Fred Grayson Sayre was born in Medoc, Missouri on January 9, 1879 and raised in the rural environment of southwestern Missouri. He had four sisters, one of which, Viola Grayson Sayre (1883-1975), became a still life artist. In Fred’s high school senior year, he enrolled in a correspondence course for pen and ink drawing. The experience inspired him to pursue creating art.

Except for his correspondence drawing course, the only other art training he had was a few months with Irish-born portrait artist J. Laurie Wallace (1864-1953) in Omaha, Nebraska, and a figure study class with Dutch-born artist John Henry Vanderpoel (1857-1911) at the Chicago Art Institute. Otherwise, Sayre was a self-taught artist.

While in Chicago Sayre was accepted in the prestigious Palette and Chisel Club. There, he met fellow members Gustave Baumann, Victor Higgins, Edgar Payne, and Walter Ufer, all who would become known as celebrated artists of the southwest. In 1915, at the age of thirty-seven, Sayre contracted diphtheria. With his health failing and the doctor predicting that he had only a few months to live, Sayre decided to move out west.

Sayre worked for a while in Houston, Texas as an engraver. In 1917, he traveled to California by train, settling in Glendale with his sister Viola. While en route, he was captivated by views of the Southwest desert and was determined to return. In 1919 he moved to Arizona and spent the next three years painting desert scenes while employed as a bookkeeper at a mining company. In 1922, he returned to California and presented 64 watercolor paintings in San Francisco as his first exhibition at both the Bohemian Club and the Rabjohn and Morcom Galleries. Sayre moved permanently to Glendale where he built his home and studio.

Also in 1922, Sayre retreated to the desert in Coachella Valley near Palm Springs where he stayed with his second cousin, Ben Laflin, for two years. Laflin owned a date ranch, and it was here that Sayre rested and began to regain his health while at the same time he became further inspired by the artistic moods of the desert. In 1926, Sayre met and married a local girl, Ruth Barker. Ruth came from pioneer stock whose family started a date ranch in the Coachella Valley in 1905. In an interview with the Sayres’ daughter, Barbara Sayre Harmon (b. 1927), she described family visits to the Coachella Valley which took place from 1927 to 1939, until she was eleven years old when her father passed away. They stayed at the Barker Ranch, at the time run by Ruth’s brothers Bob and Frank, in a cabin the Sayres named The Paint Shack. Fred Grayson Sayre would go out daily with his friend, Laguna artist Theodore Jackman, to explore the Orocopias and the Salton Sea.

Sayre’s circle of friends consisted of California’s foremost artists, including Guy Rose, Nicolai Fechin, John Frost, Joseph Kleitsch, Hanson Puthuff, Jack Wilkinson Smith, Edgar Payne, Douglas Shively, and Jimmy Swinnerton. Barbara Sayre described tender moments she shared with her father when at the end of the day and under the date palms he would amuse her with stories he would make up about a fairy queen named Tatiana and her adventures with a rabbit and a bear. These charming stories inspired Barbara to also pursue an art career as a children’s book illustrator.

Fred Grayson Sayre was a charter member of the Painters and Sculptors Club of Los Angeles, serving as president in 1929. The organization ran from 1923 to 1934 and was based on statutes of the Salmagundi Club in New York City and the Palette and Chisel Club in Chicago. He was also a charter member of the California Watercolor Society. In Los Angeles, his works were represented through Stendahl Gallery and Ainslie Gallery. He painted in both watercolor and oil, and signed his paintings as “F. Grayson Sayre”.

While living in Glendale, the Sayre family was preparing to move full-time to the Coachella Valley when Fred Grayson Sayre suddenly passed away on January 1, 1939, eight days before his sixtieth birthday, from heart failure caused by complications from diphtheria. With his passing, Sayre left behind a legacy as one of California's most celebrated painters of the west.

Elaine Adams
American Legacy Fine Arts

Research Sources:

Fred Grayson Sayre: Finding Light and Life on a Thermal Date Ranch (An Interview with Barbara Sayre Harmon) by Ann Japenga, published in California Desert Art

The Paintings of Fred Grayson Sayre (1879-1939) by Ray Redfern, Laguna Beach, CA: Redfern Gallery, 1987.

Smithsonian Archives of American Art


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