C.L. has an oil on canvas by Carl Sammons at 12” x 16”, which unmistakably pictures our Santa Barbara shoreline. Sammons was a prolific California Plein Air artist who began as a sign painter in 1909 in Sioux City, Iowa. Many artists have begun their careers as sign painters: de Kooning, Jackson Pollack and Ed Ruscha, to name a few. Ruscha wrote the forward to the book Sign Painters by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, which mentions the connection between visually creative types in signs and in fine art. This book, about (perhaps) the disappearing art of hand-lettered graphic signs, suggests that sign painters find their creative purpose in the individual challenge of each sign, loving the work itself rather than work as a means to a paycheck. Sign painting as a creative outlet was true for young Sammons 100 years ago.
Sammons began his working life while attending art school in Sioux City, Iowa, as a gold letter sign painter for two Sioux City firms; Arthur Loft 1909-10 and C.W. Ashley 1911-13, way before digital vinyl machines cut those circles and squares for our present-day signs. Sammons had some talent, as gold leafing in the painted sign business is a prestige position.
Yet Sammons must have felt a greater calling. He left Sioux City in 1915 to study at the California School of Fine Arts, affiliated with the University of California, today known as the prestigious San Francisco Art Institute. Painting Plein Air style one weekend in Petrolia he met his future wife Queen Ester Stewart. They were both transplants from the Midwest, and of course both Lutherans. They married February 3, 1923 at the First Lutheran Church of Oakland.
The newlyweds began to travel to find the greatest of all places in California in which to paint, as well as to find the greatest of all places in California in which to locate two summerhouses. Carl, accompanied by Bessie (Queen’s name of choice), painted in Big Sur, Cayucos, Mount Diablo and the Orinda Hills, Cape Mendocino, Davis Creek, Etter Ranch, Ferndale, the Mattole Watershed, Petrolia, Laguna Beach, the Monterrey Peninsula, Carmel Coast, Lone Cyprus, Pacific Grove, Point Lobos, then Mount Shasta, the Anza Borrego Desert, Palm Springs, the Russian River, the Sacramento River, San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose and all over the Sierra Nevada Range. In those days these places called for hiking or horses. Bessie must have been a trooper.
During their many years of travel through the Golden State, Bessie and Carl found they loved two places best; they purchased summer homes in Petrolia and Santa Barbara, where in 1943 Carl opened a studio. While here in Santa Barbara, Carl painted the Andre Clark Bird Refuge, Montecito’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and the Old Mission, as well as oceanscapes and the classic Plein Air style landscapes. From his studio in Santa Barbara, he often sold paintings to locals. His only gallery was Saake’s in Oakland. A Santa Barbara friend would come to his studio and commission a piece to be painted at a certain place. Sammons would visit the client’s house to see where the client would hang the proposed painting. He wanted to make sure his painting harmonized with its eventual setting. Unlike some artists, he left the choice of frame up to the buyer.
Carl died at 82 with services in Oakland, but his wife, who traveled by horse and foot all over California with him, lived to the ripe age of 103.
C.L., a Sammons canvas varies widely in prices paid at auction. You can see by my list of places he painted that there’s a lot of Sammons’ work around. When you wrote me, I asked that you check current market prices by sending a photo to Clars auctions in Oakland, and they told you the work would action between $2,000-$4,000. If the auction house or gallery isn't located in California, it’s unlikely Sammons’ work would reach into the $4,000 range. Large canvases of the most dramatic California locations sell into the $8,000 range, yours is a smaller canvas of our bluffs with brush flowering violet and yellow, a pretty scene but not exceptionally dramatic. If you insured the painting, I'd aim for the high end of the auction house estimate at $4,000 for your little Santa Barbara piece, probably finished in Sammons’ Santa Barbara studio in the 1940’s.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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