Sydney Mortimer Laurence (1865–1940) was an American Romantic landscape painter and is widely considered one of Alaska's most important historical artists. His paintings of a romantic, unspoiled northern frontier are little known beyond Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Even in Alaska, where his work is known to virtually every resident, the artist's life and early career have long been shrouded in mystery.
Sydney Laurence was becoming renowned for his work throughout France and England, but he was unsatisfied. In 1904, at the age of 38, Laurence left his wife and two young sons in England and moved to Alaska, lured by adventure as well as stories of gold. Laurence was the first professionally trained artist to make Alaska his home During the artist's first eight years in Alaska, he painted very little. Rather, he moved around Alaska, prospecting and doing odd jobs as well as professional photography.
Laurence was born October 14, 1865, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of an English couple. He was a student at Peekskill Military Academy until the age of 17. From 1882-89, Laurence lived with his mother, also an accomplished artist, and attended the Art Student League in New York. During those years, he met Alexandrina Fredericka Dupre, a student at the National Academy of Design, and the couple married on May 18, 1889. Four days later, they sailed to Cornwell, England.
Living the hard life of the pioneer prospector, Sydney Laurence painted little in his first years in the territory, but between 1911 and 1914 he began to focus once again on his art. He moved from Valdez to the budding town of Anchorage in 1915.
In 1915, when Anchorage was brand new, Laurence established his studio in the lobby of the Anchorage Hotel and took an upstairs apartment. Doing business as The Sydney Laurence Co., he engaged in commercial photography as well as painting. He is responsible for recording many of the earliest images of Anchorage, from its days as a tent city, to the public auction of city lots, to the first snowfall on the new city's main street.
Not long after Laurence arrived in Anchorage, he married a second time, to a fellow artist named Jeanne, who specialized in painting Alaskan wildflowers. By 1920, Laurence's paintings had become so famous that he was considered Alaska's most prominent painter, and in the years that followed, he split his time between Alaska, Seattle, and Los Angeles.
Laurence painted a variety of Alaskan scenes in his long and prolific career, among them sailing ships and steamships in Alaskan waters, totem poles in Southeast Alaska, dramatic headlands and the quiet coves and streams of Cook Inlet, cabins and caches under the northern lights, and Alaska Natives, miners, and trappers engaged in their often solitary lives in the northern wilderness. But the image of Denali from the hills above the rapids of the Tokositna River became his trademark. It is this image more than any other which personifies Laurence for his many admirers and collectors in Alaska and beyond.
Sydney Laurence forged a uniquely personal style by applying the tonalist techniques he had learned in New York and Europe to the wilderness of the North. He, more than any other artist, defined for Alaskans and others the image of Alaska as "The Last Frontier." He died in Anchorage in 1940.
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