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Alexander Harmer

(1856 - 1925)

Biography

Alexander F. Harmer was a pioneer among the many artists who ventured west to capture the unknown frontiers of America.  The first important artist to settle in California, he is known as the artist of the Apache Indians and for his integrity in documenting early California life.  Harmer is also responsible for establishing the first major art colony in the region at the turn of the century.  This colony saw many of the great western painters pass through, including Thomas Moran, Edward Borein, and Frank Tenney Johnson. 

Harmer was born in New Jersey in 1856.  At a very early age Harmer decided he wanted to be an artist.  He is said to have sold his first painting at age eleven to someone in his neighborhood.  Seeking adventure in the West, Harmer left home at age thirteen.  After three years in Nebraska and no real advances in his art career, Harmer decided to return to the East to enroll at the Philadelphia Academy of Arts.  Short on money, Harmer made it as far as Ohio and joined the Army.  This would be one of several times he served in the military, often when he needed more income.    

In 1874, Harmer finally enrolled in a two-year program at the Philadelphia Academy of Arts.  One of the most influential teachers he studied with was Thomas Eakins, who at the time was working on his controversial painting, The Gross Clinic.  Harmer remained in contact with Eakins for many years by exchanging letters, even after leaving the Academy and Philadelphia. 

Following seven years of independent work in Philadelphia and having run out of money, Harmer re-enlisted in the Army.  He was stationed in Fort Apache, Arizona, and in 1883 requested permission to join an expedition led by General Crook and Captain John Bourke to follow and bring under control Geronimo and the Chiricahua Apaches.  On this and other expeditions into Apache territory, Harmer made numerous sketches and studies.  These sketches served as great source material for later pen and ink drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings.  Thirty-one of the sketches Harmer made on these travels were included in Captain John Bourke’s travelogue, An Apache Campaign in the Sierra Madre, published in 1886. 

After this first journey into Apache territory, Harmer once again left the Army, but continued to join General Crook as a guest on his journeys throughout Arizona and Mexico, constantly drawing and recording the people and places they saw.  Following his travels with General Crook, Harmer spent time traveling along the Franciscan mission trail, sketching and depicting the missions themselves.  In the late 1880s he permanently settled in California and enjoyed a lucrative career as an illustrator for numerous magazines such as Harper’s Weekly, The California Illustrated Magazine, and Land of Sunshine

In 1893, Harmer married the daughter of an early California settler, Felicidad A. Abadie.  Settling in Santa Barbara in 1906, at the family home of Felicidad, Harmer established the first art colony on the West coast.  A series of studios were added to the Spanish-Colonial adobe home and Harmer and his family welcomed numerous artists to stay between 1908 and into the 1920s.  Some of the many artists who spent time there include Robert Wagner, Thomas Moran, Carl Oscar Borg, John Gamble, Frank Morley Fletcher, Joseph Knowles, Albert Herters, William Otte, Frank Tenney Johnson, Clarence Mattei, and Edward Borein.  This modest colony that Harmer established in Santa Barbara saw many of the most important Western artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries pass through its doors. 

Alexander Harmer died in 1925, leaving a legacy of art dedicated to the American West that he loved so much.  More than any other artist of the West, he worked to reveal the timeless beauty of both the landscape and the people of the region.  Today, Harmer continues to be known as the artist of the Apache Indians and for his sincere, authentic images of early California life.