Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on August 8, 2008 with the permission of the Hearst Art Gallery at Saint Mary's College and the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Hearst Art Gallery directly through either this phone number or web address:
Carl Sammons: Early California Impressionist
By Douglas S. McElwain
Carl Sammons was one of the noted early California Impressionists. He was a long-time resident of the San Francisco Bay Area and a prolific Plein Air artist. He is known best for his California representational landscapes and coastal scenes. While much of his work was done in California, he traveled and painted throughout the West. In his early career, he painted Tonalist pastels and some sources list him as a Pastelist. However, by 1920, Sammons had added vivid Impressionistic oils to his repertoire and these paintings comprise the majority of his work.
Sammons was born in Kearney, Nebraska on May 8, 1883, a date confirmed by census records. Not much is known about his early life other than that his passion for painting began in his childhood. By his twenties, he had developed an interest in travel and started his formal art studies in Sioux City, Iowa, while working as a gold letter sign painter. He first came to California in 1913, moving to Petaluma where his sister, Mary Dye, lived. By the spring of 1916, Sammons moved a short distance to Monte Rio where he opened an art studio. The following year, he moved back to Kearney, Nebraska. He returned to California around 1920 when his mother moved to Long Beach. At this time he moved to San Francisco where he studied at the California School of Fine Arts. It was at this point in his career that he made the transition from Tonalism to Impressionism.
Sammons met Queen Esther Stewart in Petrolia in Humboldt County, California in the early 1920s. They had much in common, including a keen appreciation of the beauty of California, a religious belief in God, and both came from large families whose parents were born in the Midwest. They were married on February 3, 1923 in Oakland, California. William Frates, another California painter, was best man at the wedding.
The 1923 California Industries Exposition in San Francisco marks the beginning of Sammons' public recognition as an early California Impressionist. It was at this exposition that Sammons' work came to the attention of Harry Noyes Pratt. Pratt was well known in the art world and was, at various times, Editor of the Overland Monthly, art critic for the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle, Director of the Haggin Memorial Galleries and Director of the Crocker Art Gallery. Pratt praised Sammons' work and the two began a life-long friendship.
During the late 1920s, Sammons was a well known and sought after artist. In 1929, he participated in an advertising campaign with the Durant Motor Company, an Oakland automobile manufacturer. Articles highlighting Sammons' use of his Durant Six Coupe during his painting trips appeared in over fifty western newspapers.
As with most artists, the Great Depression was a very difficult time for Sammons. Art was a luxury item and, as with his fellow artists, Sammons' sales were hard hit by the economic troubles. In addition, as popular art styles changed to more abstract and modern techniques, Sammons chose to continue painting in the Impressionistic style. He was able to do this and make a living at it because he was a prolific painter, he sold his paintings at reasonable prices and he was a talented artist. It was during this time that John M. Gamble, the renowned early California Impressionist, praised Sammons as the best painter of flowers in the west.
Sammons participated in organizations that he felt gave him a venue to exhibit and sell his paintings. At times between the 1920s and 40s he was a member of the Alameda County Art League, the Berkeley Fine Arts League, the Art League of Santa Barbara, the American Artist's Professional League and the Rocky Mountain Artists Association. He was made an honorary member of the Redwood Palette Club in the early 1950s.
Queen traveled with Carl as he toured the West on painting expeditions and was instrumental in marketing his paintings in various venues. From the 1930s through the 50s, they traveled around California much of the year. Places they visited regularly included Humboldt County, the Monterey Peninsula, Palm Springs, Santa Barbara and the Sierra Nevada mountains. In 1956, they decided to settle down and buy a home in Oakland, California.
Sammons was a quiet, soft spoken, gentle man who was heavily influenced by his Midwest upbringing. While he was a very private man, he was also a warm and friendly person who waved at passers-by while he was outdoors sketching. Even though he and Queen had no children, he enjoyed the children who would occasionally watch him paint, often having them fetch something for him, e.g., a leaf or piece of bark so he could get the color right in his paintings. After a career that spanned more than fifty years, Carl Sammons died in Oakland on February 4, 1968.
During his life, Sammons shared his knowledge of art with others. William Frates and Henry Vardon Going studied under Sammons. He would occasionally go on painting expeditions with other artists. Artists that Sammons counted among his friends included Edward Borien, John Gamble, Deidrich Gremke, Paul Grimm, Lorenzo Latimer, William Otte, DeWitt Parshall and Thaddeus Welch. He also knew Albert DeRome and Sammons' "autograph" appears on the back of several of DeRome's works.
Sammons did not participate in many public or juried exhibits. It appears he felt that painting was not a competitive endeavor but an act of creation in which each artist expressed his interpretation with the ultimate verdict lying in the hands of the purchaser of the painting. He was motivated by the natural beauty around him, "inspired to paint landscapes by his belief in God and his love of God's creation." Sammons combined the techniques of Impressionism, Post-Impressionist and the American Realist Schools. As such, he created very sophisticated canvases that fit squarely into the California Eucalyptus School of painting. Sammons paintings embody a spirituality of the land and, as such, his finest works are comparable to those produced by his better known California Impressionist colleagues. His personal files are replete with letters from art lovers across the United States who purchased and displayed his paintings. This exhibition will reveal to a new generation of art lovers Carl Sammons' contributions to the early California Impressionist tradition.
About the author
Douglas S. McElwain has researched and written biographies about several California artists and is the leading researcher into Carl Sammons and his work. This essay is extracted from a longer monograph written by Mr. McElwain about Carl Sammons. The monograph is approximately forty pages long, is heavily footnoted and includes an extensive bibliography. The monograph can be purchased from Mr. McElwain for $15 which includes postage. If you are interested in purchasing a copy, please contact Mr. McElwain directly at his email address: Dmac44@aol.com. Mr. McElwain is also in the process of compiling a Catalogue Raisonné of Sammons' paintings. It is his intention that this catalog will be used solely to further research into Sammons' work. Anyone who owns Sammons' paintings and are willing to have photos of those paintings included in the Catalogue Raisonné should contact Mr. McElwain at his above mentioned email address.
About the exhibition
Carl Sammons, a prolific plein air artist who began as a sign painter in Iowa then gained fame as a Bay Area landscape painter whose colors were bathed in the warmth and light of the sun associated with Southern California artists is featured in an exhibit of rarely seen works at the Hearst Art Galley of Saint Mary's College from July 12 through September 21, 2008.
The Hearst exhibition is a rare opportunity to see many of Sammons' works that are never exhibited. Most of the paintings in the Hearst exhibition are on loan from Donna Walsh Sumner, the artist's niece, rarely on public view. The exhibition is organized by Hearst Registrar and Collections Manager Julie Armistead.
Resource Library editor's note
The above essay is excerpted from the color catalog for Carl Sammons: California Impressionist Landscapes from the Donna Walsh Sumner Collection, on exhibit July 12 - September 21, 2008 at the Hearst Art Gallery.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Julie Armistead and Heidi Donner of the Hearst Art Gallery for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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