Artist Profile

William Alexander Coulter


William Alexander Coulter is probably the most important nineteenth-century maritime artist on the West Coast.1 Born in Northern Ireland, he went to sea at the age of thirteen and worked as a cabin boy on a square-rigger. During his seven years at sea, he sketched and painted. Although having never taken formal art classes, he may have seen works by the Liverpool marine artists. In 1869, on a trip to Monterey, California, he suffered a fractured ankle and debarked to San Francisco to recuperate. After he recovered, he decided to make San Francisco his home. Within a few years, the young self-taught artist had established himself as a painter of ship portraits. By 1874, he was exhibiting work with the San Francisco Art Association. Deciding to further his artistic skills, he went to Europe in 1876 and visited the art centers in London, Paris, Antwerp, Brussels, and Copenhagen, where he studied with noted marine painter Wilhelm Melbye (1824–1882).

In 1896, Coulter became the waterfront artist—sketching in pen and ink—for the San Francisco Call. His sense of history impelled him to produce works that documented major events in San Francisco maritime history. His career as a maritime artist-reporter ended with the 1906 earthquake and fire. As ferries transported evacuees away from the burning city, Coulter made several trips with them, sketching. He painted a stunning panoramic view of the evacuation, using a large linen window shade (60 x 120 inches) as a canvas.

Many of Coulter’s San Francisco paintings are of ships anchored in San Francisco Bay or heading out to sea. The works convey a wonderful sense of place, a nineteenth-century record of the environs of Northern California.



Works in Our Collection

William Alexander Coulter
Point Bonita Lighthouse
Oil on canvas, 1891
22 x 16 inches
Gift of the Carl S. Dentzel Estate


Access Granted!