Posted by: Sandy Steinman | February 8, 2021

JAMES MCNEIL WHISTLER’S  ANACAPA ISLAND SEAGULLS 

ARTIST JAMES MCNEIL WHISTLER’S  ANACAPA ISLAND SEAGULLS PREDATE HIS MOTHER’S PORTRAIT BY 17 YEARS

James Abbott McNeil Whistler (1834-1903)
It was in 1854 that a young James Whistler sought a job as an engraver working in the cartographic section of the U.S. Coast Survey in Washington, D.C.  He was but 20 years old, and he was hired. According to reports: “Working for the government in those days was a free-and easy business, and the boys sent the messenger out every afternoon for a can of grog. Whistler was one of the ringleaders. Again and again the head men reprimanded him, but they needed him.” And he needed the pay—$1.50 a day.

Whistler did his job well, drawing maps, coastline charts and geodetic sketches. But the artist in him couldn’t resist embellishing his handiwork with mermaids, sea serpents and even smiling spouting whales. Admonished for a final time, he was told in no uncertain terms that if he “ever again desecrated perfectly good maps with animal life he could consider himself discharged.”

View of the Eastern extremity of Anacapa Island from the Southwest (1854)
Along came Whistler’s View of the Eastern extremity of Anacapa Island from the Southwest — complete with sea gulls — and there went his government job. Whistler famously proclaimed: “Surely the birds don’t detract from the sketch. Anacapa Island couldn’t look as blank as that map did before I added the birds!” In 1855 Whistler resigned in disgust. He never visited Anacapa Island.

Two years later (1856) the Coast Survey reprinted his East Anacapa Island view without the seagulls, however clouds were added. The above copy was hand-tinted. [Note: Although historic records call these birds were called “Sea Gulls,” to this Curiosity Correspondent they look more like Pelicans flying in formation. Both Gulls and Pelicans nest at Anacapa Island.]

In the 1980s, when the last of the U.S. Government reprints of Whistler’s View of the Eastern extremity of Anacapa Island from the Southwest (1854) unexpectedly became available, the Santa Cruz Island Foundation purchased them all.

While supplies last, we will send a Whistler Anacapa Island map with each $50 donation to our Acquisitions Fund (limited one per person). Most suitable for framing, and a great gift with an interesting history! This government reprint map of View of the Eastern extremity of Anacapa Island from the Southwest (1854) page size is 8.5 by 10 inches.

Special thanks to California Islands enthusiast Stuart Wilson, All 8 Club Member #184, for suggesting this topic!


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