One of the most important American exponents of Orientalism, Frederick Arthur Bridgman garnered widespread acclaim for his depictions of daily life in the Near East. During the 1870s and 1880s, Bridgman was considered America’s foremost expatriate painter, acquiring an international reputation for his exotic subjects, ranging from lovely harem women to Arabian horsemen and peasants. Both his art and his lifestyle reflect the spirit of cosmopolitanism that prevailed in the United States in the wake of the Civil War.
Bridgman was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, the son of an itinerant Massachusetts physician whose work had taken him to the South. Although Dr. Bridgman died in 1850, his wife and two sons remained in Tuskegee, and it was there that Frederick first became interested in drawing and painting; by the age of ten he was studying art at the Tuskegee Seminary.
Bridgman’s family eventually moved to Boston and then to New York. Aware of her son’s artistic inclinations, Bridgman’s mother secured him an apprenticeship at the American Bank Note Company, where he learned the art of engraving. However, eager to become a painter, he attended evening drawing classes at the Brooklyn Art Association before studying at the school of the National Academy of Design from 1863 to 1865.
In 1866 Bridgman left his engraver’s position. Funded by a group of Brooklyn businessmen he went to Paris, enrolling in classes at the Atelier Suisse. He also began spending his summers in the artists’ colony in Pont-Aven, Brittany where, along with American painters such as Robert Wylie, he painted peasant subjects.
In February of 1867 Bridgman commenced a period of study at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, spending the next four years in the studio of the noted academic figure painter Jean-Léon Gérôme. His experience there proved vital to his artistic development; indeed, Bridgman was deeply influenced by Gérôme’s meticulous realism, his emphasis on archaeological accuracy, precise draftsmanship, smooth finish, and his concern for Eastern themes.
So inspired, Bridgman made his first trip to North Africa during 1872-1873, dividing his time between Algeria and Egypt. While visiting cities such as Tangier, Biskra and Cairo, as well as an array of small desert villages, he made three hundred sketches, which became the source material for his oils. He went on to paint interiors, streetscapes and scenes of the domestic lives of women--subjects that would preoccupy him for the remainder of his career.
Bridgman continued to make numerous visits to Algeria throughout the 1870s and 1880s, amassing a collection of costumes, antiques and bric-a-brac that he used as props in his paintings. He also transformed a building behind his house at 144 rue Malesherbes in Paris into a lavish, palatial studio. A talented penman, Bridgman wrote a series of articles based on his trips to North Africa which were published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine in 1888. The same essays, complemented by new material concerning his earlier trips to Algeria, appeared in book form as Winters in Algeria (1890).
Bridgman came into artistic prominence during the mid-1870s when his oil, The Burial of a Mummy on the Nile (location unknown), won a medal at the Paris Salon in 1877. Critics responded favorably to the work, comparing his painstaking realism to that of Gérôme. Bridgman’s fame spread when the painting was reproduced as an engraving and eventually purchased by James Gordon Bennett, the owner of the New York Herald. During that same year, the artist married Florence Mott Baker, an affluent Bostonian, and settled permanently in France.
Bridgman’s career was at its height in 1881, when he exhibited over three hundred works at the American Art Gallery in New York. The show was a critical and financial success and led to Bridgman’s election as an academician of the National Academy of Design during that same year. He had a similar exhibition at the Fine Arts Society in London in 1887, as well as a solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1890. In addition to the National Academy of Design, Bridgman also exhibited regularly at the Société des Artistes Français in Paris and the Royal Academy of Arts in London.
In the 1880s, Bridgman modified his academic realism. Moving away from the meticulous style advocated by Gérôme, he adopted a more naturalistic aesthetic, emphasizing bright colors and painterly brushwork. He also turned away from his teacher’s ethnological subjects in favor of his own highly personal interpretation of life in the East. Later in his career, Bridgman also painted landscapes, classical, historical and biblical subjects and murals--in addition to playing the violin, composing music and writing poetry. In 1898, he published L’Anarchie dans l’art, a treatise in which he expressed his opposition to Impressionism; Bridgman felt that the movement was largely responsible for the waning interest in Orientalist and academic subjects that occurred during the 1890s.
Following the death of his first wife in 1901, Bridgman married Marthe Yaeger in 1904. After the first world war, during which time he lost much of his money gambling, the artist sold his home in Paris and moved to Lyon-la-Forêt in Normandy.
Bridgman continued to paint up until his death in Rouen, France in 1928. Although largely forgotten in the ensuing years, his extraordinary career has recently been revived by scholars of late nineteenth-century American art and by the increasing interest, on the part of collectors and the public, in Orientalist art.
Examples of Bridgman’s work can be found in public and private collections throughout the United States, including the National Academy of Design, New York; the National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York; the Brooklyn Museum, New York; and the Forbes Collection, New York.
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