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Swinnerton, James [American, 1875-1974]


[ 20th Century Artists ]
portrait

Born in Eureka, California, James Swinnerton became a famous painter of desert landscapes following a successful career as an illustrator and cartoonist.

His mother died when he was young, and his father, the son of a Forty-Niner at Dutch Flat, started the newspaper, the Humboldt Star in Humboldt County and then became a judge in Stockton. Swinnerton was raised by an uncle in Santa Clara and first took art classes at the California School of Art with Emil Carlsen. He ignored many assignments and did caricatures of his teachers.

He went to work at age 17 for the San Francisco Examiner where he became a favorite of owner/ publisher William Randolph Hearst, who was impressed by the caricatures. Swinnerton did cartoons of sporting events and for weather forecasts drew comic bears, pantomimes of the weather, which became so popular that they were the first syndicated comic strips. When Hearst, went to New York to start a Sunday supplement, he joined him and there launched the comic strips, Little Jimmy and Little Tiger. With his Little Jimmy comic strip, he holds the American record for the oldest comic strip in existence created by the same artist.

A combination of alcoholism, exhaustion, and tuberculosis forced him to quit, but Hearst sent him to a sanatorium in Colton, California, where he was expected to die. However, giving up drinking and recovering from tuberculosis, he lived to the age of 99, moving in 1903 to the desert of Palm Springs where he became a great favorite and lodger of Mrs. Nellie Coffman who owned the Desert Inn.

From 1907, traveling with burro, sketching pad, and sleeping in the open air, he ranged over the entire Southwest, painting the Arizona desert, Grand Canyon, and Navajo scenes as well as many California landscapes. This subject matter and lifestyle set the pattern for his career. He moved for a period to Flagstaff to be near the Navajos, and Hearst visited him there. All this time, he continued the Little Jimmy series and for Good Housekeeping Magazine added Canyon Kiddies, Indian children doing all sorts of antics, and this series became highly popular.

He married Gretchen Parshall in 1938, ultimately settled in Cathedral City, California, and kept studios in Los Angeles and Palm Springs. His oil paintings, especially the ones of his later years, had a delicate blending of soft colors and lighting. In 1969, retrospective exhibitions of his work were held in Flagstaff and Palm Springs.

The image that accompanies this article is a self-portrait sketch drawn by Swinnerton in 1896.


  Swinnerton, James [American, 1875-1974]

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