Rear View - The Elusive Impressionist

Trying to find the man behind the paintings proves difficult when that man is Paul Grimm

Paul Grimm’s portrait of Chief Francisco Patencio.

Now that your neighbors all have granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, how are you going to distinguish your desert pad? Try hanging a Paul Grimm painting on your wall. Elite collectors recognize Grimm as one of the giants of desert art. He’s loved for his noble landscapes of Mt. San Jacinto, cloud studies, and desert dunes. Yet he remains something of a mystery.

If you dig through archives, the same facts crop up over and over: Grimm had a studio at 428 N. Palm Canyon Drive (the building was torn down in the ’50s); President Dwight Eisenhower sometimes stopped by.

As much as we love the paintings, we still want to understand a painter’s joys and struggles: Jimmy Swinnerton hung out with the Hearsts at San Simeon, while Carl Eytel was so poor he accepted handouts of paints and pancakes.

Carl Bray, the smoke tree painter who had a studio for years in Indian Wells, knew Grimm, painted with him, and even was hired after Grimm’s death to repair one of his paintings (moving a cloud to cover a tear in the canvas). But still, he didn’t know him well. “He didn’t socialize too much with the regular old art crowd,” Bray says.

Grimm was born in South Africa and came to Hollywood to paint backdrops for the MGM, Fox, and Warner Bros. studios. He left Hollywood, says one article, “almost a nervous wreck.” Fleeing to Palm Springs in 1932, he concentrated on desert landscapes. According to Ron Vander Molen, a Grimm collector in Pasadena and an expert on the artist’s career, Grimm’s best paintings are his early works, dating as far back as his student days at the Düsseldorf Royal Academy in Germany and continuing through the 1930s and ’40s. When the Depression hit, Grimm began catering to the Eastern snowbirds that stopped by his Palm Springs studio, Vander Molen claims, and his work was diluted as a result.

Bray says that Grimm obliged tourists by jamming multiple items into the same scene. “I’d tell him, ‘Why are you wanting to ruin the picture?’”

Vander Molen advises that I may find more about the artist at the Irvine Museum, as founder Joan Irvine Smith is the world’s biggest collector of Paul Grimm. I’m hoping for letters, journals — anything that might show Grimm in 3-D. When I call the museum, they say they do indeed have a box of Grimm papers, but it’s in storage and has never been sorted or indexed.

During my hunt, an important and little-known facet of Grimm’s career emerges: He was one of the few artists who ever painted California Indians and probably the only big-name artist to paint Palm Springs’ Cahuilla Indians. His portrait of Cahuilla shaman Pedro Chino reveals the medicine man in all his gravity and natural authority.

Grimm may not have revealed his own inner workings, but he captured those of his subjects. Equally telling is his portrait of Cahuilla chief Francisco Patencio, owned by Palm Desert resident Mark Wasserkrug, who also owns a rare picture book Grimm published about his fox terrier, Our Dog Cholla.

Grimm lived in Palm Springs for almost 40 years. After he died in 1975, there was no one to pass on his story. He and his late wife Tillie had no children, and no close relatives remain.

Part-time Palm Springs resident Leo Wyrsch knew Tillie Grimm, who said little about her talented husband. But Wyrsch owns the Chino painting, and living with it is perhaps as close as anyone will ever come to knowing Grimm himself. “It’s in our hallway,” Wyrsch says. “I see it every night when I go to bed.”

Palm Springs Impressionist Paul Grimm(Left) Self-portrait of Paul Grimm and his dog Cholla, titled Me and My Boss, from a promotional pamphlet for Grimm’s studio.

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