Coulter, William Alexander (1849–1936), painter, was born on 7 March 1849 in Glenariff, Co. Antrim, the son of James Coulter, a coastguard, originally from Co. Down, and his wife Sarah, an Irish-speaker from the glens of Antrim. He grew up in a catholic family along the east Antrim coast, spending his first seven years at Islandmagee and the next six at Glenarm. The spectacular views afforded by Glenarm harbour encouraged him to draw, a talent that ran in the family. Aged 13, he shipped aboard a square-rigger as cabin boy, and sailed the world, sketching whenever possible. He was an able-bodied seaman within four years. Two of his brothers also joined the merchant marine and eventually captained ships.
In 1869 his time at sea ended, apparently because he smashed an ankle delivering lumber at Monterey, California, though a newspaper profile in 1894 states simply that he disembarked. He settled in San Francisco and worked for two years as a sail-maker before becoming a practising artist, seeking commissions for ship's portraits from owners and skippers. A skilled draughtsman, he drew upon his seafaring and sail-making expertise to render intricately rigged ships and their magnificently arrayed sails with an accuracy and detail that was prized by prospective customers.
As was then common in California, he was a self-taught oil painter, and picked up tips from fellow artists, William Hahn most importantly. Hahn's influence, and through him that of the Düsseldorf school, is apparent in Coulter's adherence to a meticulous realism allayed by the use of light for romantic effect. He was an early member of the San Francisco Art Association, which formed in 1871 and stoked a mania for paintings among undiscerning Californians enriched by the state's mining boom. In 1874 Coulter made his debut as a professional at the San Francisco Art Association's annual exhibition, and then exhibited regularly into the mid 1890s at the San Francisco Art Association, the Mechanics' Institute fairs and the California state fair. He also held solo exhibitions.
After travelling Europe (1876–8) and studying under noted marine painters François Musin in Paris and Vilhelm Melbye in Copenhagen, he painted slightly more evocatively by adding impressionistic touches. His brushstrokes grew looser over time, but there was no radical change, and he reverted to punctilious linearism if clients so preferred. In 1881 he spent seven months sketching in Hawaii and sold twenty paintings for $20 to $100 each at auction, before devoting a year to making thirty 4.5-m x 6-m panels for use in lectures on Pacific islanders. He visited Hawaii sporadically to sell canvases and sketch seascapes.
Coulter focused mainly on painting specific ships in identifiable locations, and his few landscapes tended to feature large bodies of water. Roaming San Francisco Bay and also sometimes following ships out to sea in a tugboat, he sketched assorted square-riggers, schooners, tugboats, the local hay-scows, paddle-steamers, yachts, yawls and fishing smacks. These drawings formed the basis for his paintings, most of which faithfully represented real events. The seaward view through the bustling Golden Gate strait was his favourite perspective, inspiring him to produce large canvases teeming with maritime activity. His crisp, gracefully drawn sailing ships regularly shared the stage with mechanically propelled boats, but almost always predominate, often literally outshining the nondescript steamers. In one of his few treatments of steam ships, 'The arrival of ex-President and Mrs Grant…' (1879; private collection), the smoke billowing from the hulking flotilla blends ominously with the sunset sky, betraying his misgivings over the ongoing transition from sail to steam. (There is a later, more prosaic version of this scene by Coulter in the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.)
Whereas artists typically struggle to represent the luminous vivacity of water in motion, Coulter fashioned nuanced hues that preserved much of the sea's vigour, translucence and play of surface. He was renowned for recreating unobtrusive effects and for bathing his seascapes in an atmospheric glow by shrouding or partially obscuring the source of light. Prolific and overly slick, in general he produced stylised works showing ships in harmony with nature. Conversely, two of his most striking portraits, 'Burning the blue light' (1894; private collection) and 'A wreck on the coast' (1894; destroyed), derived from a storm-ravaged merchantman he had witnessed years earlier drifting in the Atlantic.
Coulter married (3 November 1891), in San Francisco, Harriet Hostetter, daughter of Col. Augustus Hostetter, described as one of the city's most respectable inhabitants. They had a daughter and two sons, and moved across the Golden Gate to Sausalito, residing initially on the waterfront. Commuting by ferry to his San Francisco studio, Coulter kept another studio in Sausalito, where he also taught art classes during the early 1890s.
Emerging in the early 1890s as west-coast America's leading maritime artist, Coulter was by then selling his better efforts for around $300, and in 1893 was included in the Best of Californian Art exhibition at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He stopped exhibiting from 1896 to 1906 when he worked as a freelance harbour illustrator for the San Francisco Call newspaper, providing it with up to three sketches a day of marine traffic. Documenting the final days of commercial sailing amid the proliferation of steam ships, he is reckoned to have done 5,000 pen-and-ink drawings of photographic quality for the Call, thereby accumulating a repository of raw material for his canvases. A short man, with sketchbook in hand, sporting a Van Dyke beard with a nautical cap and tie, he was a fixture for decades on the Sausalito and San Francisco waterfronts. Outside work, he enjoyed gardening, singing and music.
When the 1906 San Francisco earthquake sparked a three-day inferno that consumed the city, Coulter sketched from across the bay as 30,000 people fled by boat. Later he painted his best-known work, 'Evacuation of San Francisco' (1906; private collection), on a 1.5-m x 3-m window shade retrieved from the ruins. The lurid backdrop heightens the nobility of the sailing ships in the foreground, which are assisting the largest sea rescue in US history. Coulter sacrificed accuracy for compositional balance by moving certain landmarks so their outlines are visible amid the smoke and flames.
With the San Francisco Call unable to afford his services after the earthquake, he removed to Texas for a time before returning to Sausalito once the local economy recovered. He contributed to San Francisco's reconstruction by painting eight canvases and all but one of the six 4.6-m x 5.5-m murals for the assembly room of the Merchants Exchange Building (later the Union Bank) on California Street. Four of the much admired nautical murals were completed during 1909–11, and the fifth was commissioned and finished in 1920. The Honolulu chamber of commerce set aside $1,500 for his mural of Honolulu Harbor, while rumour held that Coulter received $2,000 for the first mural, 'All arrived well', showing a full-rigged ship sailing through the Golden Gate; the image provided the design for the 20-cent stamp introduced by the US Post Office in 1923.
Latterly relying solely for his livelihood on commissions and painting on speculation, Coulter held month-long sales exhibits every few years, and occasionally hawked his sketches on street corners. Though he lived fairly comfortably from the 1890s, it is worth noting that his wife discouraged their children from becoming artists. After making several improvements and extensions to his residence on Sausalito's Third Street, he began building a new, seven-bedroom home in 1908. The house was destroyed, along with many of his canvases, in a fire in September 1919. He built a new home nearby.
Often repeatedly reworking and improving his more popular pictures under different titles, he is estimated to have painted between 1,000 and 3,000 canvasses from 1869 to 1936, making him America's most important Pacific coast maritime artist of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Latterly, his portraits of sailing ships were exercises in pure nostalgia, though no less popular for it. His body of work constitutes an invaluable visual chronicle of pre-mechanised shipping and of San Francisco's first incarnation as a thriving frontier port. In many cases, his paintings provide the only image of certain ships because primitive cameras were incapable of adequately capturing vessels bobbing upon the waves.
He visited Ireland at least twice, and wintered with his brother and sister in Glenarm during a ten-month tour of Europe in 1928. His Irish subjects include several views of Dublin Bay, a bright winter scene at Derry Harbour, waterfalls in the glens of Antrim, and two lighthouses off the coast of Larne, Co. Antrim. In 1934 he held an exhibition in California of seventy-five marine canvases, all done after his 80th birthday. He was working on a picture of the Golden Gate when he died in his Sausalito home on 13 March 1936. He was buried in Fernwood cemetery, Marin County, California. A posthumous exhibition of fifty paintings was held in 1941, and a newly launched US wartime cargo ship, the SS William A. Coulter, was named in his honour in 1943.
Following a period in abeyance, his reputation recovered, and a Coulter sold for $800 in 1963 was estimated to be worth at least $30,000 in 2005; another piece went for $228,000 in 2008. The Newport Harbor Nautical Museum, California, staged an exhibition of Coulter paintings owned by his descendants (1996), and the first Coulter retrospective was held in San Francisco's Maritime National Historical Park (2006). Although most of his paintings were either destroyed in fires or languish unidentified in obscurity, the surviving works were being rediscovered from the late twentieth century. Assorted Coulters can be viewed in the collections of the aforementioned Maritime National Historical Park; the Oakland Museum; the Hawaii Maritime Center; the Commercial Club, San Francisco; the United States Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point, New York; and the Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, California.