William Bradford

American,  1823–1892

Caught in the Ice Floes, c. 1867
Oil on canvas
37 1/2 x 55 1/4 in. (95.25 x 140.3 cm)
New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts

William Bradford dedicated his life to exploring and painting in the waters near Newfoundland and Greenland. Organizing his own expeditions, he traveled seven times to the Arctic between 1861 and 1869.

Many paintings by Bradford were inspired by mariners’ firsthand accounts of sealing exploits off the Canadian coast of Labrador, where hundreds of thousands of Greenland harp seals were slaughtered over a month-long period. A sealing vessel often transported a dozen small boats, each manned by four people who clubbed or shot the animals with a rifle before skinning them.

Bradford’s paintings reveal the darker side of the Euro-American presence in the Arctic. In Caught in the Ice Floes, he dramatizes the disaster faced by three sealing ships off the Labrador coast. In part, Bradford painted these Arctic disasters that appealed to the public because they helped him earn a living. However, the beauty of the region—its color and light effects—fascinated him as much as the stories.