This painting came across my Twitter feed this week, and as soon as I saw it I knew I had to share it in the Historic Painting series. Like a CGI scene out of a modern disaster movie, this view of San Francisco during the fire of 1906 is an eye-popping spectacle. The city lies in flames in the background, with the shadowy outlines of major landmarks barely visible against the fire. Residents are fleeing the port city in anything that will float. (An alternate title of this painting is Evacuation of San Francisco). You can see the interesting time at which the disaster occurred, because there are both old-time sailing ships and steam-powered vessels visible. This could well be the end of a great city’s history, but as we all know, San Francisco rose again, and William A. Coulter, the artist who created this picture, went on to document its resurrection.
What happened to San Francisco in 1906 was a double-barreled disaster. The catastrophic earthquake that struck the city early on the morning of April 18, 1906 was one of the biggest quakes ever recorded in modern times. Its destruction was devastating enough, but the quake damaged gas mains in various parts of the city, and fires broke out as a result. Compounded by other fires, like the “Ham and Eggs” fire supposedly caused by a woman cooking breakfast for her family on an earthquake-damaged stove, the blazes quickly consumed the entire city of San Francisco. Nearly 80% of the city was totally destroyed. The city was rebuilt, but the legacy of the earthquake and fire still looms large in its history.
William Alexander Coulter was a long-time San Francisco resident, but he was actually born in Northern Ireland in 1849 and settled in San Francisco at the age of 20. Though not well-known as a painter in our time, he was a pretty passable maritime artist and painted many shipping and nautical scenes of San Francisco history. He lived to the ripe old age of 87 and died in Sausalito. San Francisco Fire is his most famous painting, though several other examples of his work are well-known, such as the murals at the Merchants Exchange Building. (It is unclear to me whether this is one of them).