In 1904, Sydney Laurence, an artist approaching the age of 40, deserted his family and moved to Alaska. Though some may find his decision objectionable, his paintings would come to define Alaska’s image as the final frontier to Americans longing for a bygone era.
As prominent as his name remains in Alaska, he is little-known now in most other parts of the country. Also little-known is information about his early life, which “has become embellished with legend,” according to “Sydney Laurence, Painter of the North,” written by Fairbanks resident and painter Kesler E. Woodward.
We do know that Laurence was born on October 14, 1865, in Brooklyn, New York, and that he later attended the nearby Peekskill Military Academy. There is a widely circulated account that Laurence stowed away on a ship as a teenager, survived a shipwreck, and even saved the ship captain’s life. This story is apocryphal, though, according to the website, sydneylaurence.com, which also contains background on the artist and thumbnails of some of his paintings.
Laurence learned to paint at the Art Students League in New York, and he was exhibiting his work in New York City by the late 1880s. He married one Alexandrina Dupre on May 18, 1889. After honeymooning at Cornwall, in the southwestern part of England, they chose to live there, making a home in the coastal town of St. Ives, the site of a burgeoning artist colony.
He began exhibiting with the Royal Society of British Artists and also worked as an illustrator-correspondent, covering conflicts in South Africa where he (reportedly) was clubbed in the head by a Zulu warrior. He also covered the Spanish- American War.
Back at home in Cornwall, two sons, Leslie and Eugene, were born. Laurence now had a family to support. Where he lived, there were many artists, which meant a lot of competition for patrons. It remains unknown, however, if this financial stress was the reason he abandoned his family in 1904 and headed all the way to Alaska.
While living in Tyonek, in the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Laurence received picture postcards of his wife and sons. One card read: “Dear Daddy, I am 2 years and 5 months now and hope you are coming home to stay very soon.” It is unknown if Laurence ever replied.
Records show that Laurence filed a mining claim in 1906. In the census four years later, he is documented as living in Beluga, Alaska, and his occupation is listed as “mining.” He also prospected for oil. And he continued to paint, finding inspiration in such settings as the Susitna River.
Laurence later resided in Valdez, where he launched a photography studio. His paintings began selling in Juneau and in a chain of department stores in the Midwest. These Alaska works tend to show a natural world taking precedence over the human one. Humans, when depicted at all, are often in the background, busy with some task that applies to frontier life.
The wild grandeur he captured in his portrayals of such subjects as Mt. McKinley–which he painted hundreds of times–proved alluring to customers who saw an America increasingly subjugated by man and his machines.
It’s estimated that Laurence, who died in Anchorage in 1940, produced some- where approaching 5,000 paintings during his career. Many of these were “potboilers,” admittedly cranked out “like having a pancake for breakfast every morning.”
Today, his work can be found at the Anchorage Museum and the Alaska State Museum, among other venues. His paintings have sold at The Coeur d’Alene Art Auction for prices ranging from $9,360 to $235,200.
When Laurence came to Alaska in 1904 he found enough material to keep him busy for the rest of his life. And he captured enough in his paintings to preserve the final frontier forever.