Two Historic Paintings: Denali (by Laurence) and William McKinley (by Benziger).

denali by sydney lawrence

Here’s a rare two-fer on this blog: two historic paintings that, by a fluke in the news this week, actually go together! Or perhaps not…at least not anymore, which is why they’re news. This week (the week beginning August 31, 2015) President Barack Obama issued a proclamation officially changing the name of the United States’s highest mountain, which is in Alaska, to Denali. That name, which is a Native American word, was historically what most people called the mountain until June 1896, when gold prospector William Dickey decided to rename it “Mt. McKinley” after William McKinley, the Republican nominee for President of the United States. McKinley was, of course, elected, and the name stuck, officially being designated Mt. McKinley in 1917. A long dispute about changing the name back simmered from the 1970s onward and finally ended this year with the act of Obama and his Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell. The renaming has triggered a hue and cry from conservative politicians, especially those from Ohio, McKinley’s home state. Speaker of the House John Boehner, who evidently doesn’t have more important things to do, criticized the renaming, though most people seem to approve of it being called Denali, as it has been for many decades.

The painting at the top of this article, which is of Denali, is by Sidney Laurence, a landscape painter who came out of the Romanticist tradition and who, living in Alaska during the productive period of his life, often painted the stunning vistas around him. In this painting I see echoes of the “romantic nationalist” pictures of Frederic Church, like Chimborazo, and even Gude & Tidemand’s Bridal Party from Norway in 1848. Clearly this picture is intended to meld natural beauty with a nationalist sentiment and the same sort of conservationist ethos that led President Theodore Roosevelt, McKinley’s successor, to establish National Parks. I’m not sure when this picture was painted, but I believe it was during the decade of the 1910s. It is now on display at the Anchorage Museum in Anchorage, Alaska. Laurence died in 1940.

This painting, obviously of President William McKinley, is by August Benziger, a 19th-20th century portrait painter who was known for his pictures of world leaders and other important people. Benziger was born in Eisiedeln, Switzerland. He studied in Munich and Vienna and eventually wound up in the United States in the late 1890s. This portrait, dated 1897, is the official portrait of McKinley and now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Benziger died in 1955 in New York City, and McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, in Buffalo, New York in September 1901.

McKinley must have been a difficult man to paint–or at least paint flatteringly. He was actually one of our fatter Presidents, and his face had a very severe look due to his eternally dark-ringed, deep eye sockets and downward-raked bushy eyebrows. People said he looked like a President. Despite his reputation for pursuing imperialist policies he was a deeply moral and Christian man. He’s one of the more difficult Presidents for historians to evaluate, with his historical reputation often changing depending on the times. Certainly an interesting study.

I like the name Denali. I don’t think McKinley–who never visited the mountain–would disapprove of the name change.

Both of these paintings are in the public domain.


  1. Actually I do approve of the renaming back to the original “Danali”. The mountain was known to Inuit, Native Americans, and American settlers by that name before and after 1897, and even the national park the mountain was in when called “Mt. McKinley” was Danali National Park.

    Aside from it’s name the only major issue in it’s history was the 1906 to the present question of whether or not Dr. Frederick Cook managed (in a remarkably short time) to climb to it’s top by a route he was the first Caucasian explorer to find. He claimed he did, and wrote a book, “To the Top of the Continent”, complete with photographs. One showed him at the peak. Then some mountain climbers found evidence that he lied about the climb and even showed how to fake that shot of him at the top of the mountain. His defenders claim these detractors were paid by Cook’s enemies after he got into an argument with Commander Robert Peary over who reached the North Pole first, Cook in 1908 or Peary in 1909. However, although most now say neither actually reached the Pole as they claim (though Peary did come closer to it than Cook did), Cook’s proofs of his success at the Pole lacks even the “record keeping” made by Peary, so his claims to the Pole are as dismissed by most people as his claims to the top of Mt. Danali.

    My only other thought regarding the change (or renaming) of the mountain is why don’t we do it with other mountains named for statesmen in the U.S. Pike’s Peak in Colorado, for example, or Mounts Washington and Adams in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Why just stop at Danali?

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