William Alexander Coulter

Alexander Coulter, born in 1849 to an Irish captain in the Coast Guard, went to sea at thirteen for seven years as an apprentice. In his off-duty hours he was a self-taught artist who sketched and painted. He moved to San Francisco in 1869 where a serious ankle injury forced him ashore. He began working as a sailmaker while painting and exhibiting with the San Francisco Art Association. In the late 1870s he studied painting in Europe for three years with several well-known marine artists. In 1896 he became the staff waterfront artist for the newspaper “San Francisco Call” where his pen and ink sketches were printed daily until the 1906 earthquake and fire. He shared a studio on Montgomery Street for a short while with landscape painter Hiram Bloomer and was friends with fellow maritime artist Gideon Denny. He lived in Sausalito in a house a few feet from the waterfront and it was there that he died in 1936. He painted and sketched for 67 years, had his final show in 1934 when he was 85, and had a painting on his easel at the time of his death. Coulter’s son James described him as a “gentleman artist,” a small man with a Van Dyke beard, cane, and nautical cap and tie, most often seen with a painting or sketchbook under his arm (Nolte, 2005).

Coulter was a prolific realistic painter of maritime subjects that recorded in fine detail all manner of vessels in the San Francisco Bay. His ship portraits were in demand in the 1880s and 1890s by ship captains and owners. Coulter’s most famous work, San Francisco Fire 1906, depicted the flotilla that rescued over thirty thousand people from the earthquake and fire in the largest maritime rescue effort in U.S. history. As an interesting aside, in this painting he depicted the newspaper office for the Call in flames, perhaps in a pique for having lost his job there after the earthquake. His five panel mural for the Merchants Exchange Building painted in 1909-1920 was his most important commission (Hughes, 2002). His murals can still be seen in the building which now houses a bank.

He was an expert seaman and his intimate knowledge of sea going vessels infused his paintings with realism and minute detail which preserved a visual chronicle of ships and sailing technology that was gradually disappearing. He is known as the American West Coast’s premier maritime artist during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He produced 1,000 paintings and it’s estimated he made 5,000 drawings for the San Francisco Call. A 1943 Liberty Ship was named the S.S. William A. Coulter was named in his honor at the Kaiser Shipyard in Richmond, California. The Society of California Pioneers has four of Coulter’s ship paintings.


AskArt – Art  Appraisals, Art Value. Action Prices, Art Database. www.askart.com

Hughes, Edan Milton. 2002. Artists in California 1786-1940. Third Edition. Sacramento: Crocker Art Museum.

Nolte, Carl. 2005. “Coulter’s ships may come in.” San Francisco Chronicle, July 4, 2005.

Vallejo Gallery, Newport Beach, CA. (www.vallejogallery.com)

Maritime Heritage Project: www.maritimeheritage.org/vips/coulterWilliamA.html

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