The Artistic Atmosphere of Sam Hyde Harris

2011/05/18 § Leave a comment

"Carmel Vista" 16" x 20" Oil on Board

Sam Hyde Harris

The Atmosphere of the Southland

California Art Club

by Jeffrey Morseburg

Sam Hyde Harris (1889-1978) was one of the best-known artists of the San Gabriel Valley – the painters who lived beneath Mt. Wilson and the peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains, northeast of Los Angeles. He is best known for his works of the 1920s and 1930s – paintings that are alive with the unique atmosphere of Los Angeles.  Harris had the ability to capture the morning overcast that enveloped the local foothills, the layer of smoke and dust that the Santa Ana winds bring to the arid valleys of the Southland. However, he was equally adept at capturing the rustic beauty of the Carmel Peninsula or the Laguna Coast, where the sun plays “hide and seek” with the mist and clouds.  Harris was known for works that were memorably composed and that had a clear, crisp, but limited palette that honestly portrayed the conditions he found out-of-doors.  He believed in verisimilitude, in recording the truth of what he saw in the desert, mountains and coasts of his beloved California.

Sam Hyde Harris was born in Middlesex, England in 1889, but immigrated to the United States with his family in 1904. His speech bore traces of his British origins the rest of his life. Harris was so artistically gifted that he began working as a commercial artist as a teenager, and he carried a letter of recommendation from his British employer when he settled in Los Angeles at the age of fifteen. He was an industrious young man and he worked as a sign painter, designer and commercial artist for different firms before opening his own studio in 1914.

Although the young immigrant was already a successful commercial artist, he wanted to be a fine artist and master the depiction of the rugged land that was new to him, so he enrolled in classes at the Los Angeles Art Students League and the Canon Art School, where he studied with the Impressionist painters Frank Tolles Chamberlin (1873-1961) and Hanson Duvall Puthuff  (1875-1972), and the early modernist Stanton McDonald-Wright (1890-1973).  Harris began working with Puthuff in 1906 and the two became life-long friends and comrades, traveling all over California in pursuit of the highly atmospheric moods that they loved the challenge of capturing.

While Harris was designing the orange crate labels that became a symbol of the good life in California to beleaguered citrus lovers in colder climes and his beautifully composed promotional posters for the Union Pacific and Santa Fe Railroads, he gained confidence in his easel paintings and began exhibiting his plein-air works.  His first recorded exhibition was in 1920 with the California Art Club and for the rest of his life, he exhibited with great regularity.

In addition to painting with Hanson Puthuff, Harris also traveled and painted with Jean Mannheim (1862-1945) and Edgar Payne (1883-1947).  In contrast to many of his fellow artists, Harris also liked to paint urban landscapes and he did many paintings of the old farms of the San Gabriel Valley as well as the east side of Los Angeles.  He did some wonderfully atmospheric paintings of the old barrios of Chavez Ravine, where Dodger Stadium was eventually built, and the finest of these works is in the collection of the O’Malley family, who owned the Dodgers and brought them to Los Angeles.

"Autumn, La Quinta" 25" x 30" Oil on Canvas

In the 1930s Harris began painting the waterfronts of Newport Beach, San Pedro,  Sunset Beach and even San Diego.  Most of these works depicted anchored boats and the lazy waterfront in the morning overcast.  As the years progressed he fell in love with the desert, traveling east to the low desert around Indio and Palm Springs in the company of other painters like Jimmy Swinnerton (1875-1974), Jack Wilkinson Smith, and Victor Matson (1895-1972).  In his later years, Harris altered his technique and his work became harder edged and more economical, but he maintained the same emphasis on capturing the unique light and atmosphere of the area he was painting.

Harris was part of the small Alhambra art colony that had developed around Champion Place, at the east end of San Gabriel Valley community of Alhambra, hard against the old wash that carried water from the mountains during the rainy season.  The group of Alhambra artists included the painter and cartoonist Clyde Forsyth (1885-1962), the western painter Frank Tenney Johnson (1888-1939), Jack Wilkinson Smith (1873-1949), and the sculptor Eli Harvey (1860-1957). Famed illustrator Norman Rockwell was a summer resident.  Harris lived near Champion Place on Hidalgo Street, but took over Jack Smith’s old “Artist’s Alley” studio in 1949.

Harris was one of the few major California plein-air painters who lived into the 1970s, and only a few years after his passing his work began to be rediscovered along with that of his friends and comrades in the California Impressionist movement.  In 1980 Harris was the subject of one of the first retrospective exhibitions devoted to a California Plein-Air painter, when the much-missed Peterson Galleries in Beverly Hills mounted an exhibition curated by the art historian Jean Stern.

Sam Hyde Harris was a member of the seminal California Art Club, the Painters and Sculptors Club and the Laguna Beach Art Association.  During his long career he won many awards at major exhibitions.  His work is in the collections of virtually every major institution that collects California Impressionism, including the Irvine Museum and Fleisher Collection as well as major private collections across the United States.  He was the subject of a major retrospective at the Pasadena Museum of History in 2007 and 2008 and a large book was produced to accompany the exhibition.  Copyright, 2010-2011, Jeffrey Morseburg, not to be reproduced without author’s express written permission.

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