Part of a continuity weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. A question about the history of Anchorage or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
On September 11, 1940, famous Alaskan painter Sydney Laurence woke up early, as usual. He washed, dressed and then had lunch with his wife, Jeanne, at their Anchorage home. After eating, he prepared for a trip to the barber. It was a morning like countless others for Sydney and Jeanne, otherwise indistinguishable except for one sad truth. It was their last morning together. Although he was reluctant to tell his wife, Sydney knew he was about to die.
Sydney Mortimer Laurence was born on October 14, 1865 in Brooklyn, New York. His father worked in the insurance industry; his mother was also an artist. Grandson of an English admiral, the Sydney schoolboy studied at a military academy in Peekskill, New York. There, his observers first diagnosed his artistic ability. Connections were used and Laurence became the first pupil accepted by the famous maritime painter Edward Moran (1829-1901). It is not by chance that the careful and precise representations of water have become, if not a calling card, at least a notable attribute of Laurence’s mature work.
According to some reports, he embarked on a freighter around the age of 17, possibly inspired by a combination of his grandfather, Moran, a yachting father, and a general admiration for the sea. While accounts vary wildly on some points, he is said to have spent the next four years sailing around the world.
He first visited Alaska around 1903. Over the next several years he was here, there and almost everywhere. He first found work as a photographer in Juneau, but later found himself in Tyonek, Valdez, Seward, Seldovia, Ninilchik, Beluga, and Cordova, among other temporary homes. There were also several short stays in the Lower 48. In Alaska, he washed dishes, took pictures, mined and, of course, painted. His first known work in Alaska dates from 1905: “Tyonek, Alaska”. The painting shows a stream flowing into Cook Inlet.
Like many other fortune hunters, he traveled to Anchorage in 1915, where he worked for the railroad, prospected and took many of the oldest images of the new city. In 1920 he had his own photography studio.
H. Wendy Jones offered an apocryphal-sounding story about this period in her 1962 book, “The Man and the Mountain”. A stranger entered Laurence’s studio. The visitor apparently was not overwhelmed by the photograph but was impressed by several paintings in the shop. “Who made these paintings? Asked the stranger. “I did it,” replied Laurence. The stranger retorted, “So what are you doing in a photo store?”
In 1922 he was able to close the studio and paint full time. His reputation as a foremost Alaskan artist was consolidated in 1923. That year, President Warren Harding purchased one of his paintings during a visit to inaugurate the Railroad. ‘Alaska. In 1928, he married a French artist, Jeanne Kunath Holeman (1887-1980).
During her lifetime her paintings, mostly Alaskan landscapes dominated by cabins, ships, mountains and the Northern Lights, were sold in stores and galleries across the country. Today, his works are exhibited in some of the world’s most distinguished museums, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the Louvre in Paris, France.
In 1940, his health had been declining for several years. During the 1930s, he made an increasing number of jokes – seemingly joking – about his impending death. Although he remained quite lively, he recognized increasing fatigue, which he described as a “loss of energy”. To be fair, he was in his sixties then.
His friends played down the concerns. Their understanding was perhaps limited by Laurence’s humble and good-natured approach to impending death. What would be for others the occasion of a well-deserved complaint was, for Laurence, the occasion of a self-mockery. His mood remained the same despite the loss of energy. Any event, whether positive or negative, was the occasion for a joke and a smile. There was nothing he couldn’t laugh at, including his death.
His acceptance of the inevitable didn’t mean he had nothing to live on. Besides his beloved wife and many friends, he was looking forward to what would have been his 75th birthday almost a month later. The Louvre planned to hang one of his paintings in 1944. If he had lived through those four additional years, he would have been the first living artist to experience this honor. But he knew his time had come.
The following quotes from her final hours are taken from the contemporary Anchorage Daily Times cover and Jeanne Laurence’s Story of the Day, the latter published in the 1974 book, “My Life with Sydney”.
Shortly after noon, he contacted one of his many friends, Esther Able, about an order. He had promised her a painting of the Northern Lights as a Christmas present for her husband. Laurence had twice sold the painting intended for him to tourists, always in the idea that he could paint another.
Laurence asked her: “Esther, do you want to buy me the painting? She replied, “I definitely want to buy it from you. Don’t sell it again like you’ve done twice before. You know this will be Bill’s Christmas present. Laurence then advised him to buy it that day. “Tomorrow, it will be too late,” he said, “if you want to buy it for me. She minimized her fears. “What are you talking about, Sydney?” I bet you will survive us. I’ll get the painting at Christmas and from you.
Later in the afternoon, he visited his barber and, surrounded by friends and long acquaintances, announced “to be beautified to die”. He said to the barber, “Give the old boy a good shave and a good haircut; it will be the last. After his turn in the chair, he smiled and greeted the image in the mirror saying, “Goodbye, old man.
Before returning to his studio, he visits Jeanne again. He ran his fingers through his hair and said, “Kid, I’m very proud of you. You have worked hard to slowly climb the ladder, step by step; now you have passed the last rung and you will always get there. Now I can close my eyes in peace. This is my last day on earth.
Jeanne remembers answering: “Oh no! You must not talk like that. I want you to stay with me for many years to see the completion of the wildflower book. I think you are just tired and not feeling very well today. Sydney replied, “You bet I’m tired. I don’t have any pain, but I can feel life slowly coming out of my body.
Back in his studio, he spent time chatting with another longtime friend, a nurse who worked at Providence Hospital. In a small town like Anchorage, Providence was still considered the new hospital. It had opened in 1937 at its original location in downtown Ninth Avenue and L Street. He requested and received confirmation that he could have a private room with a bathtub in the hospital. “This is what I’m going to do,” he said. As he told Jeanne, the hospital was better than a hotel; “The hotel does not like steep trails.
Jeanne made the necessary arrangements, and at four in the evening he was installed in his private room. Jeanne spent the rest of her visiting hours with Sydney. When she finally got up to leave, he grabbed her in his arms and kissed her one last time. She said to him, “Good night. He said, “It’s goodbye this time. I will not be there tomorrow.
At around six in the morning, he woke up, looking well rested. He ate, smoked and read for a few minutes. Yes, a patient could smoke in a hospital at that time. Then he got up from the bed and grabbed his heart medicine. It was then that the blow struck. His unconscious body collapsed on the ground.
At around 6:30 a.m. that morning, a nurse informed Jeanne that Sydney had taken a bad turn. She arrived to find him in a coma, unresponsive to his tearful calls. He died shortly before noon, slightly out of step with his initial prediction. The Daily Times reported: “The artist died as silently as he lived. He did not suffer from it.
Jones, H. Wendy. The Man in the Mountain: The Life of Sydney Laurence. Anchorage: Alaskan Publishing and Graphic Arts Press, 1962.
Laurence, Jeanne. My life with Sydney Laurence. Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1974.
Parham, Bruce and Walter Van Horn. “Laurence, Sydney.” Cook Inlet Historical Society, Legends & Legacies, 1910-1940, alaskahistory.org/biographies/laurence-sydney/.
“Sydney Laurence dies. Anchorage Daily Times, September 12, 1940, 1, 8.
Woodward, Kesler E. Sydney Laurence, Painter of the North. Anchorage: Anchorage Museum Association, 1990.