By William Reynolds
July, 2009 Smoke Signals
That phrase aptly describes a special person in the history of early California and vaquero art. They were spoken by Alfred Douglas Harmer about his beloved father, and only begin to introduce the artistic and social contributions made by Alexander Harmer, an artist considered to be the first important painter of the West and a leader in California’s art community of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Harmer was a pioneer in the portrayal of not only the “fantasy” of the West but of its reality with his depiction of the plains and its indigenous people. But his most popular contribution must lie within his collected works that celebrated the memories and visions of the people and ways of early California.
Harmer was born in 1856 in Newark, New Jersey and joined the army at a too-young age by lying to the military, this so he could take part in the Indian wars of the 1870s - at the age of sixteen, he found he needed to be at least twenty in order to enlist. Even then he listed his occupation as painter and even though he planned to fulfill his five–year enlistment, he requested to be discharged after only one year in order to attend the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts. In 1874, after already being recognized as having significant talent, he started a two-year term at the Academy. One of the main reasons he was so set on attending that art school was to study under the “big-dog” of the time, Thomas Eakins. During that period, Eakins approach was in transition and he became quite the firebrand of controversy – painting nude women without proper, “classical” draping or sets – and even more shocking at the time – treating men and women students with equal respect.
Harmer would venture West and return with fresh ideas and sketched work but ultimately would have to re-enlist in the army when his funds ran low. He joined Troop L of the Sixth Cavalry in 1881 and was assigned to Fort Apache, Arizona. In 1883, Harmer joined a filed expedition after the Chiricahua Apaches, led by Geronimo. The expedition led all over the Southwest and created opportunities for the young artist to create numerous sketches and studies which Harmer later turned into watercolors and some of his finest oils. His travels West during the 1880s were in the opposite direction of most of his peers, most who were heading off to Europe and points east. Harmer settled in Mexico in the late 1880s after his stint with the military, then traveled north to California. He became familiar with the California coastline and briefly established a studio in San Francisco. His time in San Francisco led to an interest in the California’s mission period and he ultimately would leave on a personal journey to study the Franciscan mission trail, sketching feverishly along the way, many showing the missions in their current states of disrepair. One of his studies, which later became one of his most important oil paintings, depicts the Mission San Luis Rey. A painting commissioned, supposedly, by Mrs. Juan Forster, a descendant of the Del Valle family and is purportedly the first commissioned painting Harmer was paid for. The Forster family was prominent in art circles of the time having participated in what would become another significant painting of the era, that being the famous Roping the Bear at Santa Margarita Rancho of Juan Forster, an 1876 oil on canvas by James Walker. (The painting can be seen today as part of the permanent collection of the Denver Art Museum.)
Harmer’s love of the early history of California led him to meet one of the most important people he would come across, ironically when he was about to leave California to study once again at the Academy in Philadelphia. In 1888, Harmer became fast friends with Charles Lummis. Lummis shared Harmer’s love of the Hispanic culture of the past days of Alta California and they both held concerns for the restoration of the California Missions. Lummis would go on to be the center of that passion-play and create the “Landmarks Club of California” in 1894 dedicated to the task of rebuilding the missions – and the ethnic romance attached to them. Lummis called upon Harmer to assist him with the publication “Land Of Sunshine” – a magazine dedicated to the mission task that celebrated the area’s prose, poetry and art. Harmer created numerous illustrations and paintings during this period and of his work Lummis said, “Harmer is particularly and undisputedly the artist of the Apaches and the old-time California.”
It was Lummis, who early on, introduced Harmer to the Del Valle family, said to be among the last of the area’s old Spanish families to have retained the “old ways” of their culture. Their ranch, Camulos would be the inspirational setting for Helen Hunt Jackson’s book, Ramona. The reenactments and settings would be the subject of many photographs taken joyously by Lummis and became the fuse that launched Harmer into his most important period. The subject of old California would become the new imagery that would fill Harmer’s work and become an important window on the past that helped define the vaquero culture of California, to this day. Harmer’s work, while widely admired, had yet to see a wide collector base outside the region. With the resurgence of interest in the vaquero culture and of the era’s horsemanship techniques, Harmer’s work has found a new and broader audience, far past the borders of the old Alta California vaquero’s world.
© Copyright 2009 - William Reynolds