Paul Sample was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and, due to his father’s career as a construction engineer, moved frequently during his childhood. The Samples lived variously in Anaconda, Montana; Richmond, Virginia; Washington, D.C.; Portland, Oregon; Berkeley, Carmel, and San Francisco, California, before finally settling in Glencoe, Illinois. He attended Dartmouth College, and served in the Merchant Marine during World War I. A mediocre student but an extraordinary athlete, Sample was an intercollegiate heavyweight boxing champion. In 1920, Sample learned that his brother, Donald, had contracted tuberculosis, and had been sent to Saranac Lake, New York, a world-famous fresh-air health resort, to recuperate. After graduating in 1921, Sample, too, contracted tuberculosis while visiting his brother at the resort. Sample’s bout with the illness forced him to stay at Saranac Lake, observing a strict and unpleasant schedule of rest and recuperation, for four years.
It was during this time that Sample studied under American painter Jonas Lie, whose wife, Inge, was also a tuberculosis patient at Saranac Lake. Accustomed to an active, athletic lifestyle, Sample initially looked upon his lessons with Lie as a means to bridge the long, boring periods of inactivity he experienced at the resort. However, he was soon won over by Lie’s brimming enthusiasm and strong personality, which led him to decide upon a career as an artist. Lie had spent a number of years in Paris, where he came under the spell of French Impressionism, and the colorful palette and sparkling light of Monet, in particular. His style, revealed in his paintings of the rocky coves and harbors of New England and Canada, and characterized by an impressionist sense of light and air, had a pronounced effect on Sample’s early works. For although Sample’s nascent career evolved amid the currents of modernism, he preferred the traditional style of painting as practiced by Lie.
Paul Sample left Saranac Lake, and presumably his association with Lie, in 1925. While he was declared cured of his tuberculosis, that same year Donald Sample’s condition worsened, prompting the family to move him to Monrovia, California, as a last attempt to improve his health. Paul Sample moved west to be with his brother, who succumbed to the disease and died less than one month after his arrival. Sample stayed on in Southern California. He enrolled at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles, and also took classes in the studio of American modernist Stanton Macdonald-Wright. Sample, though, seems not to have responded to Macdonald-Wright’s progressive style, as he remained for the most part allied with what he had learned from Lie. Many of his earliest works are marine pictures, clearly modeled after the popular marine paintings of his mentor.
Beginning in 1926, Sample taught drawing to architecture students at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, a job which ensured that the most devastating effects of the impending economic depression would not affect him. In his art, however, Sample responded to the effects of the strained economy on people’s lives. By the early 1930s, pictures of unemployment lines, residence hotels, and street-corner orator scenes began to figure in his work. He also began to respond to a particular thread of modernist painting, as he painted a number of industrial landscapes in a Precisionist idiom.
In the 1930s Sample and his wife made annual summer trips across the country to Montpelier, Vermont, where his wife’s parents lived. Sample’s experiences passing through rural America changed the direction of his art. Inspired by the Mexican muralist David Alfar Siqueiros, the Regionalist style of Grant Wood, and particularly the village scenes by the sixteenth-century Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Sample concentrated on the rural genre scenes for which he is best known today. These often melancholy small-town scenes, populated with Sample’s characteristic, solidly modeled figures, seem to express the sum of Sample’s experiences with his early illness and the later American economic depression that colored his formative years.
In 1938 Sample returned to Dartmouth College as artist-in-residence, and he remained there for the rest of his life. During World War II, he worked as an artist-correspondent for Life magazine. He was permitted to accompany Naval task forces on patrol in the Pacific, and was aboard the U.S.S. Portland during the invasion of Leyte in the Philippines. After the war, Sample returned to Dartmouth, teaching classes and executing numerous mural commissions. As Regionalism fell into disfavor following the end of World War II and the rise of non-objective painting, so, too, did Sample. It has only been in recent years, in which Regionalist art has been reexamined and restored to a place of distinction in American art, that Sample’s paintings of the American Scene have been recognized for the honesty and excellence of his work