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Biller on Art: Unearthed Treasures of Desert Impressionism

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Steven Biller © 2015

Unearthed Treasures of Desert Impressionism

One of the greatest joys of writing about art — especially early California Impressionism — is every so often someone you know unearths a treasure.

This summer, while walking through Palm Springs City Hall (before the FBI raid), I was in the office of Jennifer Henning, who oversees the city’s public art program, and spotted a painting by Sam Hyde Harris (1889-1977) leaning against a wall. A coworker had found it in the deepest depths of the city yard. Henning rescued it. The painting had no title scrawled on the back of its wooden frame, but from what I know of the artist’s desert scenes, it was probably painted in the mid-1940s, well after Impressionism gave way to Modern art. Although Harris painted in the desert as early as the late 1920s (I remember his c. 1928 oil on panel titled Old Las Palmas), he lived in Newport Beach until 1937 and committed to the Palm Springs area in the early 1940s. He befriended local landscapist James Swinnerton, who proved to be a tremendous influence, and Harris’s late paintings were almost all desert scenes.

Sam Hyde Harris

painting by Sam Hyde Harris

Harris’s auction records suggest the plein air painting — with signature smoke trees, boulders, and distant mountains — would fetch about $20,000 today. But it’s not for sale, and I’ll be eager to see where the painting lands after Henning has it properly cleaned and restored (although it appears in surprisingly good condition).

Another stunning discovery had greater historical significance.

In the spring of 2006, a dealer/friend, Thom Gianetto, who at the time was operating Edenhurst Gallery on El Paseo in Palm Desert, called to tell me he had acquired a rare John Frost (1890-1937) painting depicting “what’s clearly Tahquitz Canyon in south Palm Springs.”

Scholars would hail the 1919 oil on canvas Through the Cottonwoods as a major discovery, Gianetto said, emphasizing that the painting is one of only 100 known canvases by the artist.

John Frost

‘Through the Cottonwoods’ by John Frost

“The location of the painting is Tahquitz Canyon seen through the cottonwoods at what we believe is the corner of Ramon Road and Palm Canyon Drive — the same location as the Irvine Museum’s signature work by the artist that has appeared on the cover of California Impressionism,” Gianetto beamed. “[The museum’s] painting, titled The Pool at Sundown, is the fall version of our painting.”

The museum considers its Frost canvas — which is the same size as Through the Cottonwoods (24×28 inches) — among the masterworks in its collection. Through the Cottonwoods, valued between $400,000 and $500,000 — is similar to the lost canvas San Jacinto Thro’ the Cottonwoods, which won first prize for landscape in the Second Annual Competitive Exhibition of the Paintings of California Artists at the Southwest Museum in 1922. A classic French Impressionist, the Philadelphia-born Frost had previously painted with Claude Monet, Alson Skinner Clark, and Guy Rose, whose signature fishhook strokes influenced Frost’s style.

One of Palm Springs’ earliest painters, Frost is the subject of Phil Kovinick’s recent biography from the Irvine Museum. Frost was in California for a short time and maintained a studio at Nellie Coffman’s Desert Inn. As the story goes, Carlos Geggie, who ran the Desert Inn in the 1920s and ’30s, purchased the painting at one of Frost’s shows. Geggie treasured the painting. When he died in 1984, his ashes were reportedly spread in the San Jacinto Mountains, and Through the Cottonwoods went to his brother Robert. When Robert died, his son Bob, who lives in Orange County, took possession of the canvas and sold it to Edenhurst Gallery.

Read my last posting about Desert Impressionism at


Steven Biller is editor of Palm Springs Life ART+CULTURE and a contributing writer for art ltd.

The essays are intended for personal enjoyment. The opinions expressed in content published on the LQAF Sites by Guest Contributors or Bloggers and comments made by the public at large are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the La Quinta Arts Foundation or any employee thereof. La Quinta Arts Foundation is not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied by Guest Contributors, Bloggers or in comments made by the general public.