Frederick Bridgman was born in Alabama, the son of an itinerant doctor from Massachusetts. His father died when Frederick was only three years old and, sensing the north-south tensions prior to the Civil War, his mother decided to return with her two sons to Boston in the north. However they soon moved to New York where Frederick, already showing artistic talent, joined the American Banknote Company as an apprentice engraver. But in spite of his progress and the opportunities for rapid promotion, he preferred to dedicate his time to painting, taking evening drawing classes first at the Brooklyn Art Association, then at the National Academy of Design. It is recounted that he even rose at 4 o'clock every morning to paint before going to work.
Bridgman's studies soon produced results and in 1865 and again in 1866 he exhibited works at the Brooklyn Art Association. Encouraged by his success he gave up his job and in 1866, with the sponsorship of a group of Brooklyn businessmen, set out for Paris. However he soon found himself in Pont-Avent, the small village in Brittany which was home to an American artist colony under the charismatic leadership of Robert Wylie (1839-1877) who painted dramatic rural landscapes. He stayed there for two summers, thinking also of becoming a landscape painter like Wylie.
In the autumn of 1866 Bridgman joined the atelier of Jean-Léon Gérôme in Paris. But entry was not easy since, officially, the ateliers of the École des Beaux-Arts were all full. His friend the painter Thomas Eakins went to great lengths pulling strings to enable entry of a group of American students, amongst whom were Eakins himself, Earl Shinn, the future Orientalist Harry Humphrey Moore, and Bridgman. He remained there for four years, spending his summers at Pont-Aven with Wylie.
Bridgman was soon exhibiting at the Paris Salons and his A Provincial Circus had much success at the Salon of 1870, so much so that he then sent it to America for exhibition at the Brooklyn Art Association. At this time he also had one of his canvases engraved for reproduction in the journal Le Monde Illustré and began to sell some of his work to the dealer Goupil, Gérome's father-in-law.
He spent the period of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune painting rural scenes in Pont-Aven and in Spain. The winter of 1872-3 he spent in Spain and North Africa accompanied by an unknown English painter friend. Starting first in Tangiers, which he found picturesque but was apalled by the poverty, they quickly moved on, first by boat to Oran, then by train to Algeria - a country he found more conducive. There they lodged at a hotel in Biskra whilst renting an atelier in the poor quarter. In the evenings they sampled the local nightlife and their afternoons they spent exploring the surrounding villages and oases on horseback. Here they found the local colour they were looking for - the crowds in the markets, the belly-dancers, even witnessing a fencing duel between two soldiers of the Biskra regiment. While there Bridgman worked assiduously, returning to Paris in the spring of 1873 with numerous painted canvases, oil sketches, pencil and ink drawings, together with some costumes and accessories he had used in his atelier.
The favourable response to his Algerian scenes in Paris led him to plan another visit to North Africa the following winter. Accompanying him this time was Charles Sprague Pearce, a student of Bonnat, whom he had met in the south of France the previous winter. Arriving in Cairo in December 1873, they worked in the city producing numerous sketches of the Islamic monuments, but also the street life, which was Bridgman's main inspiration. Then, encouraged by an enthusiastic English couple they had met at the opera, they set off to travel up the Nile, a journey lasting three-and-a-half months. They sailed as far as the Second Cataract and visited Abu-Simbel. Bridgman brought back to Paris over three hundred sketches and studies and yet more studio accessories.
In Paris he rented an atelier in the same building as Pearce and another American, E H Blashfield. There he commenced painting several ambitious reconstructions of antique Egyptian life, seeming to have forgotten his original ambition of being a landscape artist of the Bretan or Algerian countryside! The first, The Mummy's Funeral, was exhibited at the Salon of 1877 and was remarkably successful, becoming an exhibition favourite. It was engraved, copied and finally bought by the proprietor of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett. His reputation then made, he married a young heiress from Boston, Florence Mott Baker.
The peak of his career probably came with the mounting of a personal exhibition displaying over three hundred of his works at the American Art Gallery, the major innovation of this exhibition being the inclusion of a large number of his sketches besides the usual new paintings and prints of older works. His work was highly praised not only for the variety of subjects but also the fine quality of their execution, their frankness, fidelity, freshness and beauty. Following this success, Bridgman was elected a member of the National Academy of Design.
In the winter of 1885-6, Bridgman returned to Algiers with his wife, not just to work but because of his wife's failing health (she was showing signs of a hereditary neurological illness) - the climate there was much kinder and life more peaceful. However he could also return to his favourite compositional subject - daily Algerian life. He lodged his wife and family at a hotel and obtained for himself the services of a guide, Belkassem, who found him a place to work in the Casbah. It was the tiny home of a widow called Baia who lived there with her seven year old daughter, Zohr. He worked from a shady corner of their terrace from which vantage point he could paint both domestic scenes and daily life on the street. He became a good friend of the family and carried on a correspondence with Baia long after his return to France.
In 1888 Bridgman published a long fully illustrated account of his stay in Algiers in Harper's Monthly Magazine. It was taken from his larger, more complete publication of the same year entitled Winters in Algiers which also described his previous stays in the city and which was sumptuously illustrated with wood engravings of his drawings and paintings.
The next decade was a period of uninterrupted success. He was honoured with having five works displayed at the 1889 Universal Exhibition in Paris. The following year a personal exhibition, similar to that of 1881, of about 400 of his pictures took place at Fifth Avenue Galleries in New York. When it moved on to Chicago it contained less than a hundred of these works - evidence of significant sales, enabling him to significantly expand his Parisian home on the Boulevard Malesherbes. Its extravagant decor in classical and oriental style led the artist John Singer Sargent to say that it was one of the two sights worth visiting Paris to see; the other being the Eiffel tower!
There he continued to paint even more exotic North African scenes. However, feeling a need for new subject matter, he later made an attempt at a symbolist style, even turning to society portraiture, and then, in the 1890's, returning to historical and biblical themes just like his mentor Gérôme. But non of this later work was as successful as his Orientalist compositions of the previous decade.
In 1901 Bridgman's wife, Florence, finally succumbed to her lengthy illness and died. Three years after this he married again, at the age of 54, to Marthe Yaeger. The marriage was to be long and happy.
In 1907 he bacame an Officer of the French Legion of Honour. However after the First World War, his popularity declined and he moved out of Paris to Lyons-la-Forêt in Normandy where, although continuing to paint, he died in 1928 almost forgotten by his former admiring public.
Along with his fellow-countryman Edwin Lord Weeks, Frederick Arthur Bridgman is considered to be one of the doyens of the American Orientalist school.
[Ref: "Les Orientalistes de L'École Américaine", Gerald M Ackerman trans. C-M Diebold, ACR Edition, 1994]