Tuesday, September 12, 2023


 Another in a series about the strange doings at the intersection of art and love.

Jimmy Swinnerton

Jimmy Swinnerton's life was even zanier than the comic strips he created (including Sam and his Laugh, Professor Nix, Little Katy and her Uncle, Mount Ararat, Mr. Batch, Mr. Jack, Little Jimmy, Canyon Kiddies, The Daydreams of Danny Dawes, and Rocky Mason, Government Marshall.)  

Born in 1875, Swinnerton ran away from home at age 14 to join a traveling minstrel show.  He used blackface makeup as a disguise to elude his parents and the sheriff. 

Swinnerton led an adventurous life during the waning days of the wild west.  He rambled from job to job (and from bar fight to bar fight).  He drank heavily, gambled constantly, spent recklessly, and lied shamelessly.  These attributes made him irresistible to women.  

Depending on how we count, Swinnerton had somewhere between four and six wives. His biographer claimed that Swinnerton also “had a lady friend hiding behind every sagebrush on the desert," but let's confine ourselves to his wives.  Here's the scorecard:

  • Swinnerton's first wife was Thalia Treadwell, a glamorous San Francisco heiress. They married under mysterious circumstances; when friends asked for details, Swinnerton would only say, “the marriage took place between [San Francisco and New York] but I can’t tell you the place nor date for legal reasons.”  The couple quarreled bitterly, and Thalia abandoned her new husband and went to Japan. 
  • Swinnerton next married Harriet Hacker after a whirlwind courtship. Harriet was beautiful but she “enjoyed the night scene“ a little too much, going out to the clubs and sometimes not returning for days. When Swinnerton contracted tuberculosis he asked Harriet to move to the desert for his health, but she refused, citing the shortage of nightclubs in the desert.
  • Although still legally married to Harriet, Swinnerton moved to the desert alone.  There he quickly found a new girlfriend, Espie Castle.   The 1910 US census reports that Jimmy married Espie (which would've made him a bigamist) but in response to questions, he was evasive about their status. When Espie had a religious conversion and asked Swinnerton to join her in pious living, he quickly left. 
  • In 1917 Swinnerton belatedly divorced Harriet and two days later married his third – or fourth – wife, Louise Scher, a statuesque blonde divorcee.  The two quarreled constantly over Louise's spending habits on lace nightgowns.  Swinnerton borrowed thousands of dollars from her mother to pay for Louise's extravagances, then left without repaying her.
  • By 1933, Swinnerton was living in Las Vegas.  He divorced Louise and quickly married his fourth – – or fifth – – wife, Gretchen Richardson.  On her way to the wedding, Gretchen stopped off at a Vegas casino to play roulette. She placed a silver dollar on number 12 and when the number hit, she decided it was an omen and stayed to gamble rather than go to her wedding. She eventually showed up several hours late. 




The final Mrs. Swinnerton

Swinnerton was quick to marry and just as quick to leave.  He seemed to lack the patience or interest to explore what lay beneath the surface of his wives.  Yet, his attitude toward art was the exact opposite.

Swinnerton had infinite patience for painting the same desert landscapes over and over for decades.  He would loyally return every year to the same sites to paint the same scenes.  One of his exasperated wives complained, “why I do this each year I have never been able to figure out, because it’s the same trip, same road, auto camps, same climate, and has been for the last several years."  

Even Swinnerton's grandfather urged him to stop wasting his time on the same flat, drab "hellholes" such as Death Valley and the Mojave Desert and paint more glamorous landscapes.  Swinnerton responded that beauty lay beneath the surface, and that patience and faithfulness would be rewarded:  "Just you put full confidence in the [beauties of the desert] and she’ll show you all her secrets."  He would spend all day in the hot sun, carefully waiting for the desert to reveal her charms.

One has to wonder how Swinnerton's love life would've
changed if he'd devoted the same level of effort to his wife

Clearly Swinnerton didn't require the same variety in his landscapes that he required from his wives.  He found a sustaining variety in the rocks and sand (“Every minute in the desert is all new and completely different.")

It's also noteworthy that Swinnerton lied incessantly to his wives, yet as a painter he was obsessed with accuracy.  His mission was to make a true, literal representation of reality.

For some reason, Swinnerton's values in art didn't seem to carry over to his love life.  If painting gave him any insights into patience and the nature of beauty, those insights didn't seem to apply to his wives.  It's true that every artist must make tradeoffs, but looking at the meager quality of Swinnerton's paintings, one has to wonder whether he struck the best trades.


Movieac said...

"If there's one thing you can say about these old-timers, they surely led interesting lives and truly experienced life. They rode the rails, went to jail, suffered through the Great Depression, had multiple careers, fought in wars, and finally settled (more or less) on a career."

kev ferrara said...

There are far more varied and colorful Swinnerton landscapes than your post would lead people to believe...

Swinnerton – warm violet

Swinnerton – pastel green

Swinnerton - dramatic

Swinnerton – post rain

Swinnerton – sunset horizon

Swinnerton – soft violet

Swinnerton – hot sundown

Swinnerton – golden hour

David Apatoff said...

Movieac-- For sure. I've written other posts about Swinnerton here, emphasizing other facets of his colorful life, including his friendships with George Herriman, Walt Disney, Will Rogers and William Randolph Hearst. His life was truly astonishing, as were the lives of many of his peers who never went to fancy art schools but became excellent artists.

Kev Ferrara-- Swinnerton's art, like his life, was more varied than I could cover in this one blog post focusing on his relationships. I couldn't even cover all his girlfriends, let alone his other paintings or the numerous comic strips for which he was well known. But as I noted above, I did cover more in other blog posts.

I believe the colors in the some of the paintings you offer have been tarted up with saturation and high contrast. I've certainly seen more pale versions of some of them. But I don't think that affects the substance of the theme here. If you have pictures where he painted loving portraits of any of his spouses, or of any other human being at all, I would be interested in seeing them. So far all you're suggesting is that Swinnerton's affection for desert rocks was more colorful than my few examples indicate.

kev ferrara said...


I’m trying to grasp your perspective.

Among my favorite landscape artists - Edgar Payne, Frederick Waugh, and Daniel Garber – only Garber has a few pieces that include his spouse. Is a man who paints landscapes for a living, in your eyes, damned if he doesn’t also paint portraits? And in particular portraits of his women?

A single pencil portrait by Walter Everett of his wife exists. It could easily have also been burned when so much else of his work was so consumed. That it escaped incineration – affording us the one shred of evidence that he admired her countenance - is purely a matter of luck.

Epistemic humility begs many questions. Maybe Swinnerton made throwaway sketches of his women on bar napkins. Maybe he simply gave up the figure entirely when he moved on from cartooning. Maybe he tried a few times to capture his paramours in paint and gave up because he didn’t like the results. Who knows.

All I know is that he’s dead; long dead, long gone. A pile of dust now. And so is everybody else he bedded or unwedded. Who am I to vilify people that don’t exist who I never knew anyhow. Hannibal Lecter was also a bad man, also doesn’t exist. I hear many bad things of people who I find good upon meeting them. Often the messenger is at fault. Much of mass media is dedicated to making knaves and creeps into public angels and political martyrs, respectively.

The only living aspect of Swinnerton, the only alive reference in your post, is his art, and I’m willing to give it a fair shake. Because I think it is damn good and sometimes great. I obviously do not concede that it is all drab and barren. Particularly given that it took me longer to write the hypertext html code around the urls of the pages I linked to than it took to find the lovely non-drab images in the first place.

In that regard, I would contest that any of the images I linked were digitally enhanced in color saturation post-hoc. You would see a breakup of the grays in each as the slight chromatic leanings in the neutrals split into clearly distinct color directions. But one does not see that in those images.

Wes said...

He liked women and deserts and colors and painting and pipe smoking. He was a sensual guy and there's nothing better than that!

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- Let me try to make my perspective easier to grasp.

I've previously written with approval about Swinnerton's other interesting and sometimes delightful qualities (https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2008/06/jimmy-swinnerton-at-dawn-of-comic.html : "The young Walt Disney used to come to his birthday parties. Swinnerton took George Herriman (creator of Krazy Kat), Rudolph Dirks (creator of the Katzenjammer Kids), and the painter Maynard Dixon on a safari through the Arizona desert to see the Hopi Tribe of Indians do their annual snake dance."). In one post I wrote that Swinnerton's landscapes, which he painted for personal pleasure, were far superior to his (mediocre) drawings in the comic strips which he drew for a living. ( https://illustrationart.blogspot.com/2008/03/made-for-makers-own-delight.html ).

To be clear, my "perspective" in this third post is limited to one issue: that Swinnerton had a very short attention span for the women in his life, but unlimited patience for his desert paintings. He cared very little for accuracy in his dealings with the women in his life, but he put a premium on accuracy in his desert paintings. He had a fondness for flashy and scandalous women, and yet he liked the quiet desert and "all her secrets." I find the extreme contrast between the aesthetics of his love life and the aesthetics of his painting to be very interesting. I am NOT concerned, as you seem to suggest, with whether Swinnerton was a good or bad guy, or even a good or bad artist.

PS: Not Inness?

Wes-- I can think of a few things better, but it did seem to work magic with the ladies!

kev ferrara said...

While it surely must be so that the proliferation of deeply intuitive aesthetic decisions required of an artist to produce good work results in a kind of surrogate consciousness present in it that is decidedly that of its author, artists are also inherently self-contradictory creatures, I would say. I’ve rarely met one that wasn’t riding some wave of change. (Though the more engineering-based artists seem of a more even keel.)

So while the art does reflect the artist, the artist also modulates over time; some artists modulate from day to day. Then change back again. Some undergo revolutions, then counter-reformations.

So when an artist reflects himself in his artwork, yes that is a reflection of that moment, but not necessarily of all others. Just like a bad day or a bad deed – even an errant period - shouldn’t taint one for life because it doesn’t actually reflect that life in its wholeness.

Swinnerton could paint a colorful mountain and cloud picture one day, and a barren and parched tableau the next. Maybe that is perfectly consistent with how he was as a person; someone prone to fits of inspiration and joy in life – for a time - and then just as prone to wash out in a perseverative depression; to become fixated on the hunt for measly pins in commonplace haystacks thinking they are strands of gold. (This is addictive behavior, looking for even small hits of aesthetic insight. But every mountain mine eventually runs dry, often wells do as well. And not everybody recognizes when the jig is up.)

I am quite in sympathy with Swinnerton’s incessant hunt for secrets in the landscape. Every landscape painter worth his salt says the same thing, that prolonged observation is rewarded with truthful beauties. Waugh said the same thing of the sea and coastline. You keep looking and looking and eventually you phase through the specifics and push past the textural veils and notice the design behind and the underlying forces; the common color chords and pattern poetics. Through all the presence of being in nature, in the silence one becomes sensitized; feels that something is being heard and understood, expressed in that language beyond words.

Unlike baroque emotionalism, the abstract secrets of the world are not messy, they are spiritually beautiful, especially when purified into imagery. Constantly feeling for what is behind the materiality, this quest for the transcendental behind the substance of things, there is something of the religious obsessive in all landscape painters. Truths beyond the existential are relations and colors tantalizing to glimpse, just beyond our grasp. Many a man has been too much of a dreamer at the breakfast table.

chris bennett said...

Constantly feeling for what is behind the materiality, this quest for the transcendental behind the substance of things, there is something of the religious obsessive in all landscape painters. Truths beyond the existential are relations and colors tantalizing to glimpse, just beyond our grasp.

Hey Kev, I guess that must be why whenever I listen to the opening of Bach's St John Passion it always puts images of landscape into my mind's eye; moving through forests, panning across savannahs, looking up at mountains, at skies, clouds, rain sweeping across fields, sun sparkling through trees, rivers, lengthening shadows, moons upon the horizon...

kev ferrara said...

...the opening of Bach's St John Passion it always puts images of landscape into my mind's eye; moving through forests, panning across savannahs, looking up at mountains, at skies, clouds, rain sweeping across fields, sun sparkling through trees, rivers, lengthening shadows, moons upon the horizon...

There is some connection there, given the meaning of the opera; in the flight from the low suffering of the flesh to soar above the Earth, touring the grandeur. Aesthetic abstraction and idealism are, it seems to me, intimately related. But it takes a Bach to translate you into that soul-space.