Desert Dreamers Landscape - “Easter Sunrise” (1970) by John W. Hilton

Desert Dreamers 10: The Artists

They showed others the mesmerizing beauty of the desert.

Steven Biller Arts & Entertainment, History

Desert Dreamers Landscape - “Easter Sunrise” (1970) by John W. Hilton

“Easter Sunrise” (1970) by John W. Hilton.

One of the earliest paintings of the Mojave Desert — an 1853 oil titled “Jornada del Muerto,” or “Journey of the Dead” — depicts a stretch of the Old Spanish Trail (the “back way” to Vegas) as an uninhabitable hellscape: drier than dust, void of life, the ground crackling under a broiling sun. Yet the artist, George Douglas Brewerton, cast onto this Martian scene a golden glow that 170 years later still stirs a strange sense of longing.

He captured something special, and by the turn of the century, writer John Van Dyke put it into words. “It is stern, harsh, and at first repellent,” he wrote in his seminal 1901 tome, The Desert. “But what tongue shall tell the majesty of it, the eternal strength of it, the poetry of its widespread chaos, the sublimity of its lonely desolation? And who shall paint the splendor of its light; and from the rising up of the sun to the going down of the moon over the iron mountains, the glory of its wondrous coloring? It is a gaunt land of splintered peaks, torn valleys, and hot skies.”

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“Old Palm Springs” (circa 1925) by Sam Hyde Harris.

Writers such as Van Dyke, Charles Francis Saunders, and J. Smeaton Chase conveyed the mesmerizing beauty of the desert to influential effect. In their wake came many more dreamers, often “lungers” and loners in search of a healing climate and solitude but also artists, who found something closer to heaven than hell. It was an extreme landscape, sure, but a place where they could tune their palettes to sandy washes, colorful mountains, and otherworldly plant life and rock formations.

In his book Our Araby: Palm Springs and the Garden of the Sun, published in 1920, Chase predicted the Coachella Valley would blossom as an artist colony like those that had formed on the Monterey Peninsula and in Santa Barbara and Laguna Beach. “Our Araby,” he wrote, “with its marvelous display of tone and color — tone the most elusive, color the most unearthly and ethereal — is a land of enchantment to the painter, and its fame has spread from one to another until, now, every winter and spring sees painters of note studying these desert landscapes, so fascinatingly different in their problems of conception and handling from anything that commonly come in the artist’s way.”

Indeed, by the time Chase published his petite volume, several notable artists were living and working in the area, including James Swinnerton, John Frost, and Alson Skinner Clark. All the artists had distinctive styles and particular interests. Swinnerton was known for painting smoke trees, Clyde Forsythe for old mining camps, Gordon Coutts for that distinctive glow over opaque mountains and blue skies. Other landscape painters, including Fernand Lungren of Santa Barbara and Lockwood de Forest of New York, visited the desert repeatedly over many years to capture its mercurial moods over time. Their impressions recorded the landscape prior to the desert’s postwar development.

When Palm Springs emerged as a weekend retreat and resort destination, some of the painters exhibited and sold their work at The Desert Inn, where proprietor Nellie Coffman opened the area’s first art gallery. A second wave of painters — Paul Grimm, Marjorie Reed, and Sam Hyde Harris among them — expanded the scene.

While new generations of painters carry on the landscape tradition, the legacy of many early artists still resonates. Palm Springs Art Museum recently mounted a major exhibition of paintings by Agnes Pelton, and earlier this year, the Brigham Young University Museum of Art hosted a three-day symposium on the life and works of Maynard Dixon. Even relatively minor figures earn an occasional nod. Desert Island Country Club in Rancho Mirage christened its new restaurant The Penney to honor the late resident and landscape painter Frederick Penney.

Here, we introduce some of the personalities who helped propel our desert as an enduring hub for artists.

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Early artist Carl Eytel draws in the desert with his burro.

Carl Eytel  (1862–1925)

The Artist of the Palm Tree

The first and arguably most influential artist to call Palm Springs home was Carl Eytel, a German immigrant who wasn’t a particularly good artist at all.

Eytel spent much of his childhood sitting in Stuttgart’s Royal Library, reading and daydreaming about the American West. He fantasized about cowboy life, made countless drawings of cattle, and yearned to travel. Eventually, he saved enough money to cross the Atlantic and found work with a German-speaking cattle rancher in Kansas. After briefly returning to Germany to study art, he continued on to California, finding ranch work in the San Joaquin Valley in 1898 before settling in Palm Springs in 1901.

“He longed for the sand and sage and colored hills of the Mojave and Colorado deserts toward which his thoughts had been directed for so long, and where he felt a special place had been set aside by the Almighty for those who could understand solitude and immeasurable space,” journalist Ed Ainsworth wrote of Eytel in Desert Magazine.

Eytel made a modest home in a tiny cabin near Tahquitz Creek with the permission of the McCallum family, pioneers in the pre-incorporated “village.” Here, he dedicated his life to sketching and painting the desert. He worked during the week and displayed his paintings for tourists to buy on weekends. His depictions of California fan palms — “primly dressed, with their vivid green crowns and drab tan skirts,” the artist once described — were most popular.

Eytel’s prolific journals reveal a nomadic life roaming the Coachella Valley and the Southwest with his mustang, Billy. He traveled from Palm Springs to Idyllwild and Hemet via Round Valley (near today’s Palm Springs Aerial Tramway); to Joshua Tree via Whitewater Ranch; and to Death Valley via the Mojave Desert. He also ventured into Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah and befriended Navajo, Hopi, Chemehuevi, Serrano, and Cahuilla people. He scribbled Native terms in his notebooks and became one of few settlers in the Palm Springs area to speak passable Cahuilla. (After Eytel died in a Banning sanitarium, he was buried, at his request, in the Cahuilla Indian cemetery.)

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Ink drawing by Carl Eytel.

“Few knew more intimately [the desert’s] Indians, its mountains, its mesas” than Eytel, the writer and desert biologist Edmund G. Jaeger told Palm Springs Villager, the forerunner to Palm Springs Life. “His mind habituated to see loveliness in form and color and found expression in literary work and in painting in oil and watercolors. He also did considerable excellent pen drawing.”

Eytel shared his knowledge of the land and influenced the work of writers such as Jaeger and Charles Francis Saunders, as well as painters, particularly James Swinnerton and adventurer/homesteader Cabot Yerxa. Most notably, he collaborated with George Wharton James on the 1906 publication of Wonders of the Colorado Desert, which included 300 of Eytel’s drawings and a generous helping of lore from his journals.

As the desert’s elements chipped away at his health, Eytel gave most of his sketchbooks and journals to Jaeger, who in turn presented them to Lloyd Mason Smith, the first director of Palm Springs Desert Museum (now Palm Springs Art Museum), where they remain in the permanent collection.

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Maynard Dixon contemplates his next masterpiece.

Maynard Dixon (1875–1946)

The Man Who Painted Poems

The most celebrated of the early desert painters is Maynard Dixon, best known for his paintings of the Navajo country of New Mexico and the deserts around his homes in Mount Carmel, Utah, and Tucson, Arizona. However, the California native (born near Fresno) was hopelessly drawn to the Colorado Desert and painted around Box Canyon in Mecca as well as the Indio Hills and Chocolate and Orocopia mountains.

He had a cottage near the Salton Sea where he welcomed fellow painters James Swinnerton, John Hilton, and Clyde Forsythe. He and Swinnerton famously feuded over the depiction of clouds, with Dixon declaring that his friend’s clouds had been “lousy” for 30 years and he’d never learned to paint them. Swinnerton returned the insults in good spirit, but, Dixon told journalist Ed Ainsworth in Desert Magazine, “We never spoke a decent word to one another in public.”

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“Evening on Orocopio (Painted Canyon), Imperial Valley” by Maynard Dixon, March 1940.

Dixon, who started his career as a commercial illustrator and was married for 15 years to the documentary photographer Dorothea Lange, experimented with postimpressionism and cubism as he matured his own style. In addition to the landscape, he depicted Native Americans and Hispanic and Anglo settlers and their horses. He also became a respected muralist.

“I aim to interpret, for the most part, the poetry and pathos of the life of Western people seen amid the grandeur, sternness, and loveliness of their country,” Dixon told Anthony Anderson, the art critic at the Los Angeles Times at the time. “My objective has always been to get as close to the real nature of my subject as possible — people, animals, and country.”

In November 1945, Scripps College’s Florence Rand Lang Galleries mounted a 50-year retrospective of Dixon’s work. Although he was too unhealthy to attend, he sent a letter to be read at the opening in which he shared his experiences of the West and the silent desert. He wrote, “I must find in the visible world the forms, the colors, the relationships that for me are most true of it and find a way to state them clearly so that the painting may pass on something of my vision.”

He found it all in great measure.

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James Swinnerton and his untitled desert landscape with smoke trees in a wash, circa 1935.

James Swinnerton (1876–1974)

The Dean of Desert Artists

Gregarious, acclaimed cartoon artist James Swinnerton was beginning to recover from a toxic mix of alcoholism, tuberculosis, and exhaustion when he made his way to The Desert Inn, Nellie Coffman’s fledgling sanitarium (later resort) in Palm Springs.

Swinnerton created the long-running Little Jimmy and Canyon Kiddies comics and illustrated political and sports figures for William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers and magazines for more than seven decades. However, early in his career, when Swinnerton was 28, the New York nightlife had almost consumed him, and Hearst put him on a train to Colton, California, to get healthy. From that point on, Swinnerton began, as we say today, working remotely.

Back in his native state (he was born in the pioneer town of Eureka), he stopped drinking, started walking in the Mojave Desert, and soon came to Palm Springs to finish his recovery and commit himself to painting the desert.

“I’ve kept strictly to the landscape,” Swinnerton reflected in a 1963 interview with Armed Services Radio, noting that he’d been painting landscapes all along in the backgrounds of his cartoon art. “I took up desert painting because, first, going to the desert gave me my health back in the [tuberculosis] situation, and second, I thought it was a misunderstood land, the most despised of all the landscapes. … I found some beauty there.”

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Untitled painting by Swinnerton.

Soon after he arrived, Swinnerton met Carl Eytel, and they began taking camping trips to paint the San Jacinto Mountains, Box Canyon, and the Salton Sea. Eytel educated Swinnerton on the ways of the desert, and Swinnerton shared his bounty of food and art supplies.

In the summers, Swinnerton retreated to the San Gabriel Mountains north of San Bernardino, but his subject remained pure nature. “The real purpose of painting is to call attention to the beauty of nature,” he told his friend John Hilton, a fellow artist and a writer for Desert Magazine. “A successful painting is a signpost reading, ‘Yonder is beauty! Go see for yourself.’ ”

For several decades, Swinnerton lived in Flagstaff, Arizona, and frequented the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and the Hopi and Navajo Indian reservations. There, he favored saturated colors — deep reds, intense oranges, turquoise skies, purple shadows — to emphasize the power and majesty of the formations. However, the warmth of the Sonoran Desert drew him back in late winter and early spring to capture his favorite subjects — puffy smoke trees and prickly ocotillo plants — in bloom. On these trips, Swinnerton switched to more blond tones and wispy brushwork.

“There is no end to the beauty of sand and rocks and sagebrush,” Swinnerton
explained to Hilton. “All of the serious work I have done has been on the desert, and there is enough there to occupy me the rest of my life.”

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Light master John W. Hilton was also a musician.

A strange sequence of events led to the multitalented John Hilton becoming a desert painter. After being expelled from art school in Redondo for making a nude drawing of a classmate, he appeared with his quartet, the California String Ticklers, on KHJ, the Los Angeles radio station where he heard program manager “Uncle John” Daggett recite a poem about night in the desert. The poem compelled Hilton to convince his father, a missionary, to drive them to Black Rock, northwest of Barstow, to experience the “silent blue night” that Uncle John described.

There, in the Mojave, Hilton’s love affair with the desert ignited.

He switched studies from art to gemology and enjoyed a career as a gemologist for the Golden State Gem Company — that is, until the stock market crashed, the Depression set in, and he found himself liquidating possessions to survive.

Hilton came to the Coachella Valley to collect on a debt but learned on arrival that the man who owed him had died. The man’s daughter gave Hilton an assortment of curios as a gesture. Later that day, when he stopped at Valerie Jean Date Shop, people began picking through his newfound bounty, and the proprietor, his friend, convinced Hilton to open a rock shop across the street. “That is how I became a part of the desert,” he explained in the March 1963 issue of Desert Magazine, “and how it became a part of me to the point where the long-submerged desire to paint came out.”

Hilton’s shop became a gathering place for painters including Maynard Dixon, James Swinnerton, and Clyde Forsythe. “The desert painters as we know them today had found each other through the rankest amateur because I had a centrally located place where they could all camp in the yard and cook spaghetti and sing at the top of their lungs.”

Hilton learned everything he could from them, particularly Dixon, who encouraged him to abandon his photorealistic brushwork in favor of daubing knifework. Hilton also started mixing beeswax into his paints to achieve his signature textural quality and mastered the glow of “magic hour.”

A perfectionist, Hilton had an annual New Year’s Eve tradition of inviting friends to Box Canyon to burn paintings he deemed unworthy. “It was a holocaust of art,” his friend and journalist Ed Ainsworth wrote in Palm Springs Villager. “This remarkable man was his own severest critic.”

In 1950, Hilton and his wife, Barbara, moved to the High Desert, where he became founding president of the Twentynine Palms Artists Guild. However, his love of the Coachella Valley never wavered. He wrote, “I can never forget that it is a short way back to the valley where two snowcapped mountains guard the pass, where a sea below the level of the sea mirrors rose-colored mountains reflected in the sunset, where canyons of wild palms will still beckon, and dunes still put on their spring finery.”

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Stephen H. Willard was among the early photographers who captured the desert on film.

Stephen H. Willard (1894–1966)

The Desert’s Ansel Adams

A photograph in the Palm Springs Art Museum collection shows a 22-year-old Stephen H. Willard stranded on a dirt path in the desert, surrounded by creosote bushes and changing a tire on his vehicle. Shot in 1917, before automobiles had demountable rims, the image demonstrates the lengths he’d go — with the weight of his C.P. Goerz 8x10 Format Bellows Camera — to freeze the most captivating views of the desert in its most dramatic light.

Willard, an Illinois native who grew up in Corona, began making the 68-mile trip to Palm Springs in 1914 as a teenager, armed with a camera that his father gave him. It opened his eyes to nature, inspired a career, and set him on course to become the preeminent photographer of the Coachella Valley and Mojave Desert regions.

Willard briefly enrolled at Pomona College and served a year as an army photographer in France during World War I. He returned to Palm Springs in 1919, published the booklet The Desert of Palms, and married Beatrice Armstrong.

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“While Winds and Sands Are Resting” (1925) by Stephen H. Willard.

For the next couple of decades, Willard traveled by car and burro to remote areas of the Colorado and Mojave deserts and amassed a prodigious body of images. He became an unlikely promoter of Palm Springs, having pioneered the paint-on-photo technique and replicated the colored images as postcards to sell at the Palm Canyon Trading Post. (The postcards remain collectible today; see one on page 10.)

“The idea held by most people that every mile of the desert is like every other mile could not be a more mistaken one,” a 21-year-old Willard wrote in an article for the 1915 American Annual of Photography. “Let one take his camera, canteen, blankets, and provisions, and go out for a week’s stay in the desert solitudes, and he will always come back deeply impressed by its supreme majesty and mystery.”

Willard, who spent summers and maintained a studio at Mammoth Lakes, also had a notable impact on environmental preservation. In the 1930s, his atmospheric black-and-white photographs were used to promote Death Valley and support a proposal that led to the creation of Joshua Tree National Monument (now a national park).

In 1947, as Hollywood and tourism transformed Palm Springs, Willard moved
from his south Palm Springs home and studio — now enveloped by Moorten Botanical Garden — to Owens Valley, where he died in 1966. In 1999, his daughter, Beatrice “Bettie” Willard, donated his archives — more than 16,000 items, including photographs, glass and film negatives, hand-colored lantern slides, photo-paintings, postcards, correspondence, maps, and photographic equipment — to the Palm Springs Art Museum.

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Painter Agnes Pelton settled in the Cathedral City Cove.

Agnes Pelton (1881–1961)

The Desert Transcendentalist

Agnes Pelton earned her living by making landscapes like the other early artists of the desert. Only she called them “tourist paintings.” She happily painted them with precision and passion, but what truly drove and distinguished Pelton were her imaginative, vaporous abstractions.

Born to American parents in Stuttgart, Germany, Pelton wielded a vivid imagination for as long as she could remember. Her earliest drawings reflected her moods, feelings, and inclination to experiment.

After studying under Arthur W. Dow at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, she might have been content to paint landscapes, flowers, and portraits. However, the art world was turning toward new schools of painting, and Pelton leaned in. She was invited to exhibit two of her Symbolist-inspired paintings in 1913 at the International Exposition of Modern Art (now the Armory Show), a scene-shifting survey of the avant-garde that included works by Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, and many others.

A follower of Agni Yoga, Pelton continued to develop her ideas through abstraction while living and working in a lighthouse on Long Island, New York, and fine-tuned them after settling in Cathedral City.

When Pelton arrived in 1932, Ed Ainsworth wrote in Palm Springs Villager, “She visioned the great stars in the clear air and the healing sunshine pouring its beneficent rays upon a world of serried dunes.”

Pelton built her studio/house with a corner fireplace, plenty of light and space, and inspiring surroundings. (The house is now owned by Peter Palladino and Simeon Den, who established the nonprofit Agnes Pelton Society, which hosts tours and talks.)

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“Mother of Silence” (1933) by Agnes Pelton.

Here, the artist painted in solitude under the sky, returning to the studio to “work over” her pictures “many times to get the effect I want,” she told the Villager. The desert’s distinctive glow had an immediate and lasting effect on Pelton and her art. “The vibration of this light, the spaciousness of these skies enthralled me. I knew there was a spirit in nature as in everything else, but here in the desert, it was an especially bright spirit.”

She was known to take in the night sky from her garden, cataloging her visions in a vocabulary of curvilinear and biomorphic forms, brilliant orbs, and delicate veils.

“The aim of these abstract paintings over many years,” she said, “has been to give life and vitality to the visual images [that] have appeared to me from time to time in receptive moments, as symbols of fleeting but beautiful experiences.”

The 2020–2021 exhibition Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist at Palm Springs Art Museum put the artist’s cosmic vision on display with all its abstract forms, curious symbolism, and allusions to the desert landscape.