Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
On Sept. 11, 1940, famed Alaska painter Sydney Laurence woke early, as was his habit. He bathed, dressed and then breakfasted with his wife, Jeanne, in 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. Though he hesitated to tell his wife, Sydney knew he was about to die.
Sydney Mortimer Laurence was born on Oct. 14, 1865, in Brooklyn, New York. His father was in the insurance business; his mother also was an artist. The grandson of an English admiral, the schoolboy Sydney studied at a military academy in Peekskill, New York. There, his observers first diagnosed his artistic ability. Connections were utilized, and Laurence became the first pupil accepted by the well-known maritime painter Edward Moran (1829-1901). Not coincidentally, the careful and accurate depictions of water became, if not a calling card, then at least a notable attribute of Laurence’s mature work.
According to some reports, he stowed away 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 the accounts vary wildly on some points, he reportedly spent the next four years sailing around the world.
He visited Alaska for the first time sometime around 1903. For the next several years, he was here, there and almost everywhere. He first found work as a photographer in Juneau but later wound up in Tyonek, Valdez, Seward, Seldovia, Ninilchik, Beluga and Cordova, among other temporary homes. There were also several short sojourns back in the Lower 48. In Alaska, he washed dishes, took photos, mined and, of course, painted. His earliest known Alaska work is from 1905: “Tyonek, Alaska.” The painting depicts a stream emptying into the Cook Inlet.
Like many other fortune hunters, he made his way to Anchorage in 1915, where he worked for the railroad, prospected and took many of the oldest images of the new town. By 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 was apparently not overwhelmed by the photography but was impressed by several paintings in the shop. “Who did these paintings?” asked the stranger. “I did,” Laurence replied. The stranger retorted, “Then what are you doing in a photo shop?”
By 1922, he was able to close the studio and paint full-time. His reputation as Alaska’s foremost artist was cemented in 1923. That year, President Warren Harding bought one of his paintings during a visit to ceremonially open the Alaska Railroad. In 1928, he married a French artist, Jeanne Kunath Holeman (1887-1980).
During his lifetime, his paintings, primarily Alaska landscapes dominated by cabins, ships, mountains and the northern lights, were sold in stores and galleries around the country. Today, his works hang in some of the most distinguished museums in the world, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Musée du Louvre in Paris, France.
By 1940, his health had been in decline for several years. During the 1930s, he made an increasing number of joking — seemingly joking — comments about his imminent death. Though he remained spry enough, he acknowledged increasing fatigue, what he described as a “loss of pep.” To be fair, he was deep into his 70s by then.
His friends downplayed the concerns. Their understanding was perhaps limited by Laurence’s good-natured, humble approach to a looming mortality. What for others would be an opportunity for an admittedly earned complaint was, for Laurence, a chance for a self-deprecating wisecrack. His mood remained the same despite the loss of energy. Any event, whether positive or negative, was a chance for a joke and a smile. There was nothing he could not laugh at, his death included.
His acceptance of the ultimately inevitable did not mean he had nothing to live for. Apart from his beloved wife and numerous friends, he eagerly anticipated what would have been his 75th birthday nearly a month later. The Louvre planned to hang one of his paintings in 1944. If he had lived those four extra years, he would have been the first living artist to experience the honor. But he knew his time had come.
The following quotes from his last hours are taken from contemporary Anchorage Daily Times coverage and Jeanne Laurence’s account 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 a commissioned work. He had promised her a painting of the northern lights as a Christmas gift for her husband. Laurence had twice sold the painting intended for her to tourists, always with the thought that he could paint another.
Laurence asked her, “Esther, do you want to buy the painting from me?” She replied, “Certainly I want to buy it from you. Don’t you sell it again like you’ve done twice before. You know it is to be Bill’s Christmas gift.” Laurence then advised her to buy it that day. “Tomorrow will be too late,” he said, “if you want to buy it from me.” She downplayed his fears. “What are you talking about, Sydney? I’ll bet you will outlive us. I’ll get the painting on Christmas and from you.”
Later in the afternoon, he visited his barber and, surrounded by friends and long acquaintances, announced “getting prettied up to die.” He told the barber, “Give the old boy a good shave and haircut; it will be the last one.” After his turn in the chair, he smiled and saluted the image in the mirror, saying, “Goodbye, old boy.”
Before returning to his studio, he visited Jeanne again. He ran his fingers through her hair and said, “Kid, I am mighty proud of you. You have worked hard going slowly up the ladder step by step; now you are over the last rung and you will always make it. Now I can close my eyes in peace. This is my last day on earth.”
Jeanne recalled replying, “Oh, no! You must not talk like that. I want you to stay with me for many, many years and see the completion of the wildflower book. I think you are just tired and do not feel too well today.” Sydney responded, “You bet I am tired. I have no pain, but I feel life slowly oozing out of my body.”
Back in his studio, he spent some time talking to 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 Ninth Avenue and L Street downtown location. He asked and received confirmation that he could have a private room with a bath at the hospital. “That is what I am going to do,” he declared. As he told Jeanne, the hospital was better than a hotel; “The hotel doesn’t like stiffs hanging around.”
Jeanne made the necessary arrangements, and by four o’clock that evening, he was ensconced in his private room. Jeanne spent the remainder of the visiting hours by Sydney’s side. When she finally rose to depart, he seized her within his arms and kissed her one last time. She told him, “Good night.” He said, “It’s goodbye this time. I won’t be here tomorrow.”
Around six in the morning, he woke, seeming well-rested. He ate, smoked and read for a few minutes. Yes, a patient could smoke in a hospital in those days. Then, he rose from the bed and reached for his heart medicine. That is when the stroke hit. His unconscious body collapsed to the floor.
Around 6:30 that morning, a nurse notified Jeanne that Sydney had taken a turn for the worse. She arrived to find him in a coma, unresponsive to her tearful pleas. He passed shortly before noon, off only slightly in his original prediction. The Daily Times reported, “The artist died as quietly as he lived. He suffered none.”
Jones, H. Wendy. The Man the Mountain: 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.