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of 19th, 20th and 21stCentury American Art
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Magical Realist & WPA Muralist

by Jeremy Tessmer with assistance from Leah Hardin

For 30 years Sullivan Goss has represented estates of some of America's finest artists. We are now proud to announce the acquisition and representation of the Estate of Jean Swiggett, a native son of Indiana who taught at San Diego State University and was included in more than 700 exhibitions.

Table of Contents

I. Biography

Jean Donald Swiggett was born in Franklin, Indiana in 1910 and moved to Long Beach, California with his family when he was two.  After graduating from junior college, he enrolled at Chouinard Art Institute, where eminent regionalist artists like Phil Dike (1906-1990) were then teaching.  Finishing his degree in art and mathematics at San Diego State University in 1934, Swiggett got a job with the Federal Art Project (F.A.P.) in Los Angeles.  Muralism was a big deal in Los Angeles at the time.  Famed Mexican muralists Alfred Ramos Martinez (1871-1946) and David Alfaro Sisquieros (1896-1974) worked in the area in the late 1920s and early 1930s, creating a new appreciation for public art.

Under the banners of the Federal Art Project and, later, the US Treasury Art Project (T.A.P.), Swiggett went on to design, paint, or assist on over 40 murals in public venues.  He worked directly with both Paul Sample (1896-1974) and Norman Chamberlain (1887-1961).  He painted or assisted on post office murals in Huntington Park, CA, Redondo Beach, CA, Franklin, IN, and Safford, AZ and did murals for three schools.  He also completed three other murals for private spaces, including a private home in Pasadena, the Hotel Lebec in Lebec, CA, and the California Wine Institute. This is to say nothing of his creation of seven large murals for the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939 in San Francisco.

Following his string of professional successes, Swiggett took a job with USC in 1940. In 1941, he began a lifelong habit of international travel with a trip to Mexico, and in 1942 he married Mary Wurst. With the War raging, Swiggett enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.

With his service to his country finished in 1946, Jean Swiggett took a job teaching at San Diego State College (later San Diego State University), where he taught for 31 years. He was active in a number of San Diego arts organizations and institutions and traveled widely until his death in 1990.

INTERVIEWS: Sullivan Goss is seeking to conduct interviews with students and friends that knew Jean Swiggett.

Stephanie and Birds
39.5 x 32 inches
Oil on canvas
Exhibited: Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

This painting's uncanny realism, theatrical staging, and magical iconography recalls Ivan in Armor, 1938 - a well-known painting from the artist's early career. Realism of this particular variety was not entirely uncommon in the period. Perhaps responding to the German "New Objectivity" (Neue Sachlichkeit), a number of artists explored this new dimension realism in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.

II. An Analysis of the Artist’s Work

With Swiggett, it all began with an unimpeachable virtuosity. The man loved to draw and he drew beautifully.

He was also blessed by a long formative period in which he was paid to make a great deal of work. His career from the mid 1930s to the mid 1940s was largely the career of a W.P.A. muralist. During that time, he worked on 30 murals, many of which were enormous. (The largest, the Huntington Post Office mural, was composed of five panels – one of which was 87 feet long and six feet high.) Plus, the work often involved executing designs in difficult media like encaustic, egg tempera, and casein. The difficulties of using these Old World media may have given Swiggett a kind of reverence for technique in an of itself.

Whatever the cause, Swiggett’s earliest efforts as an easel painter were marked by a very high technical proficiency.

His fantastically detailed easel paintings of the 30s and 40s were part of the nascent Magical Realist movement – a school which hadn’t coalesced and wasn’t named until much later. Partly a response to international Surrealism (especially Italian metaphysical painters like Giorgio di Chirico) and partly a response to the German “New Objectivity” (Neue Sachlichkeit) painters like George Grosz, Magical Realism marked a return to representational - and often highly rendered - paintings that offered absurd, theatrical, or fantastic visual images to comment on real-life issues. It was this focus on external realities that separated it from Surrealism.

Throughout this time, Swiggett also experimented widely with other pictorial ideas. His enormous technical gifts enabled him to make important examples in a variety of other styles that were, in a general sense, Modernist. Arrangements with Apples, 1939 and Apples & Succulents, 1963 showed Cézanne’s influence. Felicia, 1941 showed an admiration for Picasso’s classical period. Little Princess - the Queen, 1951 showed an understanding of Max Beckman’s work, or even medieval stained glass. In each of these explorations, however, Swiggett was still Swiggett. A pronounced interest in wrinkled paper and folded cloth reappears time and again. With these additions, the artist was able to show off his great rendering ability. He also showed an ongoing interest in theatrical staging - both in still life and in his figurative compositions.

In the 60s and 70s, Swiggett made a pronounced move towards the figure, working again in a new kind of magical realist style. Filling his compositions with whimsy, art historical reference, and somewhat obtuse metaphorical iconography, he developed a distinctive new voice. The sexual liberation of the 60s and 70s certainly may have even figured into his new body of work. Many of the figures are nudes in situations in which you might expect them to be clothed. On a trip to Europe, Swiggett decided that the male nude was inadequately represented in Western art and he decided to correct that. He didn't favor one gender over another, but his willingness to render the nude male is striking.

His return to a highly-rendered representational art was part of a larger, though still largely undiscussed, trend in American art. Photorealism, by artists like Robert Bechtle, Ralph Goings, and Chuck Close, came on the scene. There were also artists like Vija Celmins and Paul Wonner who worked to organize abstract compositions with representational elements. Perhaps Swiggett’s closest colleague was Philip Pearlstein, whose realist nude figure paintings won critical and commercial favor in the late 60s and 70s. Nevertheless, Swiggett's works of the 60s, 70s, and 80s was certainly allied with the projects of these other artists.

Apples & Succulent
c. late 1950s
14 x 18 inches
Oil on canvas

This painting's subtle homage to the apple still lifes of Cézanne, or perhaps his California-based acolyte, Henry Lee McFee (1886-1953), are evident in the stylized modeling of the forms. The wrinkled paper, on the other hand, is a hallmark of Jean Donald Swiggett.

III. Chronology

  • 1910 Born January 6 in Franklin, IN
  • 1912 Moves to Long Beach, CA
  • 1928 Graduates from Long Beach Polytechnic High School
  • 1930 Graduates from Long Beach Junior College
  • 1931 Attends Chouinard Art Institute
  • 1934 Receives B.A. in Mathematics and Art from San Diego State College (now San Diego State University)
  • 1934 Begins work with Federal Art Project (F.A.P.), Los Angeles
  • 1934 Transfers to U.S. Treasury Art Project (T.A.P.)
  • 1935 Paints first oil painting and enters first competitive art competition
  • 1939 Receives Master of Fine Arts Degree from USC (University of Southern California)
  • 1940-41 Teaches at USC
  • 1941 Travels in Mexico
  • 1941-42 Teaches at Washington State College, Pullman, WA (later Washington State University)
  • 1942 Marries Mary Wurst
  • 1942-46 Serves in the U.S. Air Force in Victorville as Head of Radar Intelligence & Santa Ana Army Base, teaching mathematics and navigation
  • 1944 His daughter, Stephanie, is born
  • 1946 Begins teaching at San Diego State College (later San Diego State University)
  • 1950 Travels in Mexico
  • 1950-2 Attends Claremont Graduate School during summer months
  • 1963 Travels around the world for nine months
  • 1963-9 Serves as Chair, Department of Art, SDSU
  • 1969-70 Takes a year sabbatical to Europe where he encounters a deficit of male nudes in the art museums
  • 1977 Retires from SDSU
  • 1977 Professor Emeritus SDSU 1977-1990
  • 1981-1987 Travels widely through China, Scandinavia, U.S.S.R., England, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Mexico, and the Pacific Northwest
  • 1990 Died December 9 in San Diego, CA

  • Little Princess - The Queen
    40 x 26 inches
    Oil on canvas

    The strong black outlines and vivid colors recall both the works of Max Beckmann and his source, medieval stained glass. Featuring a young girl ruling over her castle with the subtle suggestion of an American flag behind her, the painting seems to hint at the deep human basis for ideas like political sovereignty. More than that, it is a terrifically fun picture of the first generation to enjoy toys in such plenty.

    IV. Collections

  • City of San Diego, San Diego, CA, "Egyptian Head with Canna Leaf", 1945
  • Long Beach Museum of Art, Long Beach, CA
  • Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, Miami, FL
  • San Diego Historical Society, San Diego, CA
  • San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA
  • San Diego State University, San Diego, CA
  • Smithsonian, Washington, DC
  • Southwestern College, Chula Vista, CA
  • University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA
  • V. Exhibitions

    Artist papers suggest that Jean Swiggett participated in a remarkable 700 exhibitions over the course of his career. The following is a selection of some of the important exhibitions.

    Group Exhibitions

  • 1935 "14th Annual Exhibition of Art," Los Angeles County Fair, Pamono, CA
  • 1936-1941 "Annual Painting & Sculpture Exhibiton," Los Angeles Museum of Art,Los Angeles, CA
  • 1938 "Member Artists," Amerivcan Artists Congress Gallery, Hollywood, CA
  • 1938 "Annual Exhibition of Paintings," California State Fair, Sacramento, CA
  • 1939 "Paintings & Sculpture Designed for Federal Buildings," Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
  • 1939 "Contemporary Art," Golden Gate International Exhibition, San Francisco, CA
  • 1940 "Exhibition of Paintings by California Artists-Invitational," Faulkner Memorial Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA
  • 1941 "Faculty Exhibition: Sample, Craig, Lutz, Brandt, Swiggett," Fisher Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1950 "26th Annual Hoosier Salon," William H. Block Galleris, Indianapolis, In
  • 1950 "Painting and Sculpture Annual," Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA
  • Solo Exhibitions

  • 1936-37 Jake Zeitlin Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1937 Laguna Beach Art Association, Laguna, CA
  • 1942 San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA
  • 1943 La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla, CA
  • 1944 Laguna Beach Art Association, Laguna Beach, CA
  • 1945 Fine Arts Gallery, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA
  • 1952 Mazzanine Art Gallery, San Diego, CA
  • 1953 Fine Arts Gallery, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA
  • 1967 San Diego City College, San Diego, CA
  • 1970 Galleria Kai Alde, Estepona, Spain
  • 1973 Southwestern College, San Diego, CA
  • 1974 Boehm Gallery, Polomar College, San Marcos, CA
  • 1980 San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA
  • 1983 Ankrum Gallery, Los Angeles, CA
  • 1986 San Diego Museum of Natural History, San Diego, CA
  • 1987 San Diego State University, San Diego, CA
  • VI. Mural Commissions

  • 1935-37 Huntington Park Post Office, oil on canvas (5 panels, one 8' wide x 6' high), US Treasury, Assistant to Norman Chamberlain.
  • 1935 Mural, California Wine Institute, oil on canvas.
  • 1937 California School of Design, Two Murals, Today the Design School is known as Cal Tech. Assisted by Ivan Bartlett
  • 1937 Redondo Beach Post Office, oil on canvas (3 panels), US Treasury. Assistant to Paul Sample
  • 1937 Lebec Hotel, commissioned by owner Thomas O'Brian. Assisted by Ivan Bartlett
  • 1937-39 Long Beach Polytechnic High School, egg tempera on gessoed plaster, (17’ x 35').
  • 1938-39 Mural Designer, W.P.A., Los Angeles.
  • 1938-39 Seven Murals, Peace Projects, Inc., Golden Gate International Exposition, San Francisco, lacquer on glass.
  • 1939 Mural, University of Southern California, "Alma Mater" encaustic on concrete (10’ x 12’).
  • 1939 "Children & Natural Resources", South Pasadena High School, "Alma Mater" petrochrome.
  • 1939 Mural, Private Home, Pasadena, casein.
  • c. 1940 "Food Culture, Clothing Culture", Fallbrook High School, "Alma Mater" casein.
  • 1940 Winner, National Mural Competition, Franklin, Indiana Post Office, oil on canvas, US Treasury.
  • 1940 Winner, National Mural Competition, SS PRESIDENT JACKSON, casein tempera on Flexwood, American President Lines.
  • 1941 Winner, National Mural Competition, SS PRESIDENT ADAMS, casein tempera on Flexwood, American President Lines.
  • 1941 Three-dimensional chart-mural, “Housing Exhibit,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, casein.
  • 1941 Winner, National Mural Competition, Safford, Arizona Post Office, US Treasury (Stopped because of the War.)
  • 1941 Winner, National Mural Competition, US Maritime Commission & Moore-McCormick Lines (Stopped because of the War.)
  • c. 1941 "Life of Washington Irving", Washington Irving Jr. High School, "Alma Mater" petrachrome.
  • 1945-46 Radar War Room, US Army Air Base, Victorville, constructed murals with radar-scope photographs with casein.
  • 1946 Mural, Foodmaker, Coronado, casein.
  • 1953 Children’s Ward, San Diego County Hospital, casein.
  • 1954 Four Three-dimensional Murals, Ridpath Hotel, Spokane, enamel on metal and wood.
  • Date Unknown San Diego Skyline Mural, home of Mr. & Mrs. Fred Rohr of Rohr Aircraft
  • VII. Memberships

  • San Francisco Art Association
  • Laguna Beach Art Association (Board of Directors)
  • San Diego Museum of Art Artists Guild (President, 1953)
  • La Jolla Art Association
  • San Diego Watercolor Society
  • Western Foundation in Art
  • Art Council, San Diego State University
  • VIII. Awards

    Under Construction

  • 1935 Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA - First Award
  • 1937 Los Angeles County Fair, Pomona, CA - Printmaking
  • 1938 California State Fair, Sacramento, CA - 2nd Prize-Figure Painting for "Boy At the Beach"
  • 1950-54 San Diego Museum of Art Artists' Guild
  • 1950 Annual Hoosier Salon, Indianapolis, IN - Purchase Prize for "Arrangement with Lemons"
  • 1950 Arizona State Fair, Phoenix, AZ - Second Prize, Oil Painting for "San Miguel"
  • 1950 Annual Carlsbad-Oceanside Art Exhibit - Purchase Prize
  • 1951 California State Fair, Pomona, CA - 1st Prize, Lithograph for "Melon Vendor"
  • 1975 22nd Annual Exhibition of the San Diego Art Insititute, San Diego, CA - First Award for Painting
  • 1990 San Diego Museum of Art, Artist's Guild, Juried Exhibition, San Diego, CA - First Award for "Memory of Mary-1942"
  • IX. Bibliography

    1. 1. Breedlove, J. Pat, and Cindy Breedlove. Artists of Southern California: The Fine Art Catalogue. Albuquerque, NM: Mountain Productions of Texas, 1989. Print.
    2. 2. Dijkstra, Bram. Masterpieces of San Diego Painting: Fifty Works from Fifty Years, 1900-1950. Oceanside, CA: Oceanside Museum of Art, 2007. Print.
    3. 3. Jennings. Art of California. N.p.: n.p., 1990. Print.
    4. 4. Kamerling, Bruce. 100 Years of Art in San Diego: Selections from the Collection of the San Diego Historical Society. San Diego, CA: San Diego Historical Society, 1991. Print.
    5. 5. Krantz, Les. The California Art Review: An Illustrated Survey of the State's Museums, Galleries, and Leading Artists. Chicago, IL: American References, 1989. Print.
    6. 6. Kultermann, Udo. The New Painting. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1977. Print.
    7. 7. Park, Marlene, and Gerald E. Markowitz. Democratic Vistas: Post Offices and Public Art in the New Deal. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1984. Print.
    8. 8. Perine, Robert. Chouinard, an Art Vision Betrayed: The Story of the Chouinard Art Institute, 1921-1972. Encinitas, CA: Artra Pub., 1985. Print.
    9. 9. Perine, Robert, I. Andrea, and Bram Dijkstra. San Diego Artists. Encinitas, CA: Artra Pub., 1988. Print.
    10. 10. Southern California Creates. S.l.: Southern California Art Project, 1939. Print.

    X. Works for Sale by this Artist

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    32 Pretzels / One Bottle of Beer
    A Round Dozen II
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    Arrangements with Apples
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    Datura II
    Datura Lilies I
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