividing the scene into a distinct top and bottom plane. The viewers focus follows that horizon line left to right where all the focal components in the piece reside. As that line extends up, the viewers eyes are greeted by a calm and hazy, likely windless sky. Below the line, the viewer can see the effect of that calm sky leaving the water with only minor disturbances and reflective depth. The horizon line is low, giving the perception of balance going top heavy. On the vertical plane, the left side is static with the ships and the fixed landmass looming stoically behind. It is difficult to determine if the ships are moving or at anchor. They display full sail, yet the water is slack, indicating little or no wind. The first impression is that they are static. On the right, the subjects are clearly dynamic. The rowboat is moving, either making its way back to the ships or toward the shore, and the icebergs are free-floating, reserving all perceived motion to the right and bottom portions.

Bradford uses scale as the eye travels from bottom to top, with each level of focus dwindling into the distance. The immediate foreground gives the feeling of standing in a shore looking out into the water, the wave crests gradually squeezing together as the distance grows. The ships are the next seen, their plane being the foreground up to the land mass and icebergs, which dominate the horizon. The final piece, the distant berg, diminishes with the earth’s curvature, stretching the viewer’s eyes to the maximum limit possible. Other than the canvas fibers the painting is on, the piece does not display any actual texture. That said, the artist creates a surface texture on the water with the small wave crests across the calm bay. While the piece is calm in appearance, what lies on the frigid waves, such as the icebergs, and dangers potentially beneath them is a veiled hardship he was able to capture at a time of day when the hard work is finished, the fishermen survived, and it is time to come home.

Bradford’s Other Arctic Works

View of Sermitsialik Glacier by William Bradford

            This landscape piece is one of many that William Bradford painted from the northern coasts of Labrador and Greenland and is indicative of his earlier work. A passion for Arctic scenes would develop through a later commissioned excursion into the Arctic aboard a strengthened ice ship named Panther. These earlier shoreline pieces reflect the scenes most readily available to his locale while he worked on his technique. What Sunset in the Arctic and many of his other pieces conveys is a glimpse into a day in the life of a northern fishing operation that contends with the harshest elements mother nature can muster.

Arctic Sunset by William Bradford

Being a native Rhode Islander and living in coastal Massachusetts, there was ample opportunity to see these vessels and their routine in great detail. His goal was to record, “every dash of color which the great Painter in his benevolence vouchsafed to us.” He translated that goal into multiple scenes of Arctic beauty, a part of the world that was nearly the last earthly frontier left for mankind to explore, and his detail captured the imaginations of art enthusiasts, explorers, and even Queen Victoria who commissioned a painting from him. In Sunset in the Arctic, Bradford captured the muted beauty of nature, small as the canvas may be, in one of her most inhospitable environments. Several of the other pieces pictured here are on large canvases that can span the length of a room.

Icebound Ship by William Bradford, circa 1880

            The age of exploration still captivates minds in the 21st century. In Sunset in the Arctic and his many other depictions of Arctic landscapes, William Bradford was on the cutting edge of those unexplored places that humans of the 19th century could only dream about, and few would ever see. While a modern audience may not see the same wonder in his work, the part that draws someone in is that this man lived the experiences he created on canvas. That lived experience makes the painting authentic in every detail. The colors are the same colors he saw. The shadows he painted existed beneath the bows of those ships and behind those bergs. The shapes were perceived and captured in early monochrome photographs he took and later translated to paint. The artist traveled aboard those vessels at a time when sail power was trying to stave off being replaced by steam. These images were not some visions of fancy. They were real, and for any viewer’s heart who longs for some exotic adventure, these pieces are balm for the soul. During his lifetime, William Bradford was never considered among the great landscape painters of his era. His work enjoyed sporadic popularity early on but faded into obscurity as the fickle public turned their interest from far-off exploration to industrial innovation.

Scene in the Arctic by William Bradford

As I learned more about him, I found Bradford to be a kindred spirit, for much of what he wanted to capture in his Arctic and sea-faring paintings are the same feelings I have when I think I was born in the wrong time. Imagine boarding the Nimrod or the Endurance with Shackleton, paddling westward on the Missouri River with Lewis and Clark to find the Northwest Passage, or climbing with Hillary to the summit of Everest. Or, in this case, boarding the Panther with William Bradford to capture images of Arctic landscapes while traveling the ice floes above the 65th parallel.

The ‘Polaris,’ Far North by William Bradford

            Bradford did not make any overt social statements or environmental stands with his work, but simply painted what he saw and experienced for the wonder of others. As for his impact with this and other paintings, I don’t think he could have imagined the attention that Arctic and Antarctic Sea ice would receive in modern times during the battle over climate change, but I would imagine the current spotlight on that geographical region could start a resurgent interest in his work. Comparing a modern photo of a sunset over the ice and his use of color on the iceberg in Sunset in the Arctic are identical to real life, and this from a largely self-taught painter. I find William Bradford to be a heavily underrated landscape artist, and even though Sunset in the Arctic is not his greatest work, I would happily hang it and any of his other pieces in my own home.

Me with Sunset in the Arctic at Cheekwood Museum of Art in Nashville, Tennessee, March 2023.
Me with Sunset in the Arctic at Cheekwood Museum of Art in Nashville, Tennessee, March 2023.

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