Object of the Week: Smoky Sunrise, Astoria Harbor
The almost-summer, peek-a-boo-sun weather here in Seattle has me excited about all the potential the coming season holds for outdoorsy activity. Having been cooped up through a cold winter and rainy spring, we’re ready to get outside, to maximize those sun rays, and to utterly exhaust ourselves. Let’s burn some skin and burn ourselves out! What better place to get the most out of summer than the Pacific Northwest? (Nowhere, that’s where.)
One can find endless things to do on a sunny day here, but a favorite of mine, and of quite a few other folks, clearly, is to get out on the water. Kayaks, SUPs, sailboats, and some one-percenter yachts will be out in full force these summer weekends. After three years of living in Seattle, I’ve finally met a family with a boat and can’t wait to bum a ride, to float out over the Sound, to reverse my land-bound perspective, and to drink in the beauty of the coastal landscape. The quality of light and the diversity of the geography in the Northwest give us the perfect ingredients for a romantic painting, which is why I’m especially grateful that we have a really good one at the Seattle Art Museum: Cleveland Rockwell’s Smoky Sunrise, Astoria Harbor.
In the painting, soft orange light filters through a dense atmosphere to coat the scene in mystical hues. Hardly joy riding, its figures row with exertion and carefully navigate an active harbor, bustling about to accomplish the trade that made Astoria an important port town in the 19th century. The scale of their enterprise varies, some maneuvering humble canoes and others commanding imposing merchant ships. A flock of seagulls finds its breakfast before gliding into the distance, maybe headed next for the salmon canneries that are the only sign of humanity’s nascent shaping of the land. Silhouetted by the gently rising sun, the mounds of Astoria’s Tongue Point root this picture in a place, reminding us that it records a real local history. Rockwell worked with the US Coast Survey and knew the terrain in Astoria well, so he’s not imagining anything. Even the phantasmagoric warmth of the sunlight may be truer to life than we imagine; his title references then-frequent fires that would leave this kind of dreamy atmospheric effect.
Second to Rockwell, we have Captain George Flavel to thank for this painting. Captain Flavel lived in Astoria and did quite well for himself as a bar pilot, helping ships to navigate the very dangerous access point to the Columbia River from the Pacific, and running a tugboat service that took ships upriver from Astoria to Portland. Captain Flavel was a friend of Rockwell’s and commissioned him to make several important paintings, including Smoky Sunrise, Astoria Harbor. He passed away in 1893, but this painting remained in the Flavel family for several generations. Within the first few months of my time as Collections Coordinator at SAM, I received a call from a descendant of Captain Flavel who had an interest in the painting and planned to visit SAM. It was heartwarming to look at this painting with him and his family, who held such a personal connection to it. Our warm and fuzzy feelings reflected right back at us from Rockwell’s cheery painting.
– Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator