An Appraiser Looks at Swinnerton

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Ed. Note:  Santa Barbara art historian, curator and appraiser Alissa J. Anderson has a special affinity for desert paintings. She grew up in Lake Arrowhead and made frequent trips to Palm Springs as a youth. “I love the austerity of the desert,” she says. “That atmosphere. That silence. I love Swinnerton in particular. He captures the same loneliness that Edward Hopper has in his cityscapes.”

Many of Anderson’s clients, collectors of Western art, also pursue desert paintings.  In this article (it first appeared on Anderson’s blog), she appraises a Jimmy Swinnerton painting submitted by a reader. Swinnerton, a giant of the Coachella Valley art scene, spent his last days living on Pitahaya Street in Palm Desert.

For this month’s Art Appraisal of the Month I was thrilled to see a James Swinnerton (1875-1974) painting submitted. As an art appraiser for Anderson Shea Art Appraisals in Santa Barbara, I often appraise Western and California paintings — and there is just something about the desert that has long-inspired artists. In fact, the great American painter Georgia O’Keeffe’s most important work came only after she abandoned New York for New Mexico –never to return from the desert.

Jimmy Swinnerton, Smoke Tree Palm Springs

James (Jimmy) Swinnerton is certainly one of those painters who found their happiness in this vast, arid, and bewildering desert. For many artists, like Conrad Buff, Maynard Dixon, Clyde Forsythe, Fernand Lungren, Robert Rishell — the desert inspired artistic enlightenment. The abundant beauty that existed in the quiet of the desert became their muse.

James (Jimmy) Swinnerton was born in Eureka, California in 1875. Swinnerton was raised in Santa Clara and studied art at the San Francisco School of Design. As a young artist he became an illustrator for the San Francisco Examiner. While he briefly worked in New York, Swinnerton returned to Palo Alto, California. In the 1920s, he began traveling throughout the Southwest — painting desert scenes in Arizona, New Mexico, and California. He made frequent trips to the Navajo country, painting the Colorado River, dramatic desert buttes, and iconic big skies. He loved the four great North American deserts including the Great Basin, Sonoran, Mojave, and Chihuahuan — but also painted in Palm Springs, Santa Barbara, and throughout the West.

Artists like James Swinnerton made it their mission to explore America’s deserts through art. Just as the Hudson River School discovered spirituality in the Hudson River Valley and the California impressionist painters were inspired by the landscapes of the Pacific Coast, some artists found beauty in the desert.

Using a variety of techniques and styles, these painters explore the unseen virtues of the desert. Swinnerton’s contemporary, Conrad Buff (1875-1974)  a modernist, often painted Zion National Park, transforming desert buttes into geometrical, cubist forms. With a bold use of color and loose, sweeping brushstrokes – Buff’s purple rocks and pink cliffs depict the desert in a way not typically seen. Clyde Forsythe’s New Mexico painting capture the minimalist shapes and earthen tones of parched land, cliff, and sky. Maynard Dixon’s depictions of Tehachapi people and cattle are dwarfed by the ominous, thunderous sky and rolling hills.

Conrad Buff, Agatha

This month’s art appraisal is an oil sketch by James Swinnerton, entitled “Smoke Tree, Palm Springs.” Before beginning a painting, Swinnerton would complete a sketch in oil, in order to layout his composition. His finished works utilize ad photo-realist technique, whereas his sketches are much less detailed. In “Smoke Tree, Palm Springs,” Swinnerton juxtaposes the striking irony of the desert, depicting a parched tree swallowed by arid, rocky landscapes. Paintings like this are imbued with a certain loneliness and isolation, something inherent to the desert. The desert is a vast, hot, and often inhospitable place — but subtly beautiful as well.

Like the 19th century Romantic painters interested in the humbling power of nature over man, Swinnerton’s desert scenes rarely depict people. His paintings capture the expansive, alluring, and often mysterious qualities of a seemingly dry wasteland. He depicts the magnificence of monumental desert bluffs, quintessential desert skies, dramatic shadows cast upon an endless landscape, and the decorative radiance of simple sand and brush.

As a California art appraiser, I’ve found that collectors of Swinnerton’s paintings prefer his highly detailed desert landscapes — but the skill of Swinnerton’s work still makes this oil sketch of some value.

While the canvas appears to have some dirt and dust, “Smoke Tree, Palm Springs” is in good condition. A competitive demand exists for James Swinnerton’s paintings and this artwork is well painted, composed, and executed – placing my appraisal of the painting in the mid-range of Swinnerton’s market.

The Fair Market Value* of this painting would be estimated between $2,000-$3,000. A treasure indeed!

Please submit your painting, drawing, or sculpture for next month’s ART FIND appraisal. To be considered, mail a photo and brief description to:

*©2010 Alissa J. Anderson. All Rights Reserved. None of the contents of this article may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanic, photocopy, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of Anderson Shea Art Appraisals, and the appraiser’s signature.)

For more on Alissa Anderson, see:

Collectors, be sure to see Anderson’s article on investing in California art:

24 comments for “An Appraiser Looks at Swinnerton

  1. Hello I have in my possession a painting I believe is a Swinnerton painting. I am not sure if its a real on or a copy. It belonged to my wife’s grandfather. He is an amateur painter and lived for some time in New Mexico. The picture frame has a little plaque that reads J Swinnerton Desert Cacti. On the bottom edge of the painting you can see the name sinnerton but it lookes like he brushed a thin layer of paint over it because you can make out the name but its faint. We would be interested in having this painting looked at.

  2. i have a print of a swinnerton dessert scene that my grand father bought in the 1930s in its original frame. would like to know its value.

  3. Hi Steve,

    I don’t know the value of these prints. I’d suggest asking Palm Springs art appraiser Kevin Stewart. Or you can come to the Art Appraisal Day at Palm Desert Historical Society on November 19, 2011. Good luck to you

  4. Dear Alissa,

    I would like to sell two Swinnerton paintings that I have purchased in a local second hand shop. They are framed and the canvases are 14X24. one is of a yellow tree with road in front with sage plants (titled Salton Sea on the back) and the other is a bare tree with an arroyo (rut) in front of it. They are both monochromatic. I just want to know if you would know of any buyers/collectors for these. They are both in excellent condition, as well as the frames.

  5. I have a 3’X5′ desert landscape painting featuring a yellow blooming creosote bush (?) signed in the lower right by Swinnerton. It’s in a large frame and the painting is in very good condition. Do you know of anyone in the Las Vegas, Nevada area who may be interested in collecting works of art by this artist? I would like to sell it to someone who appreciates Swinnerton’s art work. Thanks.

  6. Hello,
    I have two Swinnerton paintings. One is marked on the back
    “Blossoming Palo Verde Tree Against Desert Cliffs. It is numbered
    3933. The other has nothing on the back. I purchased them as a
    pair in Monte Vista, co (year 1961). I am downsizing and as I went
    to put them away I noticed the name of the artist and looked it up
    on the computer which has led me to you. Can you shed any light
    on what I have? Sincerely, carol brooks The size is 12″by14”

  7. Hi Carol,

    To find out the value of your Swinnertons, I’d suggest talking to Gary Fillmore at the Blue Coyote Gallery in Cave Creek, Arizona. Gary has written a book on Swinnerton and knows his work well. Another good source would be Kevin Stewart, a Palm Springs appraiser, or Alissa Anderson Shea in Santa Barbara. Links to these websites are on the home page of this site.

    Best of luck,


  8. Hi. I have a Jimmy Swinnerton desert painting and a book of his that he signed giving it to my father that I inherited when my parents both passed away in 2010. I am interested in having them looked at and appraised. It was originally my grandmothers, she knew Mr. Swinnerton having lived in Palm Springs herself. It always hung over the fireplace at my parents home and really is beautiful!

  9. I have a painting tilted “Deseret Cati” by artist J. Swinnerton it is in a 17×24 inch frame with desert cati in a little gold casing, singed by j. swinnerton.I live in the memphis tenn and,i want to no if their are any collectors or buyers interested in mr. swinnertons work in my area.

  10. I need to make a correction to the size of my J. Swinnerton (Desert Cati) original oil painting, it is 21×47, not (17×24) as stated above. it is a beautiful painting in mint condition. I am looking for a buyer/collector who can appreciate this fine piece of Mr Swinnerton’s work.

  11. I have a framed Salton Sea picture on back says Illinois molding co. has p436 and v4488-593 on it. how much is it worth

  12. Hi Rosanne,

    I checked with Jennie Kelly, director of the Salton Sea Museum. She had this to say:

    “I did a quick search and found that this company was known to buy, sell and resell paintings, prints and antiques etc. Unfortunately they also apparently made copies of paintings and sold those. Here is a link that she may find interesting:

    Based on Jennie’s research this is likely a print and therefore not as valuable as an original painting. To find out, come to appraisal day at the Historical Society of Palm Desert ( April 13, 2013!


  13. I think I have two Swinnerton paintings. Both are 18×24 oil on board and are of desert trees. They are signed at the bottom. Can you help me find an appraiser in the San Antonio area.?

  14. Dian, To find out the value of the Swinnerton prints, I’d suggest checking the website Check the auction prices and also the discussion board and you might find an answer there.

  15. I own a Swinnerton print “Blossoming Smoke Tree”, Line 356A, Frame No. 284H, Order No. 936
    how can I find out what it is worth and where to sell it

  16. I have a painting that I think is Conrad Buff. How do I get appraised?
    Please let me know.
    Than you,

  17. I own 5 field sketches by Jimmy Swinnerton. Oil on board, 12″x 16″ matted and framed behind glass. 3 are titled and signed, 1 – title and signature present but unreadable. 1 of smoke tree no title, signature unreadable. These were painted in the 1960’s when Swinnerton lived in the Palm Springs area. My folks were fans and friends of Jimmy and acquired these in the 60’s. I am considering selling these art pieces and will e-mail pictures of same to you if you are interested in evaluating them. One was appraised in 1996 at 1,800.00. But, that was 20 yrs. ago.

  18. I have what I suspect is a print of a swinnerton 35×37 called Grandview point.
    printed sometime before 1990. I would like to know if it has any value. It is in excellent condition.

  19. Hi Alissa,

    Jimmy Swinnerton and my Dad built a Father – Son relationship when my Dad was a student at Chouinard in Los Angeles, and Jimmy was my Godfather ….. I was blessed to go on many field sketch trips to the 4-corners area as a grade-schooler in the late 50’s.

    I have two nicely framed copies that I would like to sell (Aspens in Their Yellow Mood / Monument Valley). Can you recommend a gallery or person that I can work with?

    Thank you so much !!

    Darryll Getzlaff

  20. I have a Swinnerton and I need to know if it is authentic. It is quite dirty with smoke and if its an original I really need to get ot cleaned. It looks as though it was somewhere that had heavy smoking around it. I’m in Las Vegas and found it at a Goodwill. I haven’t been able to find anyone here to appraise it.

  21. I have 2 Swinnerton paintings Palo Verde in Bloom and Ironwood Tree that I would like to have appraised. They belonged to my Granparents along with a RC Gorman Mother with Child and a few others. Can you help me or refer me to someone who would be able to?

  22. I Have a Swinnerton painting “Volcanic Butte, Arizona” I would like appraised.

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