The Boisseau in Ilwaco – Nathan Ball Bradley

Alfred Boisseau (1823-1901), Nathan Ball Bradley (1831-1906) (probably), 1886

Alfred Boisseau (1823-1901), Nathan Ball Bradley (1831-1906) (probably), 1886

To answer the second question posed in an earlier post: Who is the Unknown Man in the portrait painted by Alfred Boisseau in 1886 that currently hangs in Ilwaco, Washinghton, I examined a Family Bible that was with the portrait.  The marriage of Harold Frederick Bradley and Mary Blanchard Heron on April 4, 1917, was the first entry. Presuming that the sitter was a relative of the couple, I searched their ancestries.  The correct subject should fit the following criteria:

  • birth date in the 1830s or 1840s since the subject appears to be in his 40s or 50s,
  • residence in 1886 where he [or his photograph] could have been in contact with Alfred Boisseau
  • financial status high enough to afford a fine oil portrait
Nathan Ball Bradley (1831-1906)

Nathan Ball Bradley (1831-1906)

None of the relatives of Mary Blanchard Heron fit the profile, but the Bradley family looked promising. Harold Frederick Bradley was born July 10, 1890 in Bay City, Michigan, the son of Frederick William Bradley and Kate Arnold. His father, Fred W. Bradley, was born in February 1860, also in Bay City, Michigan. His birth date made him too young to be the portrait subject. However, his father, Nathan Ball Bradley, born May 28, 1831 in Lee, Berkshire, Massachusetts, fit the age range.  Nathan Bradley moved to Bay City, Michigan, in 1857 and lived there the rest of his life.  Eventually he became a sawmill owner, the director of the city’s street car system, and the town’s first mayor. Statewide, Michigan’s sugar beet industry exists in part because he was one of the first investors. He was a founder of Alma College. He served as a state senator from 1866 to 1868, and two terms as US Congressman, 1873-1877.  He had the financial wherewithal to pay for a portrait by arguably the finest portrait artist in the region. He could have traveled to Montreal to Boisseau’s studio.  Or, when Boisseau traveled to Saskatchewan in the mid-1880s to see his son, the artist could have painted portraits along the way.  

Biographies of Bradley include photographs. The deep set eyes, hairline, and posture tempted me to believe that the sitter was Nathan B. Bradley, but Watson pointed out that the ears were different sizes. I ruled out Nathan B. Bradley and looked for brothers who would have shared the resemblance. Those who fit the profile had children who would have inherited the portrait.[1]

We found the most likely relative to be Nathan Ball Bradley, H.F. Bradley’s grandfather. We even found images and biographies of him.  The resemblance was strong enough that we thought we’d found the sitter until Watson pointed out that the portrait subject had smaller ears.  She informed us that ears are more unique than fingerprints. Nathan B. Bradley is not the subject.  We found a photograph and biography of Nathan’s brother Henry, but he, too, had big ears.  We checked the genealogy of all the Bradley brothers and found them either too old or with too prolific.  All had offspring who would have inherited the painting.

When I had the portrait professionally photographed, I had told the photographer only half the story when he said, “If I were having my portrait painted, I’d tell the artist to make my ears smaller.”  The conviction in his voice, the conviction of others that the resemblance was otherwise so strong, along with the knowledge that a successful portrait artist will employ artistic license to compliment the appearance of the custoomer, convinced me that the subject is probably Nathan Ball Bradley 1831-1906).

This portrait is for sale: for further information

 [1] Nathan B. Bradley’s brothers were: (1) William, born 28 December 1818 in  Lee, Berkshire County, Massachusetts; died 26 September 1892 in Wellington, Lorain, Ohio; was probably too old for subject of portrait; had children who would have inherited the painting, (2) Charles Dean, born 23 June 1822 inLee, Berkshire County, Massachusetts; died about 1903 in DeSmet, Kingsbury, South Dakota; was probably too old for subject of portrait; had children who would have inherited the painting, (3) Henry Marion, born 17 May 1824 in Lee, Berkshire, Massachusetts was probably too old for subject of portrait; died March 21, 1918 in Duluth, Minnesota; had children who would have inherited a portrait, (4) Frederick Eldridge Bradley, born Jul 1833 in Massachusetts; died after 1900, fits age profile but had children who would have inherited the portrait (5) George A., born, 2 Mar 1838 in Wellington, Lorain County, Ohio, died after 1900; fits age profile but had children who would have inherited the portrait.  Additional information for the biography derived from Marvin Kusmierz, “Nathan Ball Bradley (1831 – 1906): Pioneer and first Mayor of Bay City, MI., (July 2003), 

(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2012
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About Patricia Moss

Patricia Moss is an art historian, or art detective if you will, who solves mysteries of 19th century American portraits. She located nearly 70 of Bingham’s lost portraits, a feat acknowledged by the Smithsonian’s Research and Scholar’s Center. From expertise with portraits of George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), she developed skills that evolved into a comprehensive system based on the scientific method that conforms to the legal and ethical standards of art authentication. Moss served as a guest curator for the Bingham Bicentennial Exhibit, “Steamboats to Steam Engines: George Caleb Bingham’s Missouri: 1819-1879,” (March 10-September 8, 2011) at the Truman Presidential Museum and curated the opening exhibition, “George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History,” (September 2013 –), Jackson County Art Museum, Independence, Missouri. She is also the principal researcher for Fine Art Investigations.
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