The mysterious portrait artist of Spring Street

Very little is known about a 19th century New York painter named John Bradley.

He “may have” immigrated to America from Ireland in 1826, the Metropolitan Museum of Art noted. In the 1830s, he was in Staten Island, where he painted portraits of well-known Staten Islanders with last names like Totten, Cole, and Ellis.

In a New York City directory in 1836, however, John Bradley is listed as a portrait painter on Hammersly Street—today’s West Houston Street, according to the National Gallery of Art.

From 1837 to 1843, Bradley was listed at 128 Spring Street. “Bradley’s last address in New York, from 1844 to 1847, was 134 Spring Street,” states the National Gallery. After this, “nothing further has been determined of Bradley’s life or career.”

But Bradley did leave behind some of his portraits—and two, both of little girls, showcase his folk art style and rich attention to detail. They also give us an idea of what well-off little girls in New York wore in the 1840s, from their bonnets to jewelry to dresses down to their slippers.

“Little Girl in Lavender,” at top, was done in 1840. The second portrait, from 1844, is of two-year-old Emma Homan, whose father ran the first omnibuses in the city. Both works would have been painted while Bradley was on Spring Street—a desirable address in a fashionable area at the time.

John Bradley’s studio was at this corner in the 1840s.

Today at his former Spring Street addresses, no building survives that could have housed Bradley’s studio. Here’s the corner where it once was, at Greene Street, above. The mid-19th century Spring Street of small houses is long gone.

Emma Homan herself might be the last known connection to Bradley. After moving away from New York City with her family as a girl, she grew up to be botanical artist and writer, at right in an 1897 photo.

[First portrait, National Gallery of Art; second portrait: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

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10 Responses to “The mysterious portrait artist of Spring Street”

  1. beth Says:

    How interesting

  2. Shayne Davidson Says:

    These portraits seem to be full of interesting symbols. I wonder what they meant.

  3. Bob Says:

    “The discovery in England in 2005 of three paintings inscribed “I Bradley” followed by Suffolk locations and dated 1827 (a cow in a field) and 1830 (a pair of portraits), provide a possible clue to the area in England from where the artist came, and indicate that the he did not come to America until 1830 or later.”

  4. Bob Says:

    The discovery in England in 2005 of three paintings inscribed “I Bradley” followed by Suffolk locations and dated 1827 (a cow in a field) and 1830 (a pair of portraits), provide a possible clue to the area in England from where the artist came, and indicate that the he did not come to America until 1830 or later.

  5. Greg Says:

    I’m no art history major, but I thought painters had realism down pat by the 19th century. This looks more like modern art to me, intentionally stylized.

  6. Bob Says:

    More on Bradley, from a seemingly well documented source:

    “John Bradley’s known artistic career ranged from 1827 to 1847. This earlier date of 1827 is based on the October 2005 discovery of a Painting of a Prize Cow in a Field, signed “Drawn by I Bradley, Honington, Suffolk 1827” and a pair of child portraits, signed “I. Bradley, Limner, Suffolk 1830” that were seen at the Athenaeum in Bury St Edmunds on June 15, 2005, and were “consigned to Bonhams Ipswich from a deceased estate.” Mary Axon, of Bonhams, who first examined these pictures (“English canvas and frames”), is certain “that Bradley originated in Suffolk. (1)

    “This new evidence substantiates that he was a resident of East Anglia and did not arrive in America aboard the “Carolina Ann” from Ireland in 1826 as suggested by Mary Childs Black and Stuart P. Feld in their extensive study in 1966 and quoted in several other written accounts on Bradley. And this, of course, brings up the question of what month and year did Bradley arrive in America.

    “The first portrait that definitely places him in America is of Asher Androvette, who is holding a copy of the 29 November 1832 issue of The New York and Richmond County Free Press. (2) Signed and dated “I. Bradley Delin. 1832”, the painting places Bradley working with a Staten Island resident. (3) Thus the date for his arrival in America has to be between 1830 and November 1832. After a thorough investigation of passenger ship lists, four individuals named John Bradley arrived in New York between 1830 and 1832: one on March 27, 1832, aboard the ship “Citizen” out of Liverpool, age 21, listed as Irish and a “laborer”; another on June 14, 1832, abbreviated as Jno. Bradley, on the ship “Robert Peel” out of Hull, age 20, listed as from Great Britain and a farmer; another on August 27, 1832, on the ship “America” out of Liverpool, age 20, listed as from Ireland and a “labourer”; and a boy, aged 15, listed as Irish and a farmer aboard the “William Byrnes” on August 14, 1832. Yet none of these gentlemen, due to either age or occupation, seem likely candidates. A search of Boston and Philadelphia port records and a search of original U.S. naturalization papers with “John Bradley” signatures also produced inconclusive results. (4) Since he was a professional painter in Great Britain prior to his arrival, why is there no record of an immigrant named Bradley, recording his occupation on the ship’s passenger list as “portrait painter” or “limner”? Quite possibly the ship’s records have been lost.

    “While it is known that thirty-three of his oil-on-canvas paintings were created in America in the met- ropolitan area and three, in Suffolk, England, we do not know where three of his half-portraits that are similar in signature, size, and style were created: Woman Before a Pianoforte, Young Boy Feeding Rabbits, and The Cellist. […]”

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks so much Bob for finding this. (And I wouldn’t imagine a John Bradley blog, but I’m glad one exists.) So the mystery deepens. We have less of an idea as to when he arrived in the US, and New York specifically. At least his paintings done in the UK and the US are out there to view.

  7. pontifikator Says:

    The Old Merchant’s House had a child portrait in this same style. I wonder if it was a Bradley.

  8. VirginiaLB Says:

    Ship captains entered ‘Laborer’ for most men in steerage during much of the 19c. It didn’t matter what they actually did for a living. They just had to indicate they would not be a burden on society. You can’t really tell a man’s occupation by the term ‘Laborer’.

    Enjoyed this post, as always. I usually think of folk art like this as based in New England but so interesting to learn about a New York-based artist.

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