Zest for the West
Art collectors find passion for works evoking a sense of wilder days
Photography by Mark Davidson
Jimmy Swinnerton came to nurse his tuberculosis, Maynard Dixon to nurse a broken heart. Like hippies migrating to Woodstock, artists from all over the nation flocked here from the early 1900s to the 1950s. They feverishly painted canyons and palm trees, leaving behind an entire body, a history, of art.
Their work might have been forgotten, except today a new field of collectors has turned their interest toward desert impressionist painters. “There are passionate desert and Western art collectors here in the valley, and their ranks are growing,” says Thom Gianetto, a nationally recognized expert on the genre and co-owner of Edenhurst Gallery, a Palm Desert space specializing in early California Impressionism.
It doesn’t take a lot of money to get started collecting desert art. So many artists lived here or wandered through that there are dozens of still-undiscovered stars whose work sells for modest sums. The fun for the collector is in becoming an expert on the subject. That means knowing the local landscape, local painters, and the West.
While modernism receives more attention, the long view suggests Western and desert motifs will be here long after Googie and Tiki have come and gone. “There’s a real interest in the Western experience that has always been a part of Palm Springs,” says Christine Giles, associate curator at Palm Springs Art Museum. “I consider Palm Springs as kind of like the beginning of the Southwest.”
Collector Diane Stewart says the appeal of the desert artists needs no interpretation. “For people who grew up in the West, nobody has to explain anything about this art,” she says. “It’s where we come from.”
Diane and Sam Stewart started their careers as collectors with a fat case of buyer’s remorse. Knowing little about art, they bought an Oscar Berninghaus painting. The next day, they brooded over the foolishness they’d committed. But when they opened the crate and unwrapped the painting, their destinies were sealed. “It sang,” Diane says. “You kind of had that choke in the throat.”
Guided by that feeling, the Stewarts began living for the hunt. “It definitely becomes an obsession; it kind of takes over your life,” Diane says. Now the Stewarts have major collections in their homes in Sunset Beach (Orange County), New York, and Salt Lake City, while their desert home — the old Henry Huntington estate in the Movie Colony — shelters a museum-grade collection of desert and Western paintings.
As with many collecting couples, learning about and looking for paintings is a shared hobby. “We have to agree on the important pieces,” Diane says.
Along the way, she refined her focus to specialize in depictions of Western women and Indians. “We have no cowboys,” she says. A classic from the Stewart collection, hanging in the master bedroom, is W. Herbert Dunton’s Woman Delivering the Mail. It shows a rancher-type woman bent into the fury of a blizzard.
Paintings by Frank Tenney Johnson, Georgia O’Keefe, Maynard Dixon, Sam Hyde Harris, and others adorn the Stewarts’ classic California estate. The 60-foot enclosed veranda is lined with paintings and looks out over a mature garden in the style of early California ranchos.
While the savvy of seasoned collectors like the Stewarts may intimidate beginners, Diane says, “We want this to be about the paintings we love, not the paintings we think we should own.”
Allan Seymour came to desert art from an unlikely starting place: the beach. The owner of a surf museum in San Clemente, he surfed the Southern California beaches as a young man and one day happened upon an early impressionist painting by Alfred Mitchell of a cove he often surfed: Black’s Beach. “That was the hook for me,” he says.
Seymour was fascinated by the image of a place he knew so well, depicted before houses covered the hillsides. A major appeal of California impressionist painting is this time-warp quality in which painters preserve a historical record of the changing landscape.
“When I get into something, I go deep,” Seymour says. “I got into Hudson cars first, then into paintings because they don’t leak oil.” Learning about California impressionists, he discovered the popular Laguna and Carmel scenes. But he also discovered that many of the artists, including Mitchell, had migrated to the desert.
“In the wintertime, they came out here. I followed them out,” he says. He came across a Fred Grayson Sayre painting of the Salton Sea, The Turquoise Sea, and saw the vast body of water as he never had before. That led to the purchase of a second home on the North Shore of the Salton Sea. With the Chocolate Mountains to their backs, the sea glittering before them, and the Santa Rosa Mountains on the horizon, he and his wife, Gertie, feel as though they “are living the true desert lifestyle that people enjoyed in the late ’30s in Palm Springs,” Seymour says.
He has a knack for discovering desert artists, including part-time painters who served at the Navy base at the Salton Sea and others such as C.W. Nicholson and Lucian Vannerson. “Vannerson was a chiropractor in El Centro, but painted with Swinnerton and others,” Seymour says.
When he started collecting, coast and mountain painters brought the highest prices; desert painters were a bargain. “But today the biggest emerging market is vintage desert paintings,” he says.
A look at auction records proves the point
With a vague yearning to start a collection, Joan Dale and R.D. Hubbard purchased the Western art collection of oilman Edward Doheny in 1988. They constructed their Bighorn Golf Club home around their art collection, so that the home seems to be wrapped around two epic 21-foot Charlie Russell murals. “We jumped in with both feet,” Joan says.
The Russell murals, The History of the West I and II, were commissioned by the Doheny library. “It was the last thing Charlie did,” Joan says. Because Doheny was the founder of Union Oil, he instructed the artist to put oil derricks in the scenes, an addition Russell apparently made grudgingly.
More than most collections, this one saturates the mood of the house. There are pieces by William R. Leigh (The Happy Hunting Grounds), Howard Terpning (Transferring the Medicine Shield), and Gordon Snidow, who specializes in contemporary cowboys. Joan declares Terpning to be the best-living Western artist.
With all the dust, snorting horses, deep snow, and struggle for survival on the walls, it’s easy to forget about the sunshine and golf courses just outside the door.
Just as her home has absorbed the feel of the paintings, so has Joan. As her Labradors, Sophie and Fergie, play in the pool outside, she gestures to Russell’s painting Wolf and Beaver. A cowboy slides down a ridge through deep snow toward a light in a farmhouse window. “See the horse? He’d love to go down there in the barn,” she says. “At night when it’s dark, you can see the cowboy’s breath.”
Listening to her rapt tone, you can picture her wandering out for a midnight snack and entering into the scenes on the walls like a character in a book.
Jim McCarty came to collect desert painting through an early imprinted love of the California landscape. As a young man growing up in Orinda, a Bay Area suburb, he explored the outdoors as an Eagle Scout.
Later, he noticed many of the places he’d hiked as a young man were disappearing. “A lot of these places that I’d been are now paved over or mutilated,” he says. At the same time, he found that the scenes had been preserved in landscape paintings and vowed that he’d buy art if he ever had the means.
He worked as a marketing director at Levi Strauss for 21 years and was on the team that named the Dockers brand. The first year he got a bonus, he decided to buy a Big Sur landscape. That purchase, made with his late partner, set them back only a couple hundred dollars.
He bought a second home in Palm Springs in 2001 and now owns an extensive collection of plein air paintings, primarily desert scenes. In the Palm Springs house he shares with partner Andrew Ehrenfeld hangs one of the earliest-known paintings of the Coachella Valley. Painted by Carl D. Browne in 1875, it’s a view from old Indian Wells looking north toward the San Gorgonio Pass. There’s a large Paul Grimm over the fireplace and a Fred Penney painting of the Salton Sea.
Even though prices for desert paintings have increased, McCarty is in it for the love of the paintings, not for profit. “I’ve never sold a piece of art in my life,” he says. “I’m attracted to the California outdoors, and I was lucky enough to find an art movement that dovetailed with that interest.”
In 1959, Jackie Autry was working at Security Pacific National Bank in Palm Springs. On her lunch hour, she’d browse among works by local artists at the Desert Art Center, then located across the street. She kept coming back to a certain R. Brownell McGrew painting, but the $450 price tag was more than her monthly salary. “In those days, I had nothing on my walls but paint,” she says.
Her offer to pay in installments was declined.
Today, when you walk into Autry’s sprawling estate hidden behind hedges in Las Palmas, the first thing you see is a brilliantly colorful painting by McGrew, a former La Quinta resident known for his story-like paintings of Navajo Indian life. Trading Day, the painting in the entryway, is not the piece Autry tried to buy 50 years ago, but the point is that her collector’s spirit survived.
In fact, the once-shunned buyer has turned out to be one of the biggest names in Western art. She was married to America’s favorite cowboy — singer, actor, and businessman Gene Autry — until his death in 1998; together they founded the Autry National Center and Museum of the American West.
Western gems abound throughout Autry’s house, including works by Gerald Harvey, Ray Swanson, Howard Terpning, and a huge Paul Grimm (one of Palm Springs’ best-known landscape painters), Front Door to San Jacinto.
Autry knows her share of hot-shot dealers, artists, and art scholars, but she steers her own collection. She has no grand strategy, no philosophy of collecting. A painting need pass just one hurdle: “Does it makes me happy?”
Like many lovers of Western art, she kept horses as a kid. She had already developed a liking for Western art when she married “the singing cowboy.” She still helps guide the direction of the Autry Center, which merged with the Southwest Museum in 2003.
The themes that powered Gene Autry’s Western movies — big landscapes, hard times, and triumph — are the same themes that make Western art forever popular, she says. “Every time a studio is in trouble, they bring out a Western movie,” she says. “It’s all about the West.”
If original paintings are beyond your budget, start with prints of some of the Western greats like Terpning, Charlie Russell, or Frederic Remington. “It’s a nice way to make your house feel Western without spending a fortune,” Autry says.
- Look at everything, not only desert and Western art. “Don’t limit yourself," Diane Stewart suggests. “The bigger the view I get, the more I appreciate this art.”
- Study catalogs from the Christies, Sotheby’s, Santa Fe, and Coeur d’Alene art auctions. Their catalogs provide “a plethora of information,” she says.
- Find a copy of the out-of-print book Painters of the Desert by Ed Ainsworth, a late Los Angeles Times reporter and figurehead of an ad-hoc arts salon on the Salton Sea. “That’s the watershed book if you’re going to get into this art,” Seymour says.
- Look for “beginner breaks.” In the surfing world, a mediocre beach can offer up world-class waves a few times a year. In the same way, Seymour says, “a relatively unknown painter can now and then paint a great painting.”
- Read Southwest Art magazine, especially the section on up-and-coming artists.
- Get to know a painting in person, not online. The Hubbards don’t buy on eBay. If Joan is interested in a painting, a seller often leaves the painting with her on a trial basis so she can get to know it. “I want to smell it, taste it, feel it, and look at it,” she says.
- Visit museums with collections of California impressionist paintings (Irvine, Oakland, Crocker) and examine the scope of their exhibitions. “You kind of have to focus or you end up with this hodge-podge,” McCarty says.
- Photograph and insure your collection. McCarty had the sobering experience of having 100 desert paintings — collected over the course of 30 years — stolen from a storage unit in Cathedral City. Now that the desert painters are hot again, they’re not only collectible, but also subject to theft.
- Visit the Masters of the American West exhibit and sale, held at the Autry Center in Griffith Park beginning the first weekend in February. Here you’ll find works by 70 of the best contemporary Western artists, and you’ll mingle with collectors like Jackie Autry, who adds new pieces to her collection at this show.