Update: The Laurence painting sold for $75,000.
What you see: Mount McKinley, 63 Degrees North Latitude, Alaska, Altitude 20.390 Feet, painted by Sydney Laurence in 1911 or 1912. Bonhams estimates it at $80,000 to $120,000.
Who was Sydney Laurence? He was an American painter who built a career on depicting the landscapes of Alaska. He moved there around 1904, several years before Alaska became a U.S. territory (it gained statehood in 1959). He made a specialty of painting images of Mount McKinley, the highest mountain peak in North America. (It has since regained its original name of Denali, but it’s called Mount McKinley throughout this story because it’s the name Laurence used when giving titles to his works.) He died in 1940 at the age of 74.
The expert: Scot Levitt, specialist in California and Western paintings for Bonhams.
How prolific was Laurence? Fairly prolific. We do see quite a bit of his paintings.
And how often do you see a painting of his that dates to 1911 or 1912? That’s really the main story here. It appears to be quite rare in that regard. Len Braarud, a Sydney Laurence afficionado who died a few years ago–his research led him to believe this seems to be one of, if not the earliest, Laurence scene of Mount McKinley. Braarud’s theory is it’s not an accurate depiction of Mount McKinley. To get to that vantage point, Laurence would have had to trek to that spot. There were no roads, the weather could be nasty, and the mosquitos were really severe in the summer. You’re not going to plunk down a canvas and paint there. He probably took a drawing pad, which you can put in a backpack, and did field sketches of the scene, then went back to the studio and did the painting.
I admit I’m not a Mount McKinley aficionado. Is it obvious on sight to those who know the mountain well that Laurence’s vision in this painting is a bit off? People who know Mount McKinley will be quick to tell you that. It has similarities, but it’s not exactly the same. Certain lines of the face of it aren’t exactly how it looks today.
Could its lack of accuracy make it less interesting to collectors? It could, but some might find the historical oddity is part of its appeal. It’s hard to say.
Why did Laurence go to Alaska? I think the jury is still out on why he went. He left his wife and kids in England. We’re not entirely sure of the reasons behind it.
What were the perceptions of Alaska when Laurence moved there in 1904? How did he shape those perceptions? It was a very, very wild place. with grizzly bears and wild animals. It was very primitive, for lack of a better word. At the same time, it was exciting. It was undiscovered territory for those who want to be adventuresome. It was an untapped world.
The painting measures 36 5/8 by 54 5/8 inches. Is that a typical size for him? It’s much bigger. It’s one of his biggest canvases that we’ve handled. Once he got into the swing of his career, he never deviated off of standard size canvases from art supply stores. It’s definitely an unusual size.
There’s another Laurence painting of Mount McKinley in the auction that’s estimated at $6,000 to $8,000. Is that because it’s smaller and undated, but made later? Exactly, exactly. It’s a more typical work from the middle of his career. He did Mount McKinley paintings over and over because he found there was a market for them. He churned out more of the same.
What’s the auction record for a Laurence? Does it belong to a larger-size Mount McKinley painting? The auction record is $235,200, for a large Mount McKinley painting. The top three [most expensive Laurences] are all large Mount McKinley paintings.
Does that mean this one, which is also a large Mount McKinley painting, could break the artist’s record at auction? I can’t say it will take off. But it’s a little different, and a little early. I just don’t know.
But it shows Sydney Laurence becoming Sydney Laurence… Some may not care. Some may find it a great storyline. It’s hard to say. Considering he did a million Mount McKinley scenes, that [its early date and the oddities in its depiction] makes it stand out from the others. Whether anyone will see it that way outside of a museum, it’s hard to say. I’d love to follow up with you after the auction to see if we were right.
Why will this work stick in your memory? Its size and its quality. It’s a really strong, crisp, bright painting that has a really strong presence on the wall.
Scot Levitt previously spoke to The Hot Bid about a Gilbert Munger painting of a famous landmark in Yosemite National Park.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.
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