The Maritime Art of William Coulter

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park



PART ONE: Introduction

00:09 Hi! I’m Sabrina Oliveros. I’m a Park Guide here at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.

00:15 You may best know our park for our fleet of historic ships on Hyde Street Pier. But, today, I’m going to talk to you about ships from a different perspective – particularly, the perspective of the marine painter William Coulter, who is one of the artists featured in our park’s museum collections.

00:33 Coulter was a prolific painter and newspaper artist and was considered the pre-eminent marine artist of his time.

00:40 His body of work was produced in a time before the use of photography was widespread, and now, it provides us with an unmatched record of the waterfront during the Age of Sail and the early 20th century.

PART TWO: Records of the Maritime World

00:53 William Coulter’s drawings for the San Francisco Call, of various waterfront events and activities, also give us a much clearer idea of how the maritime world worked.

01:04 For example, the drawings over here can show a steamer providing supplies to a schooner.

01:11 Or a sailing ship trying to right a steamer that is listing over because of its ballast.

01:18 And there’s also another drawing of a tugboat letting go of the hawser rope as it has led a sailing ship farther out into sea.

01:26 And there are also drawings that show much more dramatic events, such as the capsizing of the Blairmore in Mission Bay in 1896, and the subsequent rescue efforts that, unfortunately, failed.

01:41 Through Coulter’s works, we have a record of the kinds of vessels that used to fill the Bay. For example, in this painting, we see a tugboat, a three-masted ship, a schooner, a fishing sloop, and a steamer.

2:00 None of these can still be seen out on the water and the last representatives of their kind are now the museum ships we have on Hyde Street Pier.

02:11 Through Coulter’s works, we also have a record of vessels the likes of which have never been seen again.

02:18 For example, this is the passenger ship Harvard, the twin sister of the Yale. Both ships were famous for being able to transport passengers from San Diego to Los Angeles to San Francisco, round-trip, in just 12 hours.

02:33 Here, we see the Harvard about to enter the Golden Gate Strait. It’s passing several landmarks, some of which can still be seen today.

02:42 For example, there’s Ocean Beach, Cliff House, Sutro Baths, the Mile Rock Lighthouse, and Fort Point.

PART THREE: Art as a Tool for History

02:55 But how can we use art as a tool for learning about history? Doesn’t using art as a tool have its own limitations?

03:03 To state what might sound obvious, for example, a painting is not a photograph. There’s a bigger tendency for the portrayal to be subjective than objective. We can’t as easily rely on a painting as a visual, historical, scientific record as we could do with a photo.

03:22 Let’s take a closer look at this early work from William Coulter, which is also not a typical work from him.

03:30 He made it in 1875, and it is a view of the Bay from Meiggs Wharf. Meiggs Wharf was located roughly where Fisherman’s Wharf is today with one key difference: it extended 200 feet farther out into the water.

03:46 Now, look closely at the sails of each of the ships. Doesn’t it seem like the wind is blowing in several different and conflicting directions?

03:57 This painting might show a pretty picture of what it was like on the Bay that day, but we can’t say the same about accurate weather conditions.

PART FIVE: Schooner in Distress and Lee Shore

04:09 There are other ways that artists can romanticize the scene that they’re trying to dramatize. Let’s take a look at this early work by Coulter, which he did when he was about 21 or 22. It’s called Schooner in Distress.

04:24 The painting is very atmospheric and dramatic, with a striking single beam of light coming from a rescue ship. But if we wanted to learn something more specific about this event, we wouldn’t really have anything much more to work with.

04:40 We can understand the feeling of the moment as the schooner is in distress, but not much more of the facts why it came to be there, and what’s going to happen next.

04:51 But William Coulter was no ordinary artist. He came from a family of Irish seafarers. His father was a captain with the coast guard, and his two older brothers were captains with the merchant service.

05:04 Coulter himself went to sea, starting out as a cabin boy. But he later ended his seafaring career due to an injury. Then, he worked for a while as a sailmaker until he was eventually able to work as a full-time painter.

05:19 All this to say, Coulter’s first-hand experiences at sea informed his art, and his accuracy in depicting the details of ships was much appreciated in San Francisco by shipbuilders, ship owners, captains, and sailors – all of whom knew, so to speak, that Coulter knew his stuff.

05:38 Let’s take a look at how that plays out in this painting called Lee Shore. In this painting, a full-rigged ship is in distress. One of its royal sails is already in tatters as the crew struggles in the midst of a storm to steer it clear of a rocky shore.

05:56 Captain Fred Klebingat, a lifelong sailor and maritime historian who sailed on similar ships, had this to say of the piece: “[The painting] was that real that I used to go in my spare time and stare at it.”

PART SIX: The Capsizing of the Blairmore 06:11 Staring at ships, of course, was one other reason Coulter produced realistic artworks. He said, “I watched the papers for news of unusual ships coming into the port, or for wrecks. Sometimes, I painted the ship going down from the descriptions of the survivors.”

06:30 As a newspaper artist for the San Francisco Call, Coulter would have also gone to the waterfront to capture events as they unfolded, much as a photojournalist would today.

06:41 Consider that, as a newspaper artist for the San Francisco Call, Coulter would have been making these sketches while looking at the scene from the shore. And, as he was making those sketches, he would have to have had a deadline for the news cycle.

06:56 Nonetheless, technical details of the scene, such as the chaos of the spars and rigging on the capsizing ship, and the frantic postures of the men trying to rescue the trapped crew, still come through.

07:10 The rescue effort for the trapped crew ultimately failed. But the Blairmore itself was salvaged. And from there, its history crosses paths with our park.

07:20 The Alaska Packers Association later acquired it, turned it into a salmon packet, and renamed it the Star of England.

07:28 Our own square-rigger at Hyde Street Pier, the Balclutha, has a similar story. After running aground, it was also salvaged, and renamed Star of Alaska. And in fact, the Star of England and the Star of Alaska competed for the fastest sailing record, and Balclutha won.

PART SEVEN: General Grant’s Return to America Aboard City of Tokio 07:47 Aside from documenting dramatic events in his newspaper illustrations, William Coulter also put some of those events onto canvas.

07:56 For this painting, we can’t say exactly where Coulter was on the day itself, if he himself was watching from the shore. But his depiction of the event lines up with contemporary accounts.

08:08 Here’s what the journalist John Russell Young, who was on board the City of Tokio, said about that day. Quote: “The sun setting behind the hills as we steamed into the Golden Gate, the lines of brown hills, the puffs of smoke that told of salutes fired so far off that the sound of the cannons could scarcely be heard, the welcoming of the foghorns, the trim and bending yachts bright with flags, the huge steamers covered with people coming out to meet us and cheering again and again, and the cheers from the thousands who swarmed on Telegraph Hill, as our vessel slowly steamed past, and finally, the brilliant, blazing city which burst up on us.”


08:58 There are many more works by William Coulter, and there are many other marine artists besides him whose work can help us better understand, and better visualize, our maritime past.

09:10 If this video has in any way piqued your curiosity about using art as a tool for learning more about history, you can explore our park’s online resources, including another video we have made of a Coulter painting that depicts the arrival of the San Carlos, the first European ship to make it into San Francisco Bay.

09:29 But that’s all for today. I hope you’ve enjoyed the paintings you’ve seen. Thank you for watching.


San Francisco Maritime is best known for our fleet of historic ships on Hyde Street Pier. But, this presentation is about ships from a different perspective – particularly, the perspective of the marine painter William Coulter, who was a prolific painter and newspaper artist and was considered the pre-eminent marine artist during the Age of Sail and the early 20th century.


10 minutes, 31 seconds


Sabrina Oliveros/NPS

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