English born painter, Joseph Lee, arrived in California in 1858 and quickly earned a reputation as a highly skilled maritime artist whose paintings of ship portraits displayed meticulously rendered detail. The present work was executed circa 1868 and masterfully demonstrates Lee's ability to render scenes of historical narrative with exceptional technical skill and reverence for his natural surroundings.
Little remains known about Lee, making the present work an important and rare discovery to appear in the market. A companion painting entitled Alameda Shore (Bird Point) resides in the collection of the M.H de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco. Measuring 27 5/8 x 48¾ inches, the painting similarly depicts the pier from Alameda stretching into the San Francisco harbor with a hunter and dogs in the foreground. This painting, which also depicts a train on the pier, was commissioned by Alfred Andrew Cohen, owner and president of the railroad completed in 1864 known locally as Cohen's Line. "The tracks of Cohen's Line began at Alameda wharf, shown here, and provided transportation between High Street and the Alameda and San Francisco Ferry another of Cohen's enterprises. The buildings at the right are those of the Alameda Oil Works, established in 1868 by Samuel Orr." (Archival notes courtesy of the M.H. de Young Museum)
The present painting, Bird's Hotel (Bird's Point, Alameda) carries impeccable provenance, having descended in the same family from the time of the painting's creation circa 1868. George Bird established the Bird Hotel at the foot of Pacific Avenue in Alameda in 1864 in order to accommodate the construction workers for the new Southern Pacific Railroad, as well as to house the sportsman who favored the marshes in the area for shooting. "The section which grew up around the Bird Hotel was known as Woodstock. The name was from the little town in Oxfordshire, England, the birthplace of the Bird brothers...The settlement became early noted for entertainment, including boxing as well as hunting. Woodstock developed in the 70's into Alameda's fashionable West End community. San Francisco notables came on weekends and holidays in fall and winter to hunt ducks and pigeons in the open country between the wharf and the several settlements." (A. Erskine, unpublished article for Antiques magazine, 1968) Naturally, Joseph Lee was among the visitors to the settlement and was commissioned to paint the private yachts of many of the wealthy seasonal residents, including Robert Louis Stevenson's family, among others. Lee also became a close friend of the Bird family and presented the present work to George Bird as a gift and even included a portrait of the hotel proprietor as seen in the hunter in the lower left portion of the composition.
Throughout the composition Lee has included several vignettes that together make Bird's Hotel (Bird's Point, Alameda) an expansive and complete scene depicting early settlement in California. The painting is as much about this assimilation as it is a picture of the distinct landscape of Alameda itself. At left the Sophie MacLane paddle steamer approaches the pier as the Cohen Line train moves from the land to greet new visitors to the right. The waterfront continues with various activity with two rowboats in the lower left corner and a stretch of masts along the distant shoreline along the right horizon indicating the growth of this burgeoning harbor. Distinguishing the present work from the painting at the M.H. de Young Museum, Lee has included the Bird Hotel at far right with additional hunters and dogs, rendered with technical mastery and attention to detail rarely found in artists of the day. Bird's Hotel (Bird's Point, Alameda) provides viewers with a remarkably early yet stylistically mature painting that captures a diverse and intimate view of both the bountiful supply of nature as well as the beginning urbanization of northern California.