James Swinnerton had a long and varied career as newspaper and magazine illustrator, cartoonist, and as a painter of the desert Southwest. Swinnerton had shown an interest in drawing as a child and enrolled in the California School of Design in San Francisco in 1891, when he was just sixteen. An interest in caricature and cartooning led to his job at the San Francisco Examiner, one of William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers. Hired in 1892, Swinnerton created illustrations for the sports and editorial pages and created a cartoon bear, used to illustrate the weather forecast. The “Weather Bear” soon evolved into multiple-panel feature called The Little Bear, considered to be one of the earliest newspaper comic strips.
Swinnerton moved to New York, where he worked for several years. Then, in 1903, he received a terminal diagnosis of tuberculosis. Hoping for a cure, he moved to the desert Southwest. There the desert climate revitalized the artist, and he not only recovered but lived a full and productive life until the age of ninety-eight. He continued with his newspaper work and created other cartoon characters. Among them was Little Jimmy, which he created in 1904 and ran as a feature strip until 1958. Finding inspiration from the indigenous Hopi and Navajo people of the Southwest, he created another long-running feature The Canyon Kiddies, a feature that ran in Good Housekeeping magazine for nearly twenty years. Both Little Jimmy and The Canyon Kiddies were also made into animated features.
In 1909, Swinnerton made what would be the first of many journeys into the Colorado Plateau, the region centered in the four corners of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. There, he found inspiration as a painter, capturing the extraordinary beauty of the geological wonders in “Red Rock Country.” His most prolific period as a painter was in the 1920s. His Grand Canyon paintings are noted for their realistic interpretation and expansive vistas. Here the foreground details of trees, rocks, and shrub frame the picture, while, at center, a dramatic rocky ledge invites the viewer for a closer view of the majestic scene. Swinnerton stated “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.”
Oil on canvas, c. 1930
30 x 36 1/2 inches
Gift of the Virginia Steele Scott Foundation