Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on October 16, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Brauer Museum of Art, Valparaiso University and Gregg Hertzlieb. The essay was previously included in a 2001 illustrated brochure published by the Museum. Images accompanying the text in the illustrated brochure were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the illustrated brochure, please contact Brauer Museum of Art through either this phone number or web address:



 

Sun Rise, 1870, An Arctic Landscape by the Artist William Bradford (1823-1892)

by Gregg Hertzlieb

 

A fine Arctic landscape by the artist William Bradford (1823-1892) joins the Brauer Museum of Art's collection of important American paintings. This small, luminous work of 1870, entitled Sun Rise, is the generous gift of Shirley and Karl Kreft. Mr. Kreft is a member of the Board of Directors of Valparaiso University and has demonstrated his support of the university on numerous occasions. The many nineteenth century landscapes in the Brauer galleries, by Junius Sloan, Asher B. Durand, John Frederick Kensett, and others, are enhanced by the addition of this jewel-like work.

Mr. and Mrs. Kreft originally purchased the painting from Saks Gallery in Denver, Colorado. Owner Mikkel Saks acquired the work from Mr. George B. Kelley, a distant relative of Bradford's. A letter from Kelley to Saks (included in the Kreft's donation, along with two vintage photographs of Bradford and his wife, Mary Breed) explains that Sun Rise was a gift to Kelley's grandmother and grandfather and, according to Kelley, "...has always been in our family." Supplemental materials, such as Kelley's letter and the two antique photos, are valued additions to the museum's files, since they record and preserve the history of a cultural artifact.

Bradford lived and worked in a time when American artists were filled with the desire to explore new territories to capture and celebrate the grandeur of nature. Hudson River School painters such as Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Asher B. Durand explored and depicted the dramatic landscapes of the Catskill Mountain area of the eastern United States to give viewers a sense of the majestic scenery and light that could be found in the pristine, untamed American wilderness. The western United States also was a major source of inspiration for artists of that time, as seen particularly well in the spectacular paintings of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, whose works present the rich red light and dry spaciousness of the canyons and plains. Junius Sloan was an artist who both admired and emulated the Hudson River School's working techniques, in addition to sharing their reverence for the American landscape. However, Sloan ultimately based his artistic explorations on sights closer to his home, choosing to portray the peaceful midwestern prairie and its unique manifestation of the sublime.

William Bradford, a native of New Bedford, Massachusetts, shared with the artists of his time the urge to explore and witness the expressive potential of the landscape. His choice of subject, though, was more exotic than that of his peers. Bradford focused on the Arctic seas, littered with icebergs and the varied configurations they assumed. With both camera and paintbrush, Bradford investigated the relationships between ice formations, rocky shorelines, atmospheric effects, and (frequently) masted sailing ships. Although his body of work does include fine paintings of the western mountains and other subjects, his Arctic pictures and maritime studies are the basis for his enduring legacy. These works show clearly the artist's fascination with the products of nature, as well as his adventurous spirit.

Bradford's black and white photographs are beautifully composed and interesting to behold, documenting the curiously alien and even threatening appearance of a frozen land. His paintings give the Arctic atmosphere a less threatening aspect, due to the warmth and depth of the color, as well as the meticulous brushstrokes that add details to the forms. Sun Rise is a good example of this point, as it demonstrates the artist's ability to give a sense of grand scale and stillness and at the same time convey a feeling of intimacy. As viewers draw in more closely to the small painting to inspect the shapes, tones, and textures, they see the work as the artist saw it during its creation, built with layers of transparent color lying lightly on the smoothly prepared surface. The shoreline rocks in the foreground and icebergs in the distance seemed to sparkle with the dabs of thin pigment that define the forms, while the horizon line glows with a deep orange that fades to a light yellow and, finally, a soft green. This unusual light radiating from the meeting line of sea and sky bathes the oddly shaped ice forms in surprising colors; the distant icebergs, for example, appear lit from within by complex purple tones. Interestingly, Bradford's subtle modulations of color in the sky are mirrored in the Arctic sea, an effect that dissolves any hard distinction between the land and sky above. The painting overall presents a hazy, yet crisply cold atmosphere, lit by a sun that provides a visual warmth as its rays are refracted in complex ways to produce an almost surreal clarity and palette.

In discussing this painting, viewers may find themselves using words such as "reflection" and "illumination." The aforementioned oranges, yellows, and greens in the water are, after all, colors that are reflections of ones in the sky. However, in another sense of the word, Bradford is painting his personal, thoughtful reflection on the divine landscape he sees before him. Through this act, Bradford gains illumination by deriving a greater understanding of the natural world and his artistic or even spiritual relationship to it. The Brauer Museum of Art is very grateful to Shirley and Karl Kreft for giving museum visitors an opportunity to reflect and possibly find themselves illuminated by their experience with a lovely work of art.

 

About the author

Gregg Hertzlieb is director of the Brauer Museum of Art.

 

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