James Swinnerton



 Considered to be the “Dean of Desert Artists,” as well as one of the most influential cartoonists of his time, James Swinnerton’s life spanned nearly a century. In addition to painting hundreds of Southwestern desert scenes, Swinnerton was America's first newspaper comic artist and was  the creator of numerous series and characters. His long journey was in essence a story of two lives, both defined by distinctive and accomplished legacies –one of a cartoonist of historical significance and the other of a fine artist devoted to faithfully portraying the subject matter he loved best.

 Swinnerton has  been reputed over the years to have been born in either San Francisco, Stockton, San Jose or Eureka. Because no certificate exists to provide documentation, the true location of his arrival in this world is not known. His biographer, Harold Davidson, states that “presumptive evidence” points to Eureka. His listed date of birth November 13, 1875 was, according to Swinnerton himself, without dispute. 

  James Swinnerton descended from true pioneer stock. His grandfather, James Guilford Swinnerton, came to California from Illinois in 1853 with his wife and four children. Traveling via the Oregon Trail in a single covered wagon instead of with a convoy, the accepted practice at the time, the elder Swinnerton was initially drawn towards California’s gold country. However his mining efforts realized only modest success.  He soon left the Sierra foothills for Eureka, then later the Santa Clara Valley where he eventually became a prosperous farmer. His oldest son, also named James Guilford Swinnerton, was one of the cofounders of The Humboldt Star newspaper and later became a judge of the Superior court in Stockton.


 On September 19, 1871, the younger James Guilford Swinnerton married a “winsome, young ” Canadian named Jennie Wise. Four years later their only child, James Guilford Swinnerton Jr., was born.  When Jennie died fifteen months later young Jimmy was taken in by his grandparents in San Jose where he remained until his father remarried in 1879. After being “returned to the original owner”, Jimmy's relationship with his stepmother quickly became contentious. He bounced back and forth between his grandparents and parents for the next several years. 


  By the age of fifteen Swinnerton's grandparents had become too old to care for him and his dislike for his stepmother too intense to live with. He decided to run away.  For a short time he apprenticed as a harness jockey at the Bay District Fairgrounds in San Francisco. After determining “a jockey’s life consisted of a diet of no food”, he took a job instead as an exercise boy. But it was to be a brief stint.  It wasn’t long before his father tracked him down. 

  Once back home, Swinnerton expressed his desire to attend art school.  Although “Jimmy” had been drawing since he was a small child his father was emphatic: he would never allow his son to become either an artist or a lawyer. (Given his position as an attorney and later a judge, his father’s hard stance against his son entering the legal profession seems rather curious.)  

 Swinnerton reacted by running away again, this time joining a traveling minstrel show.  He recalled that his “large mouth and peculiar face” made him quite a hit as “the negro kid”, but he soon found the “work of barnstorming” too hard.   He returned home after a year on the road.  Worn down by his son’s determination, his father confessed that while he would rather see his son a minstrel than a lawyer, an artist was preferable to either.  In 1891 sixteen year old Jimmy Swinnerton enrolled in the Mark Hopkins School of Design, the San Francisco Art Association’s art school. 

 In retrospect the school’s 1891 class was a remarkable lot. Swinnerton’s classmates included eventual Western art icons Maynard Dixon and Edward Borein and landscape painter Xavier Martinez.  Also present was Homer Davenport, who would later rise to fame as a political cartoonist.  Dixon, unwilling to deal with the abrasive personality of the school’s director Arthur F. Matthews, left after just a few months, but not before developing and maintaining a lifelong friendship with Swinnerton.  The two frequently made sketching trips together into northern Arizona and the Colorado Desert. 

 Despite recalling in later years that he had strong aspirations to become one of the school’s “advanced students”, whose curriculum was rumored to include a life class that involved the sketching of nude models, Swinnerton’s formal education experience would be brief but influential.  One of his favorite classes was a landscape sketching course taught by British artist Raymond D. Yellend, which included bi-weekly field trips the old San Francisco waterfront. During this time he also came in contact with William Keith, the “Old Master” of California Art, landscape painter George Inness and Emil Carlsen.  Although Swinnerton later claimed the institution primarily emphasized the development of his skills as a colorist, his initial ambition was to become a portrait painter. This led him to spend much of his classroom time caricaturing his instructors. By chance, some of his caricatures were seen by William Randolph Hearst. Impressed by what he saw, Hearst hired Swinnerton as a sketch artist for The San Francisco Examiner in 1892. After hearing that Swinnerton was going to work for a newspaper, William Keith allegedly refused to ever speak to him again.

 At The Examiner Swinnerton’s caricature skills naturally led him to cartooning. Newspapers had not yet developed a cost effective method of printing photographs and the pictorial reporting was still done by sketch artists.  Swinnerton’s drawings soon appeared throughout the paper in sections ranging from the editorial to the sports pages, but his most well known figures were the “Weather Bears,” sketches of bear cubs which appeared on The Examiner’s daily weather report. If rain was forecast, the bear cub would be holding an umbrella. On a clear day, the bear would be at the beach. The popularity of the series led to a cartoon strip called The Little Bears. Eventually Swinnerton began drawing images of small children to accompany the bears, and then began placing two frames together connected by a banner which spanned the page.   The series was titled Little Bears and Tykes.

 It has been said that cartooning is America’s only true indigenous art form. The topic is highly debatable in some circles, but many consider the The Little Bears to be the nation’s original daily comic strip –so proclaimed because it was the first to feature ongoing characters. Others point to Richard Outcault's The Yellow Kid as the first, based on Outcault’s use of multiple panels connected by a continuous story line.  Swinnerton maintained the opinion that Outcault did indeed create the first daily comic strip, while he himself could lay claim to the initial “continuity strip”.

Regardless of which camp one sides with, there is no doubt both Swinnerton and Outcault were monumentally influential in elevating the popularity and commercial viability of cartooning in American history.

 In 1896, after purchasing the New York Morning Journal, Hearst transferred Swinnerton to New York City.  Soon afterwards Swinnerton changed his bears to tigers and created one of his best known characters.  “Mr. Jack,” was a hapless woman-chasing feline that many thought was based on the Tammany Tiger. Given Mr Jack’s proclivities, the strip may also have had some semi-autobiographical undertones.  Yet others thought the character’s escapades were not suitable for reading by younger audiences and the strip was soon moved to the sports section.

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James Swinnerton Desert Horizons Cover

Desert Horizons-Images of James Swinnerton's Southwest

Now available for purchase

  We are always interested in purchasing or accepting on consignment work by James Swinnerton.  Please contact us with any inquiries.
  James Swinnerton Entrance to Oak Creek Canyon

Above: Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona

Image courtesy of

The Picerne Collection


Below: Near Sedona, Arizona

Image courtesy of

The Phippen Museum


James Swinnerton Near Sedona Arizona

James Swinnerton Los Angeles 1927
James Swinnerton-Los Angeles 1927
James Swinnerton Grand Canyon Sunset
Grand Canyon at Sunset
Grand Canyon by James Swinnerton
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