Theme/Style – Modernism, murals, posters, industrial design, commercial art, illustration, portraits
Media – Oils, watercolors, sculpture, drawings, etchings
Artistic Focus – Cornelius Sampson founded a renowned design and commercial art firm in San Francisco, through which he became world-famous as a designer of public structures and interiors. His success in this field stemmed from his talent for strong composition and visual impact, equally evident in his early work in graphic design and poster creation.
Career Highlights –
- Cornelius (“Neil”) Cogswell Sampson was born in Billings, Montana in 1907, on a ranch near the Crow reservation. He began painting on his own, and then attended The Art Institute of Chicago, earning his tuition as a caricaturist on Lake Michigan’s excursion boats and driving cattle between his native Montana and Chicago.
- Sampson then worked as a commercial artist, and his drawings appeared in syndicated newspaper columns throughout the Midwest.
- Sampson moved west to California as an artist for the Works Progress Administration during the mid-1930s, painting murals at Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps throughout the state.
- By 1937 Sampson had a studio in San Francisco, and was included in the San Francisco Art Association’s first annual exhibition of prints and drawings at the San Francisco Museum of Art.
- In 1938 Sampson painted a mural for the iconic Black Cat Café in San Francisco’s bohemian North Beach neighborhood, reportedly in exchange for his bar tab. Informally-titled “The Regulars,” the mural depicted noted denizens of the café, including artists such as Hilaire Hiler.
- Sampson served as art director for the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition on San Francisco’s Treasure Island, and also designed posters for the exposition.
- Sampson then devoted himself to his San Francisco commercial art and design firm, Cornelius Sampson & Associates, and famously designed the original Safeway “S” as well as logos for Chevron and C&H Sugar, and also store interiors and municipal facilities, including a fire hydrant that won an award from the Industrial Design Society of America.
- Sampson won the California Governor’s Design Award in 1966, and his designs were exhibited in shows worldwide, including the exhibition “California Design X” at the Pasadena Art Museum in 1968.
- Sampson continued to create his own etchings, paintings and sculptures which he displayed locally in shows such as the Berkeley Art Festival during the 1960s. His 1938 mural from the Black Cat Café was later owned by North Beach restaurateur Henri Lenoir. In a 1972 interview Lenoir commented that it was his favorite of all the artworks in his collection, and he was in the process of identifying the circa 50 artists and other “Regulars” portrayed in the painting.
- Cornelius Sampson passed away in Berkeley, California in 1970. In 1984 his work was included in a historical exhibition at the Montgomery Washington Tower in San Francisco with other artists including Ralph Stackpole, Emmy Lou Packard, Edith Hamlin, and Ralph Chessé. His design work is in the collections of the Oakland Museum of California and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.