Santa Barbara County
ALEXANDER FRANCIS HARMER
For some years Santa Barbara was the home of Alexander Francis Harmer, who was one of the really great artists of his era. What he has done for California through the medium of his masterly canvases is a matter for enduring gratitude on the part of the state and also of all lovers of true art. Earlier in his life he traveled extensively, especially throughout the southwest, seeking there conditions that would enable him to carry out his idea of perpetuating on canvas scenes even then rapidly passing. His work in this connection is invaluable, and his studies of Indian life in all its phases form a most important part in the history of his country. From an appreciative estimate of the life and labors of Mr. Harmer is taken the following extract, which is well worthy of perpetuation:
“Whether by shrewd deliberation or by natural gravitation, Alexander F. Harmer has a field peculiarly of his own. No other painter has given so much attention to California of the old times, and for that matter, no other painter knows the subject half so well. The plausible suggestion that a great master might have done more with the marvelous art material of our southwestern border is, after all, impertinent; for the great masters have not cared to risk their skins where Mr. Harmer learned his material. Nor is this invidious to Mr. Harmer. The fact that he led an uncommon life and has taken his higher education in art where few other artists would dare to go, does not by any means indicate that his work needs such apology. The simple fact is that it greatly enhances the value of his art. To his technical skill, which is, within certain limitations, far from ordinary, is added the rare distinction of accuracy beyond that of anyone else who has presented like subjects. He is particularly and indisputably the artist of the Apaches and the old-time Californians, with many handsome successes in other lines. His sympathy with these specific motifs is unmistakable and his experience with them has been long and romantic. I know of no one else, with half his talent as an artist, who has had a tenth of his touch with this frontier life—one of the most picturesque the world has ever seen. A sensitive boy who would enlist as a common soldier that he might get to what was then, indeed, the Far West and paint it, had something in him.”
A native of Newark, New Jersey, Mr. Harmer was born on August 21, 1855. He was descended from a distinguished English family, the progenitor of which, John Sharpless of Wybunbury, England, came to America in 1682 and settled in Pennsylvania on land secured from William Penn. As a child Mr. Harmer was determined to become an artist. Early manifesting talent, at the age of eleven years he sold his first painting for two dollars, to him an astounding amount of money. No wealthy parent or patron opened up the way for him to pursue the study of art and so, at the age of thirteen years, he became a messenger boy, saving a few dollars from his scant wages. When he had accumulated sufficient funds to justify his leaving his eastern home, Mr. Harmer journeyed as far west as Lincoln, Nebraska, then a frontier town. When he attempted to paint what he saw he realized the need of additional training and returned to the east, resolved to enter an art school, expecting to work his way through. He was unsuccessful in his search for employment and left the east, making his way westward as far as Cincinnati, Ohio. Later he resumed his journey toward the setting sun and finally reached San Bernardino. Here he enlisted in the regular army for a period of five years, and was detailed for duty with Troop B, First United States Cavalry at Benicia Barracks. He was battalion sergeant major and hospital steward there and at Halleck, Nevada. After two years service, through the intervention of Congressman A. E. Harmer, a relative, he obtained an honorable discharge in order to pursue his art studies.
Only nineteen at the time of his return to Philadelphia, Mr. Harmer began his studies, paying the expenses of his tuition by working for a photographer. His efforts received almost immediate recognition from the distinguished artists, W. T. Richard and Joseph Pennell, and Sartain, the noted engraver. Through the kind offices of these gentlemen Mr. Harmer was admitted to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. After two years of strenuous work he again felt the urge to return to the west and give a thorough study to Indian manners and customs. Therefore he re-enlisted, with the understanding that he was to be given active service in Arizona, where the Indians were habitually on the warpath and became a member of Troop L, Sixth United States Cavalry commanded by Captain McClellan. Mr. Harmer spent a few weeks at the headquarters of General Wilcox and at the termination of a year, with his assignment to the headquarters of General Crook, he had the privilege of being admitted to the friendship of the greatest American Indian fighters, also becoming a friend of Captain John G. Bourke, a noted scientist as well as a soldier. In the campaign of 1883, when General Crook penetrated the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico for the wily old chief Geronimo, Mr. Harmer was one of the scouts, and on his return, at his own request, was detailed to the command of Captain Crawford, later killed by the Mexicans at the San Carlos Indian reservation, that he might better continue his studies of the Apaches. After a few months, through the effort of General Crook, he was honorably discharged, and returned to Philadelphia for another course at the Academy of Fine Arts. In order to earn the requisite funds for his tuition and living expenses he did illustrating.
About a year later Captain Bourke took Mr. Harmer back to Arizona as his guest. With General Crook, and later with J. Armstrong Chandler, Mr. Harmer made some interesting trips through the territory. From there he proceeded to Los Angeles for the study of missions and early California life. It was during this visit to California that he met his bride-to-be, Miss Felicidad E. Abadie. They met at the Camulos Ranch, the real home of Ramona, made famous by the story written by Helen Hunt Jackson.
Mr. Harmer spent a year in the interior of Mexico and then again travelled to Philadelphia for still another course at the Academy of Fine Arts. Upon his return to California he was married August 2, 1893, at Santa Barbara to Miss Abadie.
Seven children were born to them. Inez Mabel, the eldest, is Mrs. John K. Northrop of Inglewood, California, and has three children, Elizabeth Inez, John Harmer, and Ynette. Alexander Bertrand Harmer, the second in order of birth, is a prominent architect of Santa Barbara. Ernest Sylvanus Harmer, also a business man of Santa Barbara, is married and has two children, Dorothy Virginia and Ernest Donald. Helen Matilda is the wife of Dr. Albert T. Martin of Hollywood, California, and has become the mother of a son, Albert Alexander Martin. Ethel Elizabeth, an artist of recognized merit, was married to Harry Martin Gesner, of Inglewood, and they are the parents of two children, Harry Jr., and Roger Lee. Olga Constance Harmer, a well known writer, is at home. Alfred Douglas Harmer, the youngest, is married to Florence J. Weston. He, like his father, started his career at the age of eleven. Having written and produced, by the time he was eighteen years of age, eight plays portraying the life of early California.
From the time of his marriage until his death on the 8th of January, 1925, Mr. Harmer resided at Santa Barbara. His later years were devoted chiefly to portraying the early life of California during the days of Spanish occupancy. His valuable collection of Indian relics, which he loaned to the Hopkins school of art at San Francisco, was utterly lost in the memorable earthquake and fire of 1906. He also made a complete history of the Indians of America for Senator Knox of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, carved in huge leather wall panels.
From childhood Mr. Harmer followed art, often under crushing difficulties. His two enlistments in the regular army were made in order to get the opportunity of coming into close contact with the subject then interesting him, and he was willing to undergo the hardships and dangers of these Indian campaigns if he were only permitted to paint in his leisure moments. As an artist his work commanded the highest praise and recognition; and as a man he won and held the confidence and affection of the greatest in the land. These California pictures of the artist have vastly more than local admiration and appreciation, for they have gone forth to the ends of the world. His canvases hang in galleries of the east and west, many hold proud place in the homes of connoisseurs, and not a few have bee sent overseas to enhance in foreign lands the fame of the artist and his beloved California.
Mrs. Harmer resided in the old adobe house facing what is now called City Hall plaza until her death on June 6, 1933. Here she was born, July 3, 1864, and here her mother, Refugio (Lugo) Abadie, was born. She was baptized by Rev. Nerzio Duran, one of the early mission fathers, and her godfather was Jose Jesus Carillo, while her godmother, Josefa Garcia, was niece of the eminent Bishop Garcia Diego, the first bishop of the Santa Barbara mission. As Felicidad Abadie she was known as the most beautiful woman in California and was one of the belles of Santa Barbara where she sang in the operetta in the old Lobero Theater.
The celebrated Isabella Yorba came from San Diego to the presidio at Santa Barbara. Although then only thirteen years old, she was at that time the wife of Joaquin Maitorena, a lieutenant colonel under the king of Spain, and she resided there until the homestead on the plaza was built in 1826. Having no children of her own, she adopted Isabella Lugo and at the latter’s death adopted her children, one of these being Refugio Lugo, who remained at the homestead until her death. She attained the venerable age of eighty-three years, passing away March 26, 1926, one year after the death of her son-in-law, Alexander F. Harmer. At the death of Isabella Yorba the plaza homestead and other property descended to her daughter by adoption. The latter was married in 1863 to Dominique Abadie, a native of France, who came to California in 1849, with several brothers, direct from that country. He spent a year in the gold fields in the northern part of the state and was successful in his quest for the yellow metal. In 1850 he came to Santa Barbara and embarked in merchandising, opening the first exclusive store in the city, and the old adobe home that held his first stock was only recently demolished. After his marriage his time was occupied with managing the vast holdings of Isabella Yorba, comprising principally the Guadalesca Rancho of eleven thousand acres in Ventura county, and the Broome Ranch. On July 24, 1868, Mr. Abadie was murdered. To Mr. and Mrs. Dominique Abadie were born three children: Felicidad, who became the wife of Alexander F. Harmer; John S., who died in Honduras; and Dominique, Jr., of Santa Barbara. The sons attended the parochial and public schools of Santa Barbara and the daughter acquired her education in St. Vincent’s Convent. Mrs. Harmer was a devoted wife and mother and her attractive personality, charm of manner and fine character was attested by a wide circle of admiring friends.
Transcribed 7-14-12 Marilyn R. Pankey.
Source: California of the South Vol. V, by John Steven McGroarty, Pages 165-170, Clarke Publ., Chicago, Los Angeles, Indianapolis. 1933.
© 2012 Marilyn R. Pankey.