Aug 5, 2009

In Search of the Ancon

(Albert Bierstadt. 1889. Wreck of the "Ancon" in Loring Bay, Alaska. Oil on paper, mounted on Masonite. 14 1/8 x 19 3/4 inches). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

I am beginning a new project which will involve traveling to Loring, Alaska (Naha Bay) to visit the location of the wreck of the steamship Ancon on August 29th, 1889. The wreck was captured in an oil sketch by the American artist Albert Bierstadt. I believe that he later finished the sketch in his studio, likely in San Francisco or possibly in New York. The painting now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and I have seen it several times.

The boiler tanks (or what is left of them) are supposed to be visible at low tides, and I intend to travel to Naha Bay, stay at Loring for several days and complete some oil sketches of roughly the same size that Bierstadt did (14.5 x 19 inches). This size comes up several times in his catalog of work and is, I believe, the size of his oil on paper sketch work. I intend to use the Schoellershammer oil painting paper (108 lb) which they still make in 14.25 x 19 inch size (10 sheets to a pad).

I am just starting to research Bierstadt's travels of this period. This trip was his third (and would be his final) trip out west to collect ideas for new paintings. He had suffered several major life and career setbacks at this point (the most recent of which was his rejection from the Paris Exposition in the same month as this trip) so he must not have been in the best frame of mind. Robert Campbell also reaches this conclusion in his book "In Darkest Alaska" (2007, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press), noting the somber colors and more realistic scale of the subject and the relatively unmajestic, failure tinged content of the composition. I think the reality of his life finally entered his art-making at this point. The 19th cent. romanticism, of which Bierstadt was a leading figure, owing in no small part to his German heritage and art education, was receding like the tide, which ultimately broke the back of the grounded Ancon and perhaps Bierstadt's spirit with it.

Present day Naha Bay near Loring, with the wreckage of the Ancon still visible off the point. (photo courtesy of Naha Bay Preservation Coalition).