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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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Kesler Woodward

Painting the Alaskan Coast: The Harriman Expedition Paintings in Context

The painters who accompanied the last great exploring expedition to Alaska, the Harriman Expedition of 1899, were far from the first to face the daunting prospect of portraying this grand landscape. Understanding the significance of the work they produced on the voyage and after requires looking at images of these same landscapes made in the century and a half before the expedition, and in the century following it.



Mt. Fairweather

Mt. Fairweather from the Northwest, painted by Frederick Dellenbaugh in 1899.
Click image for a larger view.

 

 

Though its 260-year history pales in comparison to the depth of Alaska's millennia-old Native art traditions, painting in Alaska has a rich record of its own. Visitors and residents have tried for more than two centuries to find new ways to respond visually to the region's wonders. To understand the images they made and are making today, it is essential to ask several questions. Why did they come, for what conscious purposes, and through what kind of unconscious filters -- cultural, historical, and personal -- did they view this new landscape?


Birch

Birch painted by Kesler Woodward.
Click image for a larger view.

Similar questions about the makers can be asked of any painting we see. Images are never neutral. They take points of view, they make statements, and landscape paintings influence how others see places in powerful ways. What did the artists on the Harriman Expedition see when they looked at this land? How did it look different for them from those who came before, and those who have come after?

For the first century of contact by Europeans, artists accompanying discovery expeditions focused primarily on the exotic Native cultures they encountered. Landscapes, however grand, served mainly as backdrops for the Native people who were a puzzle to the visitors. Official artists on the voyages were given strict instructions to document, to strive for accuracy, to avoid personal point of view and embellishment. Inevitably, they failed. Their subjects--human, animal, and geological -- not only overawed them, but could only be seen through the cultural and historical world views they brought with them. Moreover, the images they produced underwent further conscious and unconscious transformations as they moved from sketches, watercolors, or oil paintings by firsthand observers to engravings and lithographs in published accounts. Such pictures, those on which the world based its ideas about this new land and its peoples, were produced half the globe away by artisans who often "corrected" anomalies they hadn't seen and couldn't understand.

By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, artists were coming to these coasts for different reasons. Traveling on regularly scheduled steamers to a region still exotic, but about which tourist guidebooks were already beginning to appear, they came in search not just of new scenery, but of fortune, wonder, wilderness, and escape. Though Native Alaskans and their ways remained sources of inspiration for artists, and continue to do so today, the landscape itself had become the primary magnet for ambitious painters.

By the time Frederick Dellenbaugh and R. Swain Gifford, celebrated American painters, accompanied equally well known scientists, writers, and others on the 1899 Harriman voyage, the American landscape painting tradition had been in full flower for a half century. American painters had approached the landscape in a variety of ways, emphasizing aspects from the picturesque to the sublime. They had found in it everything from evidence supporting various geological theories to evidence of the hand of God. Many had found in it a scale which seemed to mirror the expansionist American spirit, and a few had begun to document some of the consequences of that spirit at work.

Both Dellenbaugh and Gifford had already traveled extensively in search of new landscapes to explore and paint, and both were aware of the range of traditions and possibilities open to landscape painters of their day. For a variety of reasons having to do with the nature of the voyage, their instructions, and their personal interests, skills, and experience, they adopted primarily documentary, topographical modes. That choice is clear not only when comparing their paintings with those who painted before and after them, but even when looking at their work in comparison to the photographs taken on the Harriman Expedition.

The paintings of Louis Agassiz Fuertes, the expedition's bird artist, are necessarily documentary as well, but in much of the work of this young artist who would soon become America's most prominent bird painter, there is an extraordinary liveliness, as well as a keen sense of place.

The century following the Harriman Expedition saw a host of important artist visitors to the region's coasts, perhaps most significant among them Rockwell Kent, the American painter and illustrator who would spend much of his life capturing on canvas and paper the spirit of the North. The twentieth century also saw Alaska's first long-term resident painters, beginning with Sydney Laurence in 1904 and Eustace Paul Ziegler in 1909. The two were destined to become Alaska's most beloved and sought-after historical painters, Laurence portraying the grand Alaska landscape and Ziegler focusing on the human activity in the foreground of those vistas.

Contemporary artists working in increasingly diverse styles continue to find inspiration in these shores, and to find new things to say about the mountains and the sea. It is harder to step back from the art of our own time and identify the kinds of cultural assumptions at work in such pictures, but it is possible to ask some questions about these paintings, as well. Do visitors and residents see these coasts differently? And do today's painters see themselves as visitors, as explorers, as settlers, as pioneers, or as preservers?


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For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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