Where Eagles Fly: Artists of the Pacific Northwest
by Maria Sharylen
A survey of Pacific-Northwestern art created during the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries reveals among artists a persistent fascination with the native people and mesmerizing landscape of the region. Their work is characterized by a larger-than-life visual aesthetic, which is itself influenced by the Northwest's grand heritage and vast scenery. These artists worked en plein air in order to appreciate fully what seemed the ultimate manifestation of Nature's power and intensity.
The Northwest's first formal imagery surfaced in 1776 when Captain James Cook published drawings, maps, and charts executed by his draughtsman, John Webber. Lewis and Clark's renowned expedition, which took them from St. Louis to the Rocky Mountains and along the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean, spurred further artistic activity. Another exploring expedition, that of Captain Wilkes, added to the Northwest's artistic heritage. Leaving Boston in 1838, Alfred Agate and Joseph Drayton produced many fine drawings while accompanying Wilkes' tour.
Efforts by the Americans to incorporate the Oregon Territory caused the British to send Canadian Lieutenant Henry J. Warre to the Northwest Territory on a clandestine military mission. Although Canada and the United States had agreed on the Forty-ninth Parallel by the time he returned, Warre had managed to compile an extensive portfolio of drawings which he entitled Sketches in North America and the Oregon Territory (1848).
By the mid-1840s, American pioneers were arriving by the thousands. Paul Kane, a Canadian and one of the first serious artists to work in the region, was eminently successful in depicting the daily lives of the native inhabitants, producing over four hundred sketches and numerous canvases. In 1859 he authored the highly successful Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America, thereby drawing upon what was to become one of the region's most prominent themes.
John Mix Stanley created an extensive collection of Native American portraits for his Indian Gallery which triumphantly toured the Eastern cities. Stanley, an artist/topographer attached to Stevens Northern Railroad Survey, exhibited his works at the Smithsonian in 1852 and offered them to the Government for $19,200 plus $12,000 in expenses, a fee he considered very reasonable for ten years work. Unfortunately, Congress refused the proposal and all but five of the paintings were destroyed in the great Smithsonian fire of 1865.
Although many artists focused their attention on the indigenous culture of the region, the predominant attraction was its powerful landscape: majestic mountains, thundering rivers, and pristine shores.
James Everett Stuart recognized the beauty of the area and sought to reproduce its diversity in his paintings. As the grandson of the portrait painter Gilbert Stuart, James showed an early aptitude for the arts. In 1860 he and his family moved just north of San Francisco where, at the age of eight, he created his first painting. Stuart settled in Portland and established a studio in 1881. Fascinated by the Northwest's legendary "silver light" that bathed the snowcapped peaks of the Cascade Range, he produced many canvases in the misty style that was to bring him public recognition. He returned to San Francisco in 1912 and opened a large gallery with over five thousand paintings, his life's work. Stuart died in his sleep almost thirty years later, leaving a sizable volume of his work to his younger brother to disperse as he saw fit. Within a year the collection had been sold and the gallery closed.
Another notable artist who resided in Portland during the 1800s was Cleveland Rockwell. After working as a government cartographer during the Civil War, he traveled to Oregon under the employ of the Coastal Survey. His luminist depictions of the Columbia River and Astoria Harbor contain an essence of the Hudson River School, and earned him considerable acclaim during his lifetime.
C.S. Price arrived in Portland in 1928 following several years of study in San Francisco. As a charismatic artist and teacher, he drew an intensely loyal following among the avant-garde elite who enjoyed his expressionist style. He created his most powerful works while in Portland, and remained there until his death in 1950.
William S. Parrott, Portland's foremost landscape artist and teacher, gained national recognition for his glowing interpretations of mountain vistas. Parrott was a man with many idiosyncrasies. Agnes Barchus described his fetish for punctuality in the book she wrote about her mother, Eliza R. Barchus, the Oregon Artist:
Eliza Rosanna Barchus (née Lamb), was in fact one of Parrott's most successful students. She was born in Salt Lake City in 1857, and spent her childhood living a nomadic existence traversing the sometimes perilous countryside in the family's covered wagon. At the age of twenty-three she married John Barchus and moved to Portland. There she bore three children, but was widowed by 1898.
In 1885 she sold her first painting, a view of Mount Rainier, for one dollar to an Indian who promptly re-titled it Mount Tacoma. After winning some local awards, she decided to expand her horizons and accept an invitation from The National Academy of Design to participate in their Ninth Annual Exhibition in the fall of 1890. Unaccompanied and undaunted, she bravely traveled to New York where she purchased an extravagant frame to enhance her depiction of Mount Hood. The work met with substantial acclaim and proved to be her most popular subject in the eastern part of the country. In her own words:
The Oregon State Legislature honored Barchus by naming her "The Oregon Artist" and lowering its flag upon her death in 1959. She was honored posthumously by the same body in 1972 for her contributions to the art of the West.
Another Portland artist to enjoy substantial fame and popularity during his lifetime was Clyde Leon Keller. Born in 1872, Keller was a native of Oregon and a student at Willamette University in Salem, the first formal institution in the Northwest to offer accredited art courses. He further studied with artists/instructors in Munich, London, and Boston. Best known for his regional landscapes, he listed Herbert Hoover and F.D. Roosevelt among his distinguished clients.
Keller began his professional career in San Francisco in 1896 where, sadly, a great volume of his work was lost in the earthquake of 1906. Dejected but determined, he returned to Portland and established a successful studio/school. An enthusiastic and dedicated teacher, Keller gathered an inspired group of artists around him. Although he continued to paint until his death at the age of ninety-two, the quality of his work diminished greatly due to the debilitating effects of age and alcohol.
The Portland Art Club was formed in 1885 and, with its influential leisure class, Portland became the undisputed center for art education. In 1905 the Portland Art Association, which had been established thirteen years before, moved into the newly constructed museum building, the first in the Northwest. In 1909 the Portland Museum Art School opened, and four years later the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts was founded.
The Association began a series of exhibitions in 1913 designed to showcase artists of the Pacific Coast. Among the artists included in this annual event was Clara J. Stephens, whose first solo exhibition took place at the museum in 1913. Stephens, who is best known for her colorful landscapes and Venetian scenes, later became head of the art department at the Portland Academy.
In 1926 the Commonwealth Building at the corner of 6th and Burnside in Portland became the meeting place for an influential group of artists dubbed The Attic Club. This group of young individuals met twice a week on the fourth floor of this otherwise empty building in order to sketch from a model. The Attic Club had selected the spider, having ten legs, to represent the membership, as there were no by-laws other than the ten member restriction. Except for a small electric heater and an automatic timer that switched the overhead light off to signal a rest for the model every twenty minutes, most of the equipment was homemade. Naturally, professional models were expensive, so the artists took turns combing the neighborhood and employing the services of individuals for a small fee. They sometimes searched on Skid Row, or among the ragtag group gathered near the Salvation Army Band on the comer.
The founding members were, for the most part, full-time commercial artists who desired greater satisfaction from their work, and many did in fact go on to find considerable success. Albert Patecky moved to Portland in 1940 as a student of the University of Oregon under Sidney Bell. A member of the Oregon Society of Artists, Patecky exhibited widely in the United States and Europe. Another name strongly associated with The Attic Club is Thayne Logan, whose work as an architect, art critic, and prolific landscape painter earned him a position of considerable importance within the city.
Although Portland had been the most significant site of artistic activity in the Northwest, by 1880 another American city was rising in prominence. Seattle was at this time noted as being the third richest city per capita in the world. As the major port between the distant reaches of Alaska and the Far East, Seattle became subject to Oriental influence. Simultaneously, however, the advent of the Gold Rush introduced a certain rustic identity to the region. These stylistic influences were celebrated by the highly successful Alaska-Yukon Exposition of 1909 in which artists from all over the region participated.
Another instrumental factor in the development of Seattle's art community was the founding of the Seattle Art Museum, which may be traced to one dynamic man, Dr. Richard E. Fuller. From the 1920s through the early seventies he utilized his own funds to assemble a collection of Oriental art that secured an international reputation for the museum.
The Seattle Group of Twelve, a notable modernist fellowship which was established with the help of Ambrose and Viola Patterson, came to the forefront of the region's art scene during the 1930s. The diverse consociation produced a considerable body of work which was exhibited in museums and galleries internationally. The group rebelled against convention and discovered new avenues, exemplifying what has become known as the Northwest School -- one of the most influential fraternities to emerge from this part of the country. Along with the Pattersons, its membership included: Earl T. Fields, Peter and Margaret Camfferman, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves, Walter Isaacs, Elizabeth Cooper; and three Japanese-American painters, Kenjiro Nomura, Kamekichi Tokita, and Takuichi Fujii.
Another prominent name within the Northwest School is that of Mark Tobey, who referred to his frenetic scribbling as "White Writing." Tobey was greatly influenced by Oriental design and the spiritual elements of Zen Buddhism, and did in fact live in a Japanese monastery at one time. Other artists involved with the group, including Margaret Tomkins and Paul Horiuchi, were also inspired by the Orient, but maintained the timeless naturalism of their indigenous setting.
Traditionalists, in Oregon particularly, often found themselves at odds with artists such as Louis Bunce, Carl and Hilda Morris, Michele Russo, and David and Anne Kutka McCosh, who were keen advocates of the modernist sensibility.
David McCosh of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Anne Kutka of Yonkers, New York, met in 1930 when both artists were Tiffany Foundation Fellows painting in Oyster Bay, Long Island. Four years later they were married in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and shortly thereafter David, a graduate of the Art Institute in Chicago, was offered a teaching position at the University of Oregon. The couple enjoyed working outdoors in Eugene, away from the skyscrapers of the big cities. After David's early success, Anne, who attended the Art Students League in the 1920s, continued to paint but perhaps concentrated more on supporting her husband's career. Despite her attempts to stay in the background, however, Anne Kutka McCosh has recently been gaining national attention.
Progress also came in the form of an eminent group of women artists, the Women Painters of Washington, which signalled a move toward the cultivation of a professional atmosphere in which aspiring women artists could work. The founding members -- Anna Bell Stone, Myra Albert Wiggins, Elizabeth Warhanik, Lily Norling Hardwick, Dorothy Dolph Jensen, and Helen Bebb -- wished to attain recognition at a time when many of their gender were excluded from important exhibitions. After sixty years, the group continues to promote and encourage professional women by exhibiting nationally and internationally.
A native of Salem, Oregon, Wiggins arrived at the Art Students League in NewYork where she studied under William Merritt Chase. Notably, she did not make Washington her home until 1907, at age thirty-eight, and did not move to Seattle until 1932. Originally, Wiggins painted mainly landscapes and portraits which revealed a Dutch influence. Later in life, however, she became interested in photography and exhibited with Alfred Stieglitz and the photo-secessionists.
Yvonne Twining Humber, an American Scene painter who served as president of the group from 1947 - 48, also studied at the Art Students League, as well as the National Academy of Design. In the mid-forties she immersed herself in the art community of Seattle where she lives to this day.
Significant artistic activity was also taking place in the far reaches of the Northwest, namely Alaska. Four artists in particular acquired the title The Alaska Four: Eustace Ziegler, Theodore Lambert, Jules Dahlager, and Sydney Laurence. Ziegler had studied art at the Museum of Art School in his home town of Detroit, moving to Alaska as a missionary in 1909. He created paintings with religious themes for the mission, as well as portraits of the native inhabitants and Alaskan landscapes. Laurence was born in Brooklyn, but arrived in Alaska in 1903 where he became famous for his views of Mount McKinley. Dubbed the "Rembrandt of Alaska," he was awarded a knighthood by King Edward VII at the age of thirty, thereby gaining membership to the Royal Society of British Artists. Rockwell Kent, who is strongly associated with this region, arrived in 1918 and stayed most of the year. There he created his first critically praised work, the Wilderness Journal. Others, such as Fred Machetanz, devoted much of their lives to this remote part of the country.
The proximity of California ultimately played a pivotal role in the development of Pacific-Northwestern art. Blessed with spectacular scenery and idyllic weather, an enthusiastic cultural intelligencia existed, providing major exhibitions, museums, galleries, and patrons willing to purchase anything Californian. A large number of artists traveled north, returning to California and the East with works that realized prices much higher than those of local artists. The tremendous loss of works that occurred in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 resulted in the relocation of many fine artists to other parts of California, as well as to the Northwest.
As a testament to its enduring beauty, the Pacific Northwest
has experienced a substantial increase in its artist population, galleries,
and art associations since 1949. The region's unique and diverse landscape
continues to inspire artists to this day.
1 This is a brief survey of Pacific-Northwestern art. More detailed information on this subject can be found in the chapters on Oregon, Washington, and Alaska in Volume 3 of William H. Gerdts' Art Across America: Two Centuries of Regional Painting (New York: Abbeville Press, 1990), which has been a helpful reference, as well as the publications noted below.
2 Martha Kingsbury, Art of the Thirties, The Pacific Northwest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1972).
3 Agnes Barchus, Eliza R .Barchus, the Oregon Artist (Portland, OR: Binford and Mort, 1966).
4 Maria Sharylen, Interview with Clyde and Ethel Archibald, Portland, OR, 1989 - 91.
5 Joan M. Antonson and William S. Hannable, Alaska Heritage (Alaska Historical Art Commission Studies, 1986).
About the author
Maria Sharylen is an oil painter whose works have been exhibited in museums across the United States and are held in important national and international collections. She is the cofounder/president of The Other Side of the West, retired president/founder of the American Academy of Women Artists, and a founding member of the board of directors of the Willamette Valley Arts Council. She is the author of Artists of the Pacific Northwest to 1970, published by MacFarland Publishing, and her editorials have appeared in American Art Review, Sunstorm Fine Art, Cowboys and Indians, and Signatures Quarterly.
Resource Library editor's notes:
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on March 23, 2009, with permission of the author, which was granted to TFAO on February 15, 2009. This article was published in the April - May 1994 issue of American Art Review. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the author directly through her website, Maria Sharylen Studio:
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Shana Herb Johannessen for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
Following are examples of artworks created by artists referenced in the above article. Other images may be photographs of artists. Artworks and/or photographs shown may not be specific to this article and are likely not cited in it. All images were obtained via Wikimedia Commons, which believes the images to be freely available for presentation here. Another source readers may find helpful is Google Images.
(above: John Mix Stanley, The Abduction, 1847, oil on board, 12 58 x 17 58 inches. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)
(above: James Everett Stuart, Crater Lake, Looking West from the Surface of the Water, 1882, oil on canvas, 14 x 22 inches, Spanierman Gallery. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
(above: Cleveland S. Rockwell, Mount Rainier From the Mouth of the Nisqually River, 1891, watercolor, NOAA Photo Library. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)
(above: William S. Parrott, Mount Hood, c.1880, oil on canvas, 21.7 x 31.6 inches, Portland Art Museum. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
above: Eliza R. Barchus, Mount Hood With Lake In the Foreground, Oregon, 1905, University of Washington. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons*)
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