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Image of Caught in the Ice Floes (Melville Bay/Greenland Coast)

William Bradford , (Apr 30, 1823–Apr 25, 1892)

Caught in the Ice Floes (Melville Bay/Greenland Coast)

after 1870
21 3/4 in. x 35 3/4 in. (55.25 cm x 90.81 cm)

Medium and Support: Oil on canvas
Credit Line: Museum purchase
Accession Number: 1949.27
Current Location: On view : GC2

Commentary

William Bradford, a painter who specialized in dramatic Arctic panoramas, made an ambitious expedition to Greenland in the summer of 1869 that was the culminating artistic experience of his life. Renowned for his paintings and lectures based on this voyage, Bradford recounted the journey in a lavish, limited-edition volume entitled The Arctic Regions, illustrated with 141 tipped-in, albumen-print photographs. Under the sponsorship of Queen Victoria, it was published in London in 1873.

The allure of the North was one result of a romantic focus on the exotic, which inspired painters to travel to distant lands. Bradford's work reflected the Victorian fascination with the icy polar regions and the sublime beauty of the landscape that symbolized the omnipresence of divine power in nature. Like his friend and fellow New Bedford, Massachusetts, artist Albert
Bierstadt, whose paintings depict America's westward expansion, Bradford's Arctic images express the era's dominant spirit of exploration and sense of national pride.

Contemporary literature such as Elisha Kent Kane's Arctic Explorations: The Second Grinnell Expedition in Search of Sir John Franklin and Lord Dufferin's Letters from High Altitudes, both published in 1856, "made so powerful an impression," wrote the artist, that he was "seized with a desire which became uncontrollable, to visit the scenes ... described, and study Nature under the terrible aspects of the Frigid Zone."1 Another probable influence on Bradford was Louis L. Noble's After Icebergs with a Painter (1861) , an illustrated account of a journey to Labrador undertaken by Frederic Edwin Church in 1859.

Through the patronage of LeGrand Lockwood, to whom The Arctic Regions is dedicated, the painter was able to secure a steamer, The Panther, which was built expressly for Arctic navigation. As the voyage was undertaken "solely for the purpose of art," a painting studio and a photographic darkroom were set up on board. Bradford was accompanied by the distinguished Arctic explorer Dr. I. I. Hayes and the professional photographers John Dunmore and George Critcherson.

The Addison Gallery's painting, as well as two of its four photographs, was derived from the climactic moment of the expedition. The Wildest Scene Possible to Conceive and Beset by Ice, Arctic,2 were taken in Melville Bay, past Wilcox Point, where the ship anchored about two-and-a-half miles from the promontory called Devil's Thumb. This position was not without danger, yet Bradford willingly risked landing in order to obtain sketches and photographs of the remarkable scenery under the light of the midnight sun. He wrote:

From the elevation attained we had an unlimited view in all directions and I was never before so thoroughly impressed with the idea of desolation… No living thing was visible... The unbroken silence was stifling... I could hear the pulsations of my heart; a species of terror took hold of me, words cannot describe it, neither can the pencil reproduce the grandeur and immensity of the scene, while the camera with all its truthfulness to nature, falls far short. The view before and around us was perhaps the finest expression of Arctic landscape obtained during the whole voyage, and it was in itself sufficient to repay all the inconveniences and dangers of the cruise.3

Moored alongside the iceberg, The Panther was nipped by the ice floes and remained stuck for two days before being able to continue its journey. In his painting, Bradford heightened the incident by depicting a whaling vessel crushed in a field of ice with the crew abandoning ship. Pictorially, he utilized the purity of the vast, barren wilderness to express his own awe and fear, as well as to emphasize man's minute scale and limited mortality.

Caught in the Ice Floes exhibits many of the Luminist qualities of the artist's previous marine subjects in its tight, detailed draftsmanship, cool colors, and glowing light. As a painter,
Bradford was a sensitive colorist, and even his prose vividly attempted to compensate for the lack of color in the photographs in his book.

The extensive use of photography on the voyage reflects the period's scientific interest in the accurate documentation and classification of the natural world. Although historians consider
Bradford to have been the artistic director of the expedition, it was Dunmore and Critcherson, from the establishment of J.W. Black of Boston, who were responsible for the photographic record. The complex wet-plate collodion process then in use necessitated Bradford's reliance on the two professionals. Because of the brevity of the season and the extreme temperatures, which limited the painter's time in the North, photography was an invaluable tool. Bradford gratefully acknowledged the skill of his associates in The Arctic Regions. The extent of his own involvement in creating any particular photographic view is unclear.

In both his New Bedford and New York studios, Bradford worked up large finished paintings based on the photographs obtained. His numerous sketchbooks from the trip provided supplemental details. Caught in the Ice Floes is clearly a composite of several images. In 1884, Bradford commented on the relationship between photography and art when he said to an interviewer: "Why my photographs have saved me eight or ten voyages to the Arctic regions, and now I gather my inspirations from my photographic subjects, just as an author gains food from his library, and I could not paint without them.”4

Sarah Vure, Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, A Selective Catalogue (Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1996), pp. 335-36


1. William Bradford, The Arctic Regions (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low and Searle, 1873), p. 1.

2. Ibid., nos. 93 and 95 respectively.

3. Ibid., pp. 69-71.

4. "The Paintings of Mr. William Bradford of New York," The Philadelphia Photographer 21 (1884), p. 7.

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