Sydney Laurence’s Mt McKinley

“Seldom have a man and a mountain become as closely identified with each other as have Mt. McKinley and artist, Sydney Laurence. Each is the pole of extremes in respect of comparative size. North America’s largest mountain, Mt. McKinley’s massive pile points up to 20,320 feet in one of the most inaccessible places. Sydney Laurence was slight…little over five feet! “

“Looking almost due north, the summer sun at midnight and in the early hours of the morning softly outlines the mountain’s profile tinged with golden yellow against a sky of pale, diffused emerald green. The morning’s light gives constantly changing effects and by mid-afternoon the wealth of colors, shadows and subdued form achieve an unforgettable richness.”

I read these first two paragraphs from my father, Cyrus Peter Francisco’s, original 1932 biography of the famous Alaskan landscape artist just over two years ago.

“Alaskan Public Television (KAKM) producer, Eric Wallace and his research assistant Sue Burrus wrote my family a letter trying to find some connection between Sydney Laurence and my father whose name appeared on an unpublished manuscript found in the papers of Laurence’s second wife, Jeanne, who died in 1980, 30 years after the death of her husband.”

Corresponding with Wallace and Burrus I confirmed that my father had worked with Laurence from 1931 to 1933 in Los Angeles where he lived close to the Laurence’s Echo Park studio. Among my father’s papers, saved at the time of his death n 1973, were his resume, several editorials he wrote s the editor of The Municipal employee Magazine as well as some short stories.

The yellowed typewritten resume confirmed his association with Laurence. To honor the 50th anniversary of Laurence’s death, Alaska Public Television was producing a video docu-drama to air on September 12th.

Through inter-library (loan), I reviewed the four books (now out of print) written since my father’s biography. I found various authors, including Laurence’s wife, borrowed liberally from The Man And The Mountain: Sydney Laurence’s Mt. McKinley. No credit was given to my father who was Laurence’s secretary, student-apprentice and biographer during his stay in Los Angeles (during the winters).

I learned that a six-museum tour of Laurence’s paintings beginning May 1990 would be in Palm Springs December 8-February 3, 1991, move to the Portland, Oregon Historical Society from March 1-April 27,1991, and return to the Alaska State Museum in Juneau May 19-July 14, 1991, ending at the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks. Publishing my father’s book to set the record straight became very important.

“The biography relates the story of Laurence’s arrival in Alaska to pan gold and describes how he lost everything in a shipwreck, was washed ashore, almost froze to death and nursed to health by Indians.”

Refusing medical advice to have his legs amputated, he walked again. Cajoled into accepting a grubstake by adventurers in a Valdez saloon, Laurence trekked into the wilderness to paint North America’s tallest mountain, Mt. McKinley.

Traveling to Anchorage, Alaska, with boxes of books for the Anchorage Museum and an Alaskan bookstore chain, my mother (Barbara Kent Francisco Lievsay), youngest sister (Debbie Lievsay Mumma Hammond) and

“I found Alaska truly a land of midnight sun, of unparalleled beauty and ruggedness of nature, with waterfalls gushing from the sides of mountains down the Kenai, abundant wildlife and wonderful people. We soon sold half the first printing (of a 2200 book first run) and added other orders. The loan on my mother’s saving’s account could be paid off.”

Seeing all 123 curator-chosen Laurence oils and watercolors at once in the contemporary Anchorage Museum of History and Art was enriching and fulfilling. Signing books and talking with patrons and museum personnel who learned we were the personal connection to Alaska’s famous painter was a unique experience.

Exhibition curator Kesler (E.) Woodward’s (Sydney Laurence Painter of the North University of Washington Press, Anchorage Museum Association,1990) gallery tour taught us even more about Laurence from the perspective of art history. Woodward explained that his personal specialty is painting birch trees. Interesting in itself and also because I also recall as a child, seeing sketches of landscapes on yellow swatches of paper in my father’s possession, probably some of Laurence’s. I saw Alaskan landscapes, oil on birch bark, including McKinley, which were Jeanne Laurence’s work. I have four birch bark paintings framed under glass against a purple mat. . .the predominant color in the tiny originals.

“An American, Laurence was trained in New York and England. Woodward, in his catalog, Sydney Laurence, Painter of the North, explains that the American landscape tradition learned by…Laurence and other artists of his generation was then the late Hudson River School…”

Including Bierstadt and church. Many of those young artist rejected that style and “responding to this desire to forge a new, more personal style of landscape, they drew on the French Impressionists and French Barbizon painters.”

Tonalism flourished from 1880 to 1915. It was defined as “emphasizing the frequent picture of the landscape through a visible atmosphere or mist. . “ Light was used differently creating…” a softer, more palpable all enveloping atmosphere.” Woodward also mentions that “tone” used “the prevalence of some one color in a picture to which all other hues are subordinated.”

Palm Springs Desert Museum visitors (had) a unique opportunity to compare the work of Hudson River School painter, Frederic E. Church which tonalists, such as Laurence rejected, to Laurence’s work, in an exhibition American Originals. . .Reynolda House, running concurrently at the museum with the Laurence exhibit.

The warmth and hospitality of the Anchorage museum professionals including bookstore manager, Georgia Blue, made the comment that “we were the personal connection to Laurence” ill be long remembered. The people of the Cordova Historical Society Museum with whom we shared breakfast and conversation about Laurence and his connection to their town, came for the opening of the Laurence exhibit. Being practical they also stocked up on supplies, normally quite expensive in Cordova, as it can be reached only by ferry. Sales of Sydney Laurence’s Cordova Bay lithographs help support their museum.

Art abounds on and in public buildings in Anchorage, as does small aircraft traffic, any time of day or night or the “light” nights. The city is known as the air crossroads of the world. . .proven true by hearing four different airline crews speaking four different languages in the lobby of our hotel.

Publishing a book also helps renew old acquaintances who moved to Alaska… a family in Homer, a country-western disc jockey on National Public Radio from Sitka and a photographer. Another friend, who writes for the Anchorage papers and is an initiator of a world forum there, bought a book. I also bought his.

KAKM sent three preview copies of the Laurence of Alaska docu-drama aired in September (1990). The video jacket cover lists as recommended reading the exhibit’s catalog and Cyrus Peter Francisco’s The Man And The Mountain: Sydney Laurence’s Mt.McKinley.

The movie Dances With Wolves, convinced me that Laurence of Alaska should be a full-length motion picture. The adventures, the loves (Laurence’s first wife whom he left with their two children for Alaska and his second wife), the magnificence of Alaska he challenges. . .are all grist for a good film.

“Return to Alaska…most definitely…I need to see Mt McKinley without clouds covering it and Laurence’s gravestone, said to be a painter’s palette.”

Most of all, I need to experience more of this frontier…its harshness, its beauty, its culture and its people.


Excerpted from Élan Magazine, February 1991 original article written by Lynn Francisco Casella.

Kesler E. Woodward, Painter of the North, is published by the University of Washington Press in association with the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, 1990. This book is published in connection with an exhibit prepared by the Anchorage Museum of History and Art, entitled Sydney Laurence, Painter of the North: A Retrospective. The exhibition and publication were supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

On p. 128 Chronology

“1931 Has an exhibit in March at the Ebell Salon in Los Angeles, which is billed as the first exhibition in 30 years.

In August, Cyrus Peter Francisco is hired by Laurence in Los Angeles as student and secretary. Francisco will spend two years with the Laurences and begin to write a biography of Sydney. His unpublished manuscript (now published 1990 The Man and the Mountain:Sydney Laurence’s Mt. McKinley by Cyrus Peter Francisco) may be the basis for many stories of Laurence’s early adventures.”

The exhibit itinerary throughout 1990-1991 includes Anchorage Museum of History and Art, Whatcom Museum of History and Art, Bellingham, Washington; Palm Springs Desert Museum, Palm Springs, California; Oregon Historical Society Museum, Portland, Oregon; Alaska State Museum (currently permanently closed), Juneau, Alaska and University of Alaska Museum, Fairbanks, Alaska.