“Arctic Visions: Away then Floats the Ice-Island – An Exhibit Update”

Posted by on Feb 5, 2013 in Arctic Visions | No Comments

The exhibition Arctic Visions: Away then Floats the Ice-Island will be a “journey for art,” with a twist of science, exploration, anthropology, and commerce mixed in, much like William Bradford’s book The Arctic Regions Illustrated with Photographs Taken on an Art Expedition. Opening in the Wattles Family Gallery on April 26th, 2013, this exhibit, based on Bradford’s final expedition, will benefit from its placement in the Museum’s newest gallery, located in the oldest building in the complex. The Museum thoughtfully restored this gallery in 2010,  to retain much of the  National Bank of Commerce building’s original character. The Wattles Family Gallery provides the ideal space for this exhibition, centered on a voyage that occurred in 1869, about a decade before the bank was erected.

Plate Number: 63 “Cliffs seen on the south side of Arsut Fjord, three thousand feet high.”

Many will recall Emeritus Director Richard C. Kugler’s 2004 landmark exhibit Sailing Ships and Arctic Seas.  Dick’s groundbreaking scholarship on Bradford’s life and career provides this exhibit’s foundation, squarely positioning one of New Bedford’s favorite sons among the leading Luminist painters of his time. Arctic Visions builds upon Kugler’s work featuring Bradford’s travel narrative and the photographs made to illustrate it.

Arctic Visions will include a variety of Bradford’s works, ranging from sketches, drawings, and some of his most well-known paintings, to the original Arctic Regions and its digital facsimile. The diverse media represented will clearly demonstrate not only the depth and strength of the Museum’s Bradford holdings, but will also reflect the generosity of numerous donors and lenders to it.

The Polar Regions became Bradford’s focus, his obsession, and his calling card to fame. In 1861, the year the Civil War erupted, Bradford took his first northerly voyage to the coast of Labrador. He would repeat this pattern almost every year until 1869, the year he sailed on his most ambitious voyage aboard the steamship Panther making it as far north as Melville Bay.  Prior to this expedition, Bradford hired two professional photographers, John L. Dunmore and George Critcherson, from the Boston firm of J.W. Black.  Wet plate collodian photography at this time was relatively new and difficult to execute, especially in extreme Arctic conditions.

“Seascape with Icebergs”, 1877,
oil on board, 9″ x 14″

As Douglas Wamsley and William Barr state in their essay, Early Photographers of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland,[1]other amateur photographers had successfully photographed the Arctic, including explorer and physician Isaac Israel Hayes. An honored companion aboard the Panther, Dr. Hayes had previously traveled to the Arctic on multiple occasions, including once with Elisha Kent Kane on the Second Grinnell Expedition in search of Sir John Franklin. By comparison, however, Dunmore and Critcherson photographic output surpassed all earlier attempts in both quality and quantity. Their collaboration withBradford proved groundbreaking, providing him a new tool to use as part of his expanded creative process.  While Bradford was not a pioneer of photography, he was certainly an early proponent. He not only adapted to it, he developed with it.

One can easily see how a photograph led to one of Bradford’s paintings by comparing “Cliffs seen on the south side of Karsut Fiord…” to “Seascape with Iceberg”. The photograph was used for reference purposes, much as the artist would use a sketch or study. The benefit of the photograph was that it added an aura of truth to his work. The public, his patrons, no longer needed to imagine how accurately the artist’s renderings were to the actual scene, as the photographs confirmed the vision. Bradford use of this relatively new technology helped him establish his preeminent position as painter of the Arctic.  However, “truth” in the photographic medium was, despite the public’s hunger for the same, not absolute. Adam Greenhalgh wrote in his essay “The Not So Truthful Lens” (Sailing Ships and Arctic Seas) that Bradford, and the photographers he hired were not bound by the materials and process they employed to present just what was produced.Bradford manipulated negatives, suggesting through drawn lines the mast of a ship, even the outline of an ice-berg. This point does not diminish Bradford’s stature, but rather serves to improve upon it. His openness to the useful properties of this relatively new medium demonstrated his flexibility and adaptability. The photo-mechanical rendering of the subject created an opening for the artist to focus on other characteristics of a scene that could not be “captured,” such as color and movement.

Today, the science-infused and art-driven narrative of The Arctic Regions offers a prophetic prelude to current news of the Earth’s current climate situation, as these frozen regions, first photographed under Bradford’s direction, may yet vanish in our lifetime, never to be seen again. Temperature is a fundamental component of climate, and it can have wide-ranging effects on human life and ecosystems. In 2012, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography published the results of an alarming study.  Their data indicated that ocean temperatures are currently rising.  The study contrasts ocean temperature readings of the 1870s with temperatures of modern times, revealing an upward trend of global ocean warming spanning at least 100 years.

Arctic Visions will also emphasize Bradford’s transition to lecturer later in his career, as he used magic lantern slides made primarily from negatives shot during the voyage. We now see that his adoption of this presentation mode began as early as July 7th, 1870 in Phoenix Hall, given to “the first regular meeting of the Fairhaven Union Association for Christian Work.” Fifteen years later, Bradford reached the pinnacle for authoritative lecturers by presenting his series of four Bradford Recitals to the American Geographical Society inNew York City. The exhibit will include a narrated version of his first lecture “Life and Scenery in the Far North – Views from the Panther Voyage” as he presented it in 1885.

Arctic Regions describes Bradford’s journey more than 143 years ago.  His words still give us a way to think about our world today, suggesting we pay attention, and savor each moment.

Leaving the others to their various pursuits, I wandered, sketch-book in hand, on my particular mission. But there were so many elements of novelty around me to attract or distract the attention, it was difficult to do more than sketch some outlines, which possibly may be reproduced at some future day. At length, I became so fascinated by the sense that I actually threw myself upon the ice, the more absolutely to enjoy it.

The Museum will present subscriber and trade copies of the first re-published editions of The Arctic Regions prior to the opening of the exhibit. The book, originally published in 1873, is an exemplar of an early photographically illustrated book. No more than 300 books were made. It has been a prized possession of museums and libraries on both sides of the Atlantic, and a few fortunate collectors. Now, for the first time, The New Bedford Whaling Museum will make this book available to the general public.


[1] “Early Photographers of the Canadian Arctic and Greenland”, Imaging the Arctic, ed. by J.C.H. King and H. Lidchi, U. of Washington Press, 1998.

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