After closing his failing clothing store business, Bradford turned to what had been his hobby: drawing and painting ships. Though he had no formal instruction, Bradford sold enough paintings to New Bedford whaling merchants to support himself and his family. Bradford went to New York in 1854 where he studied and worked with the Dutch marine painter Albert van Beest. Van Beest and Bradford soon returned to New Bedford together and set up a studio. Once Bradford became more established in galleries, he moved to his own studio in Boston and then, in 1864, to a space in New York’s 10th Street Studio Building which he kept until 1877.
In the early 1860s, Bradford began going on a series of expeditions to Labrador and Newfoundland. These trips provided material for his best-known works and launched his career. Bradford and his family traveled to San Francisco in 1875 and remained there until 1881. He then returned to New York where he continued to paint and to lecture on his expeditions to the Arctic.