Cleveland Rockwell had a successful 19th-century career in the military and the federal Coastal Survey. Educated as a cartographer and mechanical engineer, Rockwell started his professional life with the U.S. Coastal Survey, collecting survey data and drawing maps. In 1861, he was working on surveys along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts when the projects were canceled because of political tensions between the southern states and the federal government. When the Civil War broke out, Rockwell was appointed a captain in the Union Army.
His map-making skills helped the Navy capture blockade runners and the Army navigate roads and terrain. For four months in 1864, no records exist of his whereabouts, which point to the likelihood of a secret topographical mission. Rockwell returned to the Coastal Survey after the war and was transferred to the West Coast – first San Francisco, then the mouth of the Columbia River. But it was his after-hours hobby of painting the landscapes he scouted so intensely for his employers that brought him to renown and still keeps his name alive in art collectors’ circles.
Rockwell came to the Pacific Northwest in 1868 to survey the coast and rivers, and he became a painter and a chronicler of the Columbia. Astoria Harbor was Rockwell’s favorite subject for the variety of activity that was centered there-the coming and going of ocean clippers, river steamers, and the rafts and dinghies of salmon fishers and of loggers, which we see here. This painting was commissioned by Captain George Flavel, who ran the pilot and tug service that brought sailing ships across the Columbia Bar and towed them upriver from Astoria to Portland.
This is how Rockwell described the local scene: “The north (or Washington Territory) side of the river is very bold, almost mountainous. Cliffs and precipices occur at almost every point. Above the remarkable neck of land called Tongue Point, where the river widens into a large sheet of water known as Cathlamet Bay, there are again large areas of tide lands, or swamps, intersected by numerous channels. Some of these channels are navigable, and are used by the small steamers plying between Astoria and Portland.”
As part of the 2011 Astoria Bicentennial celebration, the Columbia River Maritime Museum presented an exhibition of Rockwell’s paintings – 36 oils and watercolors depicting the coastline of the Astoria area and the ships and people that plied the waters there more than a century ago. “We wanted to do something special as our part for the Bicentennial,” said Jeff Smith, CRMM curator. “This was appropriate for us, and significant for the celebration.”
His profession was not unusual for its day, noted Robert Joki, owner of the Sovereign Gallery in Portland and an acknowledged authority on Rockwell. Artists were often crucial members of exploratory expeditions, even in the mid-19th century as photography became a viable recording medium, he said. The glass plates used for processing the photographs were fragile and susceptible to breaking on the journey home. Even well into the 20th century, railroad surveying parties would employ artists to paint romantic depictions of the wilderness to entice investors.
“Coming out of the Coastal Survey expeditions, he had an eye for detail and precision,” Smith explained. “His seascape and landscape subjects are so well-rendered. He was a very acute observer, and that translated to his art … I find his work very skillful and pleasing. An 1870 navigational chart shows the south shoreline of the Columbia and the north shore at the mouth. If you look closely at where Astoria stands today, you see little black squares – he’s detailed the platting of the town and the buildings that were there at the time.” Clatsop County Historical Society archivist Liisa Penner enlarged the chart enough so that Smith was able to find the spot where his house now stands.
“Lots of contemporary artists don’t have that drawing training,” said Len Braarud, a private art dealer based in La Conner, Wash., and guest curator for the exhibit. “He had great drawing skill. He also was conscious of the landscape – he knew the terrain intimately.” Rockwell painted in the Luminist style, depicting boats and shorelines in fine detail against wide expanses of water and sky. Especially in his oil paintings, the quality of light he captures – particularly in sunsets and sunrises – is remarkably vibrant.
The museum is clearing out all the exhibits in its Steamboat Gallery to make room for the Rockwell display. Well, nearly all. The scale model of the sternwheeler Harvest Queen in its glass case, will stay – so that visitors can compare it to Rockwell’s watercolor representation of the vessel in one of his many Columbia River paintings. The museum owns two Rockwell oil paintings and two watercolors as part of its permanent collection, along with one incomplete sketch.
The artworks in the exhibit were borrowed mostly from private collectors, with some coming from the Oregon and Clatsop County historical societies. “We’re very fortunate that they were all willing to part with the works for two months,” Smith said. Some of the paintings have never been shown in public. The Clatsop County Historical Society is loaning one of its two large oils. One hangs permanently in the music room of the Flavel House Museum. The other, which is being loaned for the exhibit, is displayed in the captain’s bedroom, but Smith said it’s rarely noticed because of the period lighting. “We’re excited to feature that one where people can see it with proper gallery lighting,” he said.
Most of the paintings are encased in the heavy, ornate gilt frames that were popular in the Victorian era. Smith said that the museum has attempted to find appropriate frames for loaned pieces whose frames didn’t do the pictures justice. The glowing gold leaf of the frames tend to accentuate the luminous quality of the paintings, he said. The print catalog that Braarud compiled contains a biography of Rockwell and some of Braarud’s own observations.
He considers Rockwell the best turn-of-the-century Northwest artist. “Others like William Samuel Parrott came here, painted a bit, and sold their works to collectors back East,” he noted. “Rockwell actually lived here. He wasn’t so dependent on the tourists for sales.” The 1870 U.S. Census lists Rockwell and his wife as residents of Astoria. He continued to divide his time between California and Oregon until 1892, when he retired in Portland and served as a consultant and a director on the boards of several banks.
The last time this many Rockwell paintings were collected for a show was in 1972 at the Oregon Historical Society. Franz Stenzel wrote the catalogue raisonné – an exhaustive book covering every known work of an individual artist – on Rockwell as an accompaniment to the exhibit. Since then, Joki says, more works have been discovered. Rockwell is believed to have painted around 500 works, but only a few hundred have been tracked down, Smith said. The artist didn’t always sign his paintings.
“Rockwell’s history is very much a part of historic Northwest art,” said Joki, who also volunteers as a curator with the Oregon Historical Society. “The OHS exhibit catalog in 1972 bemoaned the fact that he never got the credit he deserved,” agreed Smith. “A lot of people connected with this exhibit are now expressing the same attitude.”
“He doesn’t truly have a national market,” Braarud said. “Art writers puzzle over this. Even the Portland Art Museum doesn’t have a Rockwell.” Other museums including the Museum of Fine Art in Boston and the Anchorage Museum in Alaska own some of Rockwell’s paintings, and the Oakland Museum of California has the best collection of turn-of-the-century artists there is, according to Braarud. The Seattle Art Museum boasts what is considered Rockwell’s best work: “Smoky Sunrise, Astoria Harbor.” “I wish we had that for this exhibit,” Braarud said.
Given his part-time status as an artist, is Rockwell considered an “amateur” painter? “If you use ‘amateur’ in the purest sense of the term, he would not be,” said Joki. “He was as fine a painter as any painter in his style and period. Completely professional.” Prices for Rockwell’s paintings today are on par with works by the top professionals from that era.“Painting was his passion,” Joki said. “Documenting was his job.”