By the early 1930s Swinnerton’s artistic career was thriving but his marriage was deteriorating. Despite being well paid from his work as a cartoonist, the generous spending habits of both James and Louise had drained their resources and left them deeply in debt. In 1933 Swinnerton, who the San Francisco Chronicle reported had “for several years been living in the desert country”, moved to Las Vegas, Nevada. It was a temporary move to establish residency for a divorce which he felt was imminent. He divorced Louise and within months he married his fourth wife, Gretchen Richardson. The marriage would last forty years until his death in 1974.
While a resident of Las Vegas, Swinnerton began making sketching trips to Death Valley and the surrounding high desert mountain ranges. Although he continued his summer trips to northern Arizona, he began spending more time in the Colorado Desert southeast of Palm Springs. During this time the Salton Sea became one of his favorite subject matters. Although the landscape was less colorful than northern Arizona, and harder to paint, he found the area well suited for his limited palette. “Every minute in the desert is all new and completely different from anything that has been or will be. The difficult thing is to catch it quickly before the sands blow or the shadows on the hills shift and create a new picture.”
“I don’t use many colors. Two blues, one green, blue black, several reds –I’m finding all the time that it’s how you use them, not the number involved. Light is superimposed on darkness. You can notice that as the day grows long. There are so many parts to a landscape that attention must be paid to all of them. The clouds should float, instead of looking like rocks. The sky should be air, not blue paint. Each bit of vegetation is different; every shrub is an individual. Distance should be muted, the foreground accentuated. When I can accomplish these things, a feeling comes out of that picture –a feeling that goes from hand to hand, from brain to brain, from heart to heart. Then I am on the same wave length with other people.”
To compensate for the more muted natural settings he began adding blossoming Palo Verde, Smoke or Ironwood trees to his canvasses. Of color, Swinnerton observed “All color is different for all time. Each manifestation of it is a symphony by itself occurring every moment.” He never painted from photographs, instead keeping “an array of desert stones” in his studio to help determine if he had “caught the true color and tone on canvas”.
Throughout Swinnerton’s career his style remained purely representational, his paintings nearly always a literal and faithful interpretation of the scene he was conveying. This derived from a combination of Swinnerton’s attachment to his subject matter and his belief that nature was always in perfect balance and could not be improved upon. “Just you put full confidence in the lady and she’ll show you all her secrets”. The isolation in which he worked was also a contributing factor. He could purely for the love of painting and create completely detached and unconcerned with movements or trends in other parts of the art world.
Soon after Swinnerton’s marriage to Gretchen the couple moved to Hollywood where they lived an active social life. The Swinnertons entertained at their home frequently with visitors including Norman Rockwell to Will Rogers. Swinnerton’s ability as an entertaining story teller, as well as an accomplished cartoonist and artist, made him a sought after speaker on the “rubber chicken and peas” lecture circuit. The two often planned to spend vacations in various parts of the globe, yet every summer found the pair again living amongst the Navajo and Hopi. In a 1938 article Gretchen Swinnerton wrote “Each year from the first of June until the latter part of July, desert fever stirs our household with a grip stronger than an octopus…Why I do this each year I have never been able to figure out because it’s the same trip, same road, auto camps and climate, and has been for the last several years...” She added that the two had decided to “tour Old Mexico next year, and I’ll keep my fingers crossed until summer comes again”, but concluded “I know Jimmy, and we will see Arizona again next year.”
Swinnerton’s most frequent sketching partner in the 1950’s was Bill Bender. Bender was a working cowboy turned artist in his early thirties who had “since the age of ten idolized Jimmy Swinnerton and his outdoor-living style of life”. Nearly sixty years later Bender recalls the sketching trips as rather routine. “I can say Jimmy and I wore out three cars and did a heap of traveling together....Most always the same places, year after year. Although he was a great story teller and kept the folks spellbound, he and I never exchanged too much conversation as he liked to travel fast. Consequently with the windows down (and) no air conditioning the noise didn't make for too much conversation. Then when we sketched he was concentrating on the subject and even spoke less. However we did talk but mostly about trivial things such as the weather, the landscape or those people on TV".
Well known Western artist R. Brownell McGrew, who also accompanied Swinnerton on many of his trips in the Coachella Valley in the 1950’s, noted “Jim’s Sketching methods were an education in themselves and profited me in a most direct manner even though our approach to painting was basically very different.” McGrew recalled that “others of us were stumbling about making up our minds”, Swinnerton never took long to “make a decision as to scene and viewpoint.”
The last Sunday edition of Little Jimmy ran in 1958. Although it marked the end of Swinnerton’s storied career as a cartoonist he remained on the Hearst payroll until his death. Swinnerton’s last paintings were created in the early 1960’s. He continued to sketch but lamented that his hands were no longer steady enough to produce quality work on canvas. In his later years several field sketches, which Swinnerton had accumulated over five decades of travels, were released into the market.
Measuring 12” x 16” on board, the “sketches” were actually unsigned quick studies painted in oil, typically very primitive and unfinished. Rather than provide a detailed representation, their purpose was more to capture the important features of the final painting, primarily color, composition and the outline of the landscape. Swinnerton noted, “The field sketches often turn out more interesting than the finished painting because they accentuate the most important points. And they’re a good idea for the time when your legs begin to give out on you –you just make a selection and take up where you left off 30 years ago.”
Ginger Renner, owner of the Desert Southwest Gallery, recalls that for years Gretchen had tried unsuccessfully to convince her husband to sign his sketches. Finally he relented. Renner says that sometime in the late 1960’s she and the Swinnertons set up an “assembly line” whereby Gretchen handed the sketches to “Swinny”, who then signed them with a ball point pen and handed them to Renner for stacking and archiving. Within two days hundreds of sketches, all that he owned, had been signed. The event is significant in that several sketches can be found in the marketplace today with his signature painted in oil. In such cases the signature has clearly been modified by someone other than Swinnerton, as all of his field sketches were originally signed in ball point pen.
For years Swinnerton kept nudging his wife to return to the desert and in 1965 they purchased a house in Palm Desert, California. He viewed the rapid growth of the area's communities with a certain amount of amusement, commenting to Ed Ainsworth “When I first went to Palm Springs, most people in the United States thought the desert was the worst place in the world. For fifty years I’ve been kidded or prodded for trying to educate people to make them realize the desert is a place of beauty. Now you should see ‘em! I sat on a little hill down by Point Happy not long ago on a Sunday –the roads to Indio, Palm Springs, La Quinta, Indian Wells, Palm Desert were clogged with cars. Old ladies, men, kids were running around with color cameras and paint brushes oohing and ahing over the desert. They’ve just discovered it.”
Swinnerton celebrated his birthdays well into his nineties. He attributed his longevity to “Abstinence from abstinence”, and advised younger people to “Have a sense of humor. Have a sense of humor. And eat plenty of raw eggs.” Although his birthday parties tended to be lively events, attended by celebrities ranging from Walt Disney to Leo Carrillo, for the most part he lived out his years quietly in the desert where he came to die seven decades earlier. He passed away at the California Convalescent Hospital in Palm Springs on September 5, 1974.
Just prior to his death, Gretchen Swinnerton summarized her husband’s life. “He is the only person I know who managed to have his cake and eat it too. He went through life doing what he liked to do and earned a living at the same time.”
Swinnerton himself observed his work was intended to “…show my appreciation for the wonders about me. I can call attention to others to appreciate those wonders, and when they can appreciate perfection in nature and never stop looking for it, I have accomplished my purpose.”
It has been said that Swinnerton’s artistic career was a tribute to the desert that saved him from an early death. The experience led him on a journey to chronicle and portray the land which not only served as his inspiration but gave him a new life as well. We are fortunate that the gratitude and reverence for his subject matter are still here for all to see.
Essay by Gary Fillmore
Ainsworth, Ed. Painters of the Desert. Palm Desert: Desert Magazine 1960
“Arist Swinnerton and His Bride”. San Francisco Call October 23, 1897
“Artist Swinnerton Lively 91” LA Herald Examiner November 1966
Davidson, Harold G. Jimmy Swinnerton: The Artist and His Work. New York: Hearst Books, 1985
Hillinger, Charles. “Laugh Maker Celebrates his 97th Birthday” Los Angeles Times November 13, 1972
“James Swinnerton” Palm Springs Life. February 1968
“Old Artist Gets Better with Age.” Parade. April 24, 1966
“Swinnerton” LA Herald Examiner August 12, 1967
“Swinnerton, 92, still loves the desert”. Long Beach Press-Enterprise August 12, 1967
“The Wife of a Desert Painter Speaks” The Los Angeles Times November 27, 1938
Tostada, Al “Three Generations Remember ‘Little Jimmy-Canyon Kids’ The Desert Sun August 12, 1968
Untitled Article Iowa Press Citizen August 23, 1924
Untitled Article. The San Francisco Examiner, November 18, 1894
“Without Grandma’s bread there may not have been a Swinnerton painting”. Riverside Daily Enterprise. January 6, 1967
Interviews by Gary Fillmore with Ginger Renner(2007) and Daryl Getzlaff(2009)
Correspondence by Gary Fillmore with Bill Bender(2009)
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