James G. Swinnerton is not remembered strictly as a Nevada artist. However, mention the name "Jimmy" Swinnerton, and his popular cartoon series "Little Jimmy" in the Hearst newspapers might come to mind. Swinnerton's poor health was a major reason for his sketching and painting in the dry climate of Southern Nevada. His paintings have been characterized as straight forward, not influenced by the more expressive styles of his day. For a time in the 1930s, he resided in Las Vegas, and died in Palm Springs at age ninety-eight.
Below is reprinted with permission from the Nevada Historical Society Quarterly.
Nevada Historical Society Quarterly
Volume 33, Summer 1990, Number 2
Jerry A. Schefcik
JAMES G. SWINNERTON (1875-1974)
During the last half of the 1800s, the United States was experiencing growth and prosperity as never before. Pioneers in all fields were drawn to the American West to try their luck at mining, commerce, ranching, agriculture, publishing, and even art. Artists such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran romanticized the mountains of Colorado and Wyoming. New Mexico captured the hearts of a group that became known as the Taos Society of Artists, with painters like Ernest L. Blumenschein, Herbert Dunton, and Joseph Sharp. Others, such as Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, roamed the plains states and immortalized the cowboy. California was home to another artist population, one that was particularly interested in landscape painting and which included Maynard Dixon. Nevada had yet to attract the interest of skilled artists. Those associated with the state in the early years were here only on a temporary basis.
James "Jimmy" Guilford Swinnerton was one such artist—not native to Nevada but nonetheless influential on the state's cultural heritage. Swinnerton was born in Eureka, California, on November 13, 1875. His mother died only a few months after giving birth, which prompted his father to seek help from the boy's grandparents, who lived in the Santa Clara Valley. They reared the boy, and he enjoyed an adventurous childhood full of stories from his grandfather about the West and the Gold Rush. Swinnerton's father, who was founder and editor of the Humboldt Star, remarried, but it was not until the boy's grandmother died that he returned to live with his father and stepmother. When this arrangement did not work out, Swinnerton, at age fourteen, ran away to San Francisco. There he apprenticed to become a harness-racing jockey, a short-lived endeavor. Swinnerton's father searched him out, and together they discussed a more suitable career for the youth. He had shown talent for drawing and, with his father's approval, he elected to seek a career as an artist. His father enrolled him at the San Francisco Art School, where he studied with William Keith, one of California's best-known landscape painters, and Emil Carlsen.
Swinnerton's career in the fine arts did not begin immediately after his formal training. He was not particularly skilled as a painter in school,1 but showed great aptitude for caricature. His drawings were brought to the attention of newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst, who offered him a job in 1893 drawing cartoons for the San Francisco Examiner. Swinnerton accepted the offer and began drawing his comic strip "Little Jimmy." When Hearst expanded his newspaper empire with the New York Morning Journal, Swinnerton was asked to go east with the paper. He continued "Little Jimmy" as well as another strip, "Little Tigers," for the Sunday supplement.2 The turn of the century was also the golden era of the periodic journal, and Swinnerton drew for publications such as the Ladies' Home Journal and Good Housekeeping. He had an extremely successful career and an appropriately lush lifestyle.
As a free-spirited young man in his twenties, Swinnerton enjoyed perhaps too much of the extravagant life. A combination of alcoholism, exhaustion, and tuberculosis caused him to collapse on the job. Doctors told him he had only months to live. He was also advised that his only hope was to leave New York and move to a dry climate. He left for California at age twenty-eight. Swinnerton arrived in Colton, a popular location for people with tuberculosis, and took a room in the Alexandria Hotel, where he fully expected to die. It was not long before he and a newly acquired barmate, Charlie Trevathian, who also suffered from the disease, discovered that the climate was indeed restoring their health and that they were not going to die any time soon. Swinnerton's health improved, his spirits returned, and he determined to continue living in the West. From Colton, he moved to Palm Springs, where he resumed drawing cartoon strips for the Hearst publications. He also seriously began to paint desert landscapes.
Swinnerton was on the road a great deal exploring the country and experiencing life in several western states. While in Arizona, he became acquainted with businessman Harold Stocker, and the two became friends.3 In 1910, Stocker and his family left Arizona and moved to Las Vegas. With friends now living in Nevada, Swinnerton traveled there to visit and to sketch the desert landscape. The Stockers boarded Swinnerton in their properties whenever he came to Las Vegas. In 1933, he took up residence in a bungalow near the downtown area, and the Las Vegas Age reported an upcoming exhibit of his paintings of Southern Nevada.4 Richard Guy Walton, friend and associate of Swinnerton, recounts that the artist became a local celebrity of sorts who would frequent the casinos and bars on Fremont Street. He was a colorful personality, not too tall and with "a face like a frog." 5 Swinnerton's reputation as a cartoonist and artist preceded him, and other artists sought him out for instruction and tips on their drawing. His popularity and willingness to share his knowledge attracted a following of hopefuls such as Thomas A. Dorgan and Pruitt Carter, who were appropriately dubbed Swinnerton boys. As it turned out, Swinnerton lived a very long and productive life. He died in Palm Springs in 1974 at the age of ninety-eight.
As a painter, James Swinnerton is known for desert landscapes of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. The healing qualities of the desert undoubtedly served to endear the topography to him. He would ride a burro or drive his Studebaker sedan into the desert to observe and sketch it in its endless variety, and frequently took friends and other artists with him on his excursions. The time he spent observing the desert lands was very important in the development of his art. The desert requires time of the artist to observe, learn, and absorb the subtle beauty, changes in color, atmosphere, and qualities of light in such an environment. Appreciation and understanding followed observation, and the bright, arid, sun-filled skies; the barren, rocky mountains; the sparsely vegetated ground; the small, spiny plants; and the vast open expanse of land became good friends to Swinnerton.
Swinnerton's paintings are straight-forward, direct observations of the desert in which he lived. Though there undoubtedly existed a strong emotional attachment to the land, his paintings read more as documentation rather than emotionally expressive interpretations. Unlike landscapes of the previous generation, Swinnerton's paintings were not overly romantic, with exaggerated mountains, dramatic skies, or verdant foliage; he looked directly at his subject, with his feet planted firmly on the ground. Very little underpainting is evident, demonstrating a technique unlike more traditional painters who slowly built up areas of sepia-toned values before adding color. Swinnerton's palette was limited but very useful. It included "two blues, one green, blue black [and] several reds," 6 and he used it to define form, volume, and space rather than relying on extensive underpainting. The color is applied directly to the surface to portray the barren mountains, canyon walls, sandy dunes, expansive sky, and thin vegetation as accurately as possible. Swinnerton would keep an array of desert stones in his studio for comparison to check the painting as he progressed for trueness of color and tone.7 More traditional painters applied layers of transparent glaze to build a surface that glowed with light seemingly produced within the painting. The light in Swinnerton's pieces comes from an external source, resulting in an accurate description of the subject without emotional overtone.
One of the Swinnerton paintings owned by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas,8 is a depiction of an area near Mesquite, Nevada. It is an unadorned representation typical of Swinnerton's desert landscapes, its vertical format contrasting with the horizontal, low-lying desert. The scene is dominated by the broad expanse of sky that occupies almost half of the picture plane. The air is very dry and very warm, with a few wispy clouds blowing high above the earth. The rocky soil is sparsely covered with short brush and trees, that are evidence of the lack of rainfall in this environment. In fact, no living thing penetrates the sky above the horizon, which reemphasizes the severity of the climate. Even the distant hills lie close to the ground as if their growth also suffered from lack of moisture. A shallow ravine in the foreground shows layers of rock and sediment that are the result of rare flash floods, and the whole terrain looks worn and etched by the weather. There is no evidence of man in this work, as is the case with most of Swinnerton's paintings. (Even when evidence of man does appear, the desert remains the dominant element.) The coarse, sandy ground subtly changes its texture and color from one area to another, evidence of the response of one who has experienced and observed the desert firsthand. The light falling on the desert floor outlines dark shadows under the mesquite bushes and against the hills. No color or reflection from the sky overhead is evident in the shadow. Foreground, middle ground, background, and sky exist in distinct divisions, as the rhythm of the desert is meticulously observed and plotted for the painting.
James Swinnerton's paintings reveal his observations and intimate understanding of the environment that was his home for so many years. He joins a generation of artists who turned from journalism and illustration to record the exploration and development of the American West. One cannot discount the fact that his newspaper experience had an effect on the directness of his work. Critics of Swinnerton objected that his paintings "were not true because they did not conform to the old stereotype of the desert: a wasteland of sand and thorns." 9 Those who make the desert their home know the complexity belied by the sand and thorns. Swinnerton labored for a major portion of his career to communicate the beauty and variety of the desert that he understood so well; he established a timeless record of the desert environment.
1. Raymond Carlson, ed., Gallery of Western Painting (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1951), 75.
2. In 1951 "Little Jimmy" was cited as one of the first and oldest continuous-running comic strips still drawn by its originator. Carlson, Gallery of Western Painting, 66.
3. Chuck Renfroe, University of Nevada News Release, Las Vegas, UNLV News Bureau, 31 December 1977, 1.
4. Las Vegas Age, 21 December 1933, vol. 8, no. 5.
5. Richard Guy Walton, telephone interview with author, 22 November 1989.
6. Edward Ainsworth, Painters of the Desert (Palm Springs: Desert Printers, Inc., 1961), 37.
7. Ibid., 37.
8. This painting, the gift of Harold Stocker, is in the James H. Dickinson Library Special Collection.
9. Carlson, Gallery, 75.
None at this time.
None at this time.