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James Swinnerton

 (1875 - 1974)
James Guilford (Jimmy) Swinnerton was active/lived in California.  James Swinnerton is known for desert landscape and Indian figure painting, cartoons.

James Swinnerton

Biography from the Archives of askART

A pioneer comic artist, James Swinnerton is most often credited in histories of the funnies for things he never did.  He never drew anything titled Little Bears and Tigers, and the feature he did draw about bears was not the first newspaper strip.  In fact, it wasnt a comic strip at all.  A talented artist, Swinnerton did, however, contribute significantly to the development of comics in the more than 60 years he worked as a cartoonist.  His most successful strip was Little Jimmy, and he's the one who introduced his friend George Herriman to the Arizona desert that became the permanent locale for Krazy Kat.  Swinnerton, too, put the desert country to good use in his own work.

James Guilford Swinnerton was born in Eureka, California, where his father was a judge, a publisher of a weekly paper, and a staunch Republican.  Swinnerton studied at the California Art School in San Francisco and went to work for the Examiner in 1892, the first of William Randolph Hearsts newspapers.

In 1887 Hearst had taken over the faltering little Examiner daily, and most of the tricks that became Hearst trademarks were first tried out it it.  As a boy, Hearst had become interested in German humor magazines, and while at Harvard he had worked on the Lampoon.  For his new paper he wanted drawings and funny pictures, which was where Swinnerton came in.

At first Swinnerton was only a part-time comic artist.  It was not until he got back to New York several years later that he was allowed to do comics full time.  Because there was still no practical way to use photographs in a newspaper in 1892, all pictorial reporting was done by sketch artists.  These artists, Swinnerton included, covered parades, crimes, trials, sports, etc. Swinnerton even had to go out to sketch high school field days.  Once, to cover a hotel fire down the coast in Monterey, Hearst hired a train and shipped a whole carload of reporters and artists to cover the event.

The Little Bears, one of the earliest comic art features in an American newspaper, started out as spot drawings to decorate the weather reports, inspired by the bear on the California state flag. His little bears multiplied and began to show up throughout the paper, to be used in promotion stunts.  In the mid 1890s, Swinnerton also started turning out large quantities of drawings of his small kids, whom he liked to call tykes.  Often the bears and the tykes would get together in parades that stretched across the bottom of a page.  They were sometimes referred to editorially as Little Bears and Tykes, but they never appeared in an actual comic strip.

Impressed by the public response to his work, Swinnerton asked for a raise of $2.50 a week, but the editors didnt feel he was worth the extra money.  He quit and headed for New York City, where Hearst had bought the New York Journal in 1895.  Hearst was involved in circulation wars with Pulitzer's New York World, and most of the many other local dailies, and one of the results of the battles with Pulitzer was the Sunday comic section.  Cartoonists were brought back and forth, and for a time The Yellow Kid ran in both the Journal and the World.  Finally, Hearst produced a color comics section.

Swinnerton's little bears had always been favorites of Hearst.  For the Journal, however, Hearst suggested they be transformed into tigers.  Gradually the tigers developed -- from a pantomime strip into a Sunday page complete with dialogue balloons.  This version, titled Mr. Jack from 1903 on, dealt with a domesticated tiger that had an office job, a wife, and quite a few lady friends.

During this early trial period, when color comics were expensive and there was some doubt that they would ever catch on enough to turn a profit, Swinnerton continued to do sports cartoons on the side.  In 1904, he turned again to tykes and introduced Little Jimmy, a very small boy who shared his first name.  Originally titled just Jimmy, the feature began life as a Sunday page.  With some lapses, and a hiatus or two, Swinnerton drew the feature until 1958.  A daily was added in 1920, at which time the name was changed to Little Jimmy.  Swinnerton drew in a simple, uncluttered style, using very little shading and favoring long shots to close-ups.

When comics began to pay off, the Journal decided to let Swinnerton draw them to the exclusion of everything else, which meant the paper needed a new sports cartoonist.  Asked to recommend a replacement, Swinnerton said, "Theres a fellow named Dorgan out in San Francisco, calls himself Tad.  But if youre going to get him, you'd better send for his friend, Hype Igoe."  The paper sent for the pair, and both became successful sports cartoonists and reporters.  Swinnerton once estimated he had helped over three dozen artists get started, ranging from illustrators such a Harold Von Schmidt to newspaper cartoonists such as Darrel McClure and Robert Ripley.

In the first decade of the century, doctors advised Swinnerton that his days were limited. Resigned, he moved to Arizona to await the end.  He kept right on waiting, but he didn't die; instead he fell in love with the desert country.  He used the scenery in Canyon Kiddies, a handsome color page he drew for Hearst's Good Housekeeping from the early 1920s to the middle of the 1940s.  He didn't relocate the diminutive Jimmy to Navajo country until the late 1920s.  The Canyon Kiddies also became frequenters of the strip.  Swinnerton started painting desert landscapes, too, and remained a painter even after he was no longer able to cartoon.

(Information on the biography above is based on writings from the book, The Encyclopedia of American Comics, edited by Ron Goulart.)

Biography from the Archives of askART
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.

Peggy and Harold Samuels, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West
Edan Hughes, Artists in California, 1786-1940
Ron Goulart, The Encyclopedia of American Comics

Biography from the Archives of askART
Born in Eureka, CA on Nov. 13, 1875. Swinnerton was raised in Santa Clara and began his art studies at the San Francisco School of Design under Emil Carlsen. At 17 he was employed as a cartoonist for the San Francisco Examiner and then moved to NYC where he continued as a cartoonist for Hearst newspapers. He became famous for such cartoons as "Little Jimmy," "Canyon Kiddies," and "Little Tiger." Sick with tuberculosis, in 1903 he moved to Palm Springs, CA to recuperate. The desert restored his health and inspired him to become a landscape painter. His early works were often signed with a large red "S." His best works were produced in the 1920s. He maintained a home in Palo Alto while traveling throughout the Southwest painting desert scenes. He made frequent trips to the Navajo country where Swinnerton Arch in Monument Valley is named for him. Swinnerton died in Palm Springs on Sept. 5, 1974. Member: Calif. Art Club; Bohemian Club (pres. 1929). Exh: Calif. State Fair, 1890; Rabjohn & Morcom Gallery (SF), 1921 (solo); Bohemian Club, 1922; San Francisco Art Association, 1923; Stendahl Gallery (LA), 1927; Pasadena Public Library, 1928; Biltmore Salon (LA), 1934; Foundation of Western Art (LA), 1934; Academy of Western Painters (LA), 1937-38; GGIE, 1939; Sanity in Art (LA), 1940. In: Orange Co. (CA) Museum; Gardena (CA) High School; Univ. of Nevada (Las Vegas).

Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
Calif. Design 1910; American Art Annual 1919; Southern California Artists (Nancy Moure); Who's Who in American Art 1940; Who's Who on the Pacific Coast 1949; Artists of the American West (Samuels); Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors & Engravers (Fielding, Mantle); Artists of the American West (Doris Dawdy); West as Art; So. Calif. Artists 1890-1940; NY Times, 9-7-1974 (obituary)

Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

Biography from Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery
Few western artists can claim the level of success in multiple fields of James Swinnerton. A painter, illustrator and pioneering cartoonist, Swinnerton's long life was punctuated by great crises and, perhaps, even better luck.

James Swinnerton's first tragedy was the death of his mother when he was a small child. His grandfather, a rich forty-niner, took him into his home while his father, a writer and judge, founded a newspaper, "The Humboldt Star," in Humbolt County, California. Swinnerton bounced around between his father, uncle and grandparents as he got older until finally, at the age of sixteen, he enrolled in the California School of Art under the tutelage of Emil Carlsen.

James Swinnerton was a poor student but a fine artist, skipping the assignments he didn't care for in favor of elaborate caricatures of his teachers and friends. This talent for cartoons got him a position at the San Francisco Examiner, where he did cartoons of sporting events and weather forecasts. While at the Examiner he started drawing "The Little Bears," tiny variants on the bear on the California state flag. The bears started in the weather report and eventually became a major element of the paper's design, popping up in many locations and used widely in promotions. Swinnerton, sensing his growing value, asked for a raise, to $2.50 a week, which was denied.

Angered, James Swinnerton left the paper. Thankfully, he had a friend who could help him find another job: William Randolph Hearst. Hearst had become fond of comics after developing a taste for German humor publications, and viewed comics as a way to increase the entertainment value of papers and, thus, their readership. As the leading cartoonist of California and, perhaps, the country as a while, James Swinnerton was an obvious choice for Hearst to bring with him to New York to revive the ailing New York Journal. The comics section of the Journal proved enormously successful and Swinnerton was hired away from the Journal by the Pulitzers' New York World and then back again when Hearst offered him a place in the color Sunday comics.

James Swinnerton made great sums of money in New York and spent it as quickly as it came in. He became an alcoholic and developed tuberculosis, all while his cartoon output continued to grow. Eventually he fell seriously ill and was given several months to live. Hearst rushed to James Swinnerton's aid, sending him to a sanatorium in Colton, California in order for him to be comfortable in his last days. He was not yet thirty.

Neither Hearst nor James Swinnerton could have predicted the outcome of Swinnerton's trip to Colton. Over the course of the next four years, Swinnerton's condition gradually improved, and began to concentrate on sketching and painting. In 1907 he traveled the southwest by burro, sketching the landscape of the Arizona Desert, the Grand Canyon and southern Utah. He moved to Flagstaff for a brief period of time in order to focus on Native American subject matter, and was visited by Hearst. Swinnerton launched another cartoon for Hearst, "Canyon Kiddies," featuring the misadventures of young Indian children.

In 1938 James Swinnerton married Gretchen Parchalls and settled in Cathedral City, California, with studios in Los Angeles and Palm Springs. His oil paintings continued to develop, and his better pieces are almost quintessential examples of western art's skillful blending of illustration and oil painting aesthetics.

Biography from Altermann Galleries & Auctioneers VI
Born: Eureka, California 1875
Died: Palm Springs, California 1974

Desert landscape painter, illustrator, cartoonist, "the Dean of Desert Artists."

Swinnerton was raised in the Santa Clara valley by his grandparents, after his mother died. His grandfather had been successful in the Gold Rush. His father was a newspaper editor and judge. At 16, he enrolled in the San Francisco Art Association Art School, the pupil of W. Keith and E. Carlsen. His talent for caricature led him to become newspaper cartoonist for William Randolph Hearst. His comic strip in 1892 was among the first. When he moved to New York City with Hearst, "he was making and spending large sums of money. He lived a gay, full, and fast life." His comic strips were "Little Jimmy" and "Little Tiger." At 28, however, he collapsed from tuberculosis and was sent to Colton, California to recuperate.

From 1903 on, Swinnerton was a painter of the desert landscape. In the beginning, the collectors rejected his paintings because the scene was not the stereotyped wasteland of the Sahara. Swinnerton persisted. As he recovered physically, he explored unfamiliar regions of New Mexico, Arizona, and southern Utah. In 1907, his subjects became favorites, including the Grand Canyon and the Indians. Good Housekeeping magazine printed his "Canyon Kiddies." Over the years, Swinnerton has been friend of other Western artists like Borein and Carl Eytell, and the inspiration of younger artists like McGrew, George Marks, and Bill Bender.

Resource: SAMUELS' Encyclopedia of ARTISTS of THE AMERICAN WEST,
Peggy and Harold Samuels, 1985, Castle Publishing

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About  James Swinnerton

Born:  1875 - Eureka, California
Died:   1974 - Palm Springs, California
Known for:  desert landscape and Indian figure painting, cartoons

Essays referring to
James Swinnerton

Painters of Grand Canyon
Cartoon Drawing