Painting on exhibit commemorates purchase of Alaska

February 6, 2017

Theresa Bakker

A 19th-century painting on display at the University of Alaska Museum of the North through the end of February depicts the 1867 signing of the treaty to purchase Alaska. It will tour the state to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the event.

The artist, German-born Emanuel Leutze, also created one of the better-known paintings in American history, a depiction of Gen. George Washington crossing the Delaware River during the American Revolution.

“The man who made Washington stand up in the boat was also responsible for the most important historical painting in Alaskan history,” said Terrence Cole, a UAF history professor.

A public lecture featuring Cole and Kes Woodward, UAF professor emeritus of art, will take place Saturday, Feb. 11, at 11 a.m. in the museum.

In “Signing of the Alaska Treaty,” Leutze imagined the setting at Secretary of State William H. Seward’s office at the State Department in Washington, D.C., during the early morning hours of March 30, 1867. The event occurred after all-night negotiations led to the signing of the Treaty of Cession with Russia and the purchase of Alaska by the United States. The painting focuses on Seward at his desk with a pile of maps next to a giant globe, implying the great future of the United States as an international power.

Leutze’s original painting is about 40 inches high and 60 inches wide. It is part of the permanent collection at the Seward House Museum in Auburn, New York. It has never been exhibited in Alaska.

Cole said Alaskans mistakenly believed for decades that the painting had been lost or destroyed. “However, in the 1930s the painting was discovered to be in the possession of the Seward family,” he said.

Subsequently, two copies of the historic painting were made in 1934 as part of the Federal Art Project under the Works Progress Administration. One was given to the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the other still hangs in the Alaska State Museum in Juneau.

A statewide team of museums and cultural organizations has organized a touring exhibit of Leutze’s original 1867 painting in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau. The painting traveled to Alaska thanks to help from FedEx and Alaska Airlines. The Alaska Historical Commission funded the project as part of its program to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Alaska Treaty of Cession.