National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 8 (IV:2), 1966

Annual Index
Author & Subject

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'Drawn by I. Bradley From Great Britton'

by Mary Childs Black, Director
Museum of Early American Folk Art, New York 
and Stuart P. Feld, Associate Curator
of American Paintings and Sculpture
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Résumé en français

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The first article on the nineteenth-century American folk painter John Bradley, written by Jean Lipman, appeared in Art in America more than twenty years ago. On the basis off our signed portraits, dating from 1832 to 1845, forty-five other paintings, all portraits, were attributed to him. Now, after years of additional study, none of these attributions can be accepted. Twenty-nine of the subjects, residents of Connecticut and New York State, are now attributed on the basis of firm stylistic and genealogical evidence to Ammi Phillips, an artist who has himself only recently emerged from the anonymity of the Border Limner and the Kent Limner (see Antiques, December 1961). (1) Three of the original number are assigned to Erastus Salisbury Field on like grounds, (2) while the remaining portraits appear to be by three or more artists who have yet to be identified.

The four signed portraits by Bradley are unquestionably close to some of the paintings at present attributed to Phillips, but because the article dealt so largely with works by other hands, it established a broad stylistic base that allowed for attribution to Bradley of such pictures as Boy Holding Dog and Girl with Flower Basket, both in the collection of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection at Williamsburg. As a result of the confusion of the work of Phillips and Bradley, the early study of Bradley forwarded conclusions about his activity in western Connecticut and New York State. Interestingly, these conclusions stood in direct contrast to those that could have been drawn from the few documented facts that were available. Listings in the New York City directories for the period 1836 through 1847 establish John Bradley as a 'portrait and miniature painter' at three different locations: first at 56 Hammersley Street, in 1836-37, next at 128 Spring Street, in 1837-44, and, finally, at 134 Spring Street, in 1844-47, all ad dresses in the general area of present-day Houston Street. Further, a pair of dated portraits of Mr and Mrs Simon Content, who lived on neighbouring Grand Street, pushed his activity in the city back to 1833.

Since the Lipman article little more has been learned concerning Bradley himself, aside from a few evocative notices that seem to relate to him and the conclusions that can be drawn from the 18 additional portraits by him that have come to light. All of these are signed, and all are dated or bear ad dresses that establish their dates within a fixed span of years.

While Bradley does not appear in the New York directories until 1836, a dozen portraits by him date between 1832 and 1834. The subject of only one, The Cellist, (Fig. 1) in the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., has not been identified. Of the rest, the Contents lived in Manhattan, and the remaining nine were residents of Staten Island, suggesting that Bradley himself may have lived there, or may have spent considerable time there. A search of Staten Island church, genealogical, and historical records reveals the presence of only one John Bradley there between 1830 and 1850, but that listing is worthy of some note. A little more than three weeks before the date of June 19 inscribed on one of Bradley's five portraits of members of the Totten family of Staten Island, the scribe of the Moravian Church recorded that John Bradley from Sailors' Snug Harbor - a sailors' home established by the will of Richard Randall in 1801 'for aged, decrepit and worn out Sailors' - became 'Deranged 27 May 1834: Since John Bradley the painter had been associated with Staten Island as early as May 1833, the date of his first known portraits of Staten Islanders, it may be that mad John Bradley, who finally died in 1838, was an older relative. It was probably during his visits to the Island to see his namesake that John Bradley the portrait painter received the various commissions that have inextricably associated him with the Island.

Bradley's earliest painting, which is also his most widely known work, is The Cellist, which is signed and dated '1. Bradley Deli" 1832: Although it is considerably smaller in size than any of Bradley's other works. it is his only full-length portrait of an adult. The subject, whose name and home are unknown, holds a cello as he sits on a bench before a pianoforte, on which is a book of music opened to a piece called MILDRED COURT. P. M. A pitch pipe and figured silk scarf lie at his side. The picture is a fully realized likeness, quickly painted but beautifully composed. It is a portrait d'apparat in the eighteenth-century sense, with Bradley depicting his subject along with objects that are obviously meant to reveal his interests and preoccupations. Unquestionably, Bradley was as careful to capture a good likeness of his sitter as he was to show the carpet, the piano, the bench, and the other objects with which he surrounded the musician.

The unique style that Bradley used in the short decade and a half that encompasses all his known works is visible in his earliest: the portrait has a hard, sharp, liney quality, in which silhouette is used to great advantage. In contrast to other self-taught painters of the period, who often used heavy dark lines to outline their forms, Bradley outlined heads, hands and other elements with a line of white paint that gave an unusual sense of depth and volume to his rather flat forms. His favourite scheme of colour is already apparent in the brilliant dark-green figured carpet, the rich red drapery with gold tassels, and the medium-brown background.

The first of Bradley's Staten Island sitters were Captain John Cole {Fig. 2) and his wife Catherine Rachel Winant Cole {Fig. 3), whose portraits Bradley dated 1 May 1833, when Cole was 26 and his wife 19. The Coles had been married in December 1831 in Woodrow Methodist Church, Staten Island; Cole was described as a' "waterman" of Westfield', a community on Staten Island. Both portraits have been badly damaged and extensively repainted, especially in the heads, but details of Bradley's crystalline style remain in the hands and in the costumes. Bradley's colours are repeated in the red drapery {again with gold tassels), in the red book in Mrs Cole's hand, and in the green baize table cover upon which Cole rests his hand on a brown leather book with the title History of the United States.

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