Laurence’s Alaska: The ‘invulnerable’ landscapes of the painter of the North

A painting of a man standing near a campfire in Alaska
“Supper on the Mendenhall” by Sydney Laurence

The paintings of Sydney Laurence depict an Alaska where nature is big, and people are small.

by Amy Condra

This article was originally published in the Juneau Empire.

A man carries a bundle of sticks to a fire built on the bank of a river, to a speck of yellow that barely stands out against a darkening streak of sky.

A lone log cabin is seen from a distance that reveals the depth of its solitude; it is surrounded by several Sitka spruce fading into a forest, one that deepens into mountains so vast they range out of view.

Finally, and most frequently, Mount McKinley rises from a swirling mist tinged with purple and blue, looming above the landscape, indifferent to the world below.

The paintings of Sydney Laurence depict an Alaska where nature is big, and people are small.

“That is a place where people are weak and insignificant, where landscapes are large and entirely invulnerable,” said Kesler Woodward, Professor of Art Emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and author of “Sydney Laurence, Painter of the North.”

Woodward notes that Laurence, who came here at the turn of the last century and became, by the 1920s, a well-known artist in Anchorage and throughout the region, was the first professionally trained painter to make Alaska his longtime home.

Although his work is relatively unknown outside of the Pacific Northwest, the scenes Laurence created can be hard to miss in Alaska; his paintings, and reproductions of those works can be found in museums, in the lobbies of banks and hospitals, and in galleries, gift shops and drugstores throughout the region.

“Because he was such a skilled painter and brought his training and skills to landscapes, his vision dominated not only that of other artists, but of almost everyone who saw his work,” said Woodward, who spoke about Laurence at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum last Wednesday,

Addison Field, Curator of Collections and Exhibits at the city museum, agrees that Laurence’s influence has extended far beyond the realm of art, shaping our perceptions of the Alaska landscape.

“His views documented our history; they became Alaska to us,” Field said.

Challenging Laurence’s vision

Woodward believes that certain themes found in Laurence’s work might be worth a second look.

“The idea of the land being so much more powerful than people, of people not having any effect on the land, can be dangerous,” he said. “We have learned that people can very much affect the landscape.”

Laurence’s model is a stalwart standby for many regional artists, who emulate his romantic images of Alaska as an untamed frontier.

“After Laurence, all of us who make images of Alaska landscapes have to make a choice — either to follow his model, or find models of our own,” Woodward said. “But I and many other contemporary artists are trying to look for other directions. There are as many different attitudes toward the land as there are people painting it. In my own work, I don’t see this as a place to be conquered, or tamed, or in conflict with — I see it as a place we are privileged to live in, a place where we will always be visitors.”

Christine Crooks, a member of the local artists’ group Plein Rein Painters, acknowledged Laurence’s lingering sway over how Alaska is portrayed, and his “in-depth impact” on our perceptions of Alaska.

“These days, we may see all the shows out there about Alaska and think, ‘Oh, no, not another dogsled!’” Crooks said. “In Laurence’s day, there just wasn’t the level of examination of Alaska that there is now. He made the rest of the world aware of Alaska’s beauty, its grandeur.”

Another side of Laurence

Courtesy of the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, “Early Morning, Juneau, Alaska” by Sydney Laurence

When the staff of the Juneau-Douglas City Museum learned that the Plein Rein Painters had asked Woodward to come to Juneau to teach a painting class, they asked if he would be available to give a lecture while he was in town.

“We were lucky enough to have him be in our public program,” Field said. “I think this is one of the most popular — it is certainly the biggest — lectures we have had in this facility.”

Woodward said that at last week’s talk he spoke more frankly about Laurence’s life than he usually does — especially about those elements of the artist’s life that aren’t generally known.

“I talked about the real process of making a living as an artist, the price of success,” said Woodward, adding that Laurence was, like other artists, making art that is collected, driven by a ready market.

Laurence, who was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1865, studied in New York City and in St. Ives, England, before becoming an artist-correspondent for newspapers during the Spanish American War and the Boxer Rebellion.

In 1903 he left a wife and two young sons in England and ventured to Alaska.

Laurence’s family had remained largely unknown until 1990, when Woodward organized a retrospective of Laurence’s work for the Anchorage Museum of History and Art.

“A local TV station did a lot of research about Laurence’s life, and dug that out,” said Woodward. “It was a great surprise to everyone when we heard about this first family that hadn’t been acknowledged, about a wife Laurence had never divorced even though he was remarried in 1928 to someone else.”

North to Alaska

Why did Laurence come to Alaska?

“He said he came to Alaska as all the other suckers did — he was looking for gold!” Woodward said. “I think he just got wanderlust, he liked the sense of adventure. He probably didn’t intend to stay, but like most of us who come for a year, he ended up living here.”

After filing a few mining claims, Laurence traveled throughout Alaska, painting scenes in places like Cordova, Valdez, and, eventually, a spot 10 miles south of Mount McKinley.

“He painted more pictures of Mount McKinley than anything else,” said Woodward. “His first paintings of the mountain are in 1910 or 1911, then through the teens, the ’20s, the ’30s — it quits being about the landscape and more about the mountain as an iconic symbol of Alaska.”

“The other reason he painted it,” Woodward added, “was that it was popular — he had standing orders for paintings of Mount McKinley, for places like (Belle Goldstein Simpson’s) Nugget Shop in Juneau. He admitted he was sick of painting Mount McKinley, and was cranking them out, but he had to do it — it was a ready market.”

That ready market hasn’t gone away — the desire for Laurence’s work is still strong, to the degree that his work has inspired copies.

“There are lots of fakes, misattributions, and just misunderstandings, ranging from outright forgeries, to paintings by other artists with his signature added, to (the most frequent) hand-tinted photographs of his paintings that were sold, near the end of his life, from him, and in much greater volume by Hewitt’s Drug Store in Anchorage, Griffin’s in Fairbanks, and Dedman’s Photo in Skagway, beginning in the 1940s,” Woodward said.

“Those weren’t sold as anything other than what they are,” he added, “but many people… show them to me, thinking they have a Laurence original.”

Crooks said that as an artist, she was intrigued by the process used to duplicate Laurence’s paintings, especially the hand-tinted photographs, and could understand the desire for them.

“People snapped them up!” she said, noting that such reproductions remain popular. “I certainly couldn’t afford an original Picasso, but it would be nice to get a print of one and hang it in my house.”

Woodward, who used more than 100 slides to illustrate his lecture, also explained what to look for when assessing a piece of Laurence’s artwork, such as which signature he used at various points in his life, and what kind of labels were affixed to the back of the paintings.

“People see his paintings, and it’s nice to know what they’re looking at, whether they’re seeing real ones or reproductions,” said Woodward.

Does Woodward think that Laurence’s work would have been different, if he hadn’t had to follow the dictates of the marketplace?

“I would have liked to have seen him make fewer paintings, and to make more varied ones, but the reality is that while he was turning out what he frankly referred to as potboilers, he was also taking time and making masterpieces,” said Woodward. “When he was focused, he was truly a remarkable painter.”

“Being able to make a living, provide for his wife, turn out images that have meant a lot to a lot of people,” added Woodward, “enabled him to make the significant number of masterpieces that he did.”