Sydney Laurence: Northern Exposures From A Brooklyn Boy

-- The Whatcom Museum will host a free two-part lecture series by Thomas Schlotterback, professor at Western Washington University, who will explore Sydney Laurence's place among 19th-century landscape painters. The lectures are set for 7:30 p.m. Oct. 4 and 18 in the museum.

``Sydney Laurence: Painter of the North,'' on view through Nov. 25 at the Whatcom Museum of History and Art, 121 Prospect St., Bellingham. 1-676-6981. Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, and 7 to 10 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5, for the Bellingham Fall Gallery Walk. Free.

The most famous painter of the grandeur of Alaska's landscape was born in Brooklyn.

Sydney Mortimer Laurence was an unlikely hero for Alaskans. Born in 1865, when Alaska was regarded by New Yorkers as somewhere beyond the ends of the Earth, Laurence studied art at the National Academy in New York, then moved to England, where he became a member of the Royal Society of British Artists, and exhibited in the Paris Salon shows.

Nothing could have been further from his mind than the frozen peaks of Mount McKinley. Yet he painted the mountain so often and so devotedly in later years that Alaskans themselves began to see their beloved mountain through Laurence's eyes.

Some of those versions of McKinley are on view in a show of Laurence's paintings and drawings that opened yesterday at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham. The show, ``Sydney Laurence: Painter of the North,'' was organized by the Anchorage Museum of History and Art as a tribute marking the 50th anniversary of Laurence's death, one month short of his 75th birthday.

The show is enriched by a splendid catalog published by The University of Washington Press, and written by Kesler Woodward, associate professor of art at the University of Alaska, and visiting research fellow at Dartmouth College.

As Woodward points out, ``One of the great opportunities afforded by a retrospective exhibition of this kind is that it brings to light not only new biographical information, but some paintings not acknowledged in the literature on Laurence, and with them a fresh opportunity to look at how his work evolved.''

One such find for Alaskans is one of Laurence's largest paintings, a 14-foot-wide panorama of ``Cordova Bay,'' which is in the collection of the Whatcom Museum. Laurence painted the pristine bay in 1909, from a nearby mountaintop, on commission from a Bellingham photographer, E.A. Hegg, who employed Laurence to hand-tint photographs for a brief period.

Hegg took the painting to Bellingham, but it was too big to be shown anywhere until the old Bellingham City Hall was converted into a museum in 1940 - coincidentally the year of Laurence's death.

Laurence was drawn to Alaska in 1903, to search for gold. It is said that he went there planning never to paint again. He filed claims, and listed his occupation as ``miner.''

A biography of Laurence by Lynn Francisco-Casella describes how Laurence lost his gold in a shipwreck, was washed ashore and almost froze to death, was nursed back to health by natives, and refused medical advice to have his legs amputated.

He picked up the brush again, it is said, only to raise a grubstake. His earliest known Alaskan paintings are modest oils of ``Tyonek, Alaska'' and ``Mouth of the Susitna River,'' both done in 1905. Both paintings are in the Bellingham show.

Laurence had found his real subject in the vast frontier of Alaska. Seen in evocative golden half-light, its mountains and snowfields emerge in his paintings as a land that dwarfs human accomplishment.

The atmosphere that envelops his paintings, and the prominence of a single color, grow from a technique called Tonalism, popular in the 19th century.

Although his attention to the effects of light, and the broken surfaces in his work show the influence of Monet, Renoir, and other French Impressionists, for the most part his painting fits solidly into the tradition of 19th-century landscape painting.

Beginning in 1919, his paintings were sold in Belle Simpson's Nugget Shop in Juneau. By 1923, he was Alaska's most prominent painter. He also was well-known in Seattle, which he visited often in the late 1920s and 1930s. His romantic 1934 view of the ``Aurora Bridge, Seattle'' arching over houseboats is featured in the Bellingham show.

Laurence painted perhaps 5,000 canvases in the course of his career, from quick potboiler landscapes to heroic, wall-filling canvases. The 75 examples in the Bellingham exhibition are a small sample, well-chosen to show Laurence's range.

Bellingham is the show's second stop. After it closes here, the exhibition will travel to Palm Springs, Portland, and Juneau, then close its run at the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks in August and September 1991.