Friday, March 21, 2008

Albert Sheldon Pennoyer

Bucking Snow in the Sierras
c. 1940’s
Oil on canvas
Collection of the NMA, Gift of Ella Savitt

Born in Oakland, California in 1888, Albert Sheldon Pennoyer was raised in nearby Berkeley, where he studied at the University of California for a year, before moving to Paris to study architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. There he realized that his true interest lay in painting. He gave up his studies and returned to the U.S. when WWI began. He had homes on the East Coast in New York City and Litchfield, Connecticut, but spent almost equal time in California. He had a small studio cabin at his brother’s home at Lake Tahoe, and ventured forth from there to explore the Sierra, Virginia City, and Pyramid Lake. He is especially well known for his winter scenes, as well as his railroad images. He was the author/illustrator of two books, This Was California (1938), and Locomotives in our Lives (1954). He was equally proficient in oils, gouache, and pastels. Pennoyer died in an automobile accident in Madrid in 1957.

The NMA’s painting, Bucking Snow in the Sierras, shows steam engines clearing snow from the tracks near Donner Pass. More recently trains have been equipped with rotary plows that shoot the snow off to the sides. From what we have learned, this painting depicts the old method of bucking snow, which involved a steam locomotive with a wedge plow. The engine would get a running start and slam through the snow. The train also carried men who would jump out and shovel snow. Some of the snow was melted to produce more steam power for the locomotives. There appear to be four engines in the painting, and it always yields a great conversation with guests. Someday a docent will be lucky enough to have an old railroad man on a tour to tell us how it was firsthand!

Research note prepared by Kathleen Durham and Lois Smalley.