Paul Starrett Sample was born on September 14, 1896 in Louisville, Kentucky. His father, Wilbur Stevenson Sample, worked as a civil engineer, which caused the family to constantly move around the country. Over the years, the family lived in Montana, Virginia, Washington, DC, and Glencoe, Illinois.
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In 1916 Sample enrolled in Dartmouth College. Following the entrance of the United States into World War I, Sample enlisted in the Naval Reserve and served for two years in the Merchant Marines on the S.S. Republic. Sample loved the life aboard the ship, and seriously considered a career at sea. However, with his father's insistence, Sample returned to Dartmouth in 1919, joining his brother Donald, who was also a student at the college.
At Dartmouth, Sample's brother became ill with tuberculosis. In the fall of 1919 Donald was sent to Saranac Lake, New York, for rest and treatment. Sample graduated from Dartmouth the next year and, while visiting with his brother that summer, he too became ill with tuberculosis. Paul Sample remained in Saranac Lake, New York from 1920 until 1925. While Sample was undergoing treatment, he took drawing and painting lessons from Jonas Lie, whose wife was also being treated at Saranac Lake for tuberculosis. Lie became Sample's mentor, encouraging him to pursue a career in the arts.
After Sample was released from medical care in 1925, he moved to New York City and began taking classes at the Greenleaf Art School. Meanwhile, his brother Donald was moved to California in an attempt to improve his health. Upon receiving word from his mother that his brother was dying, Sample left New York for California.
After his brother's death, Sample decided to remain in California and resume art studies at the Otis Art Institute in Los Angles. In the fall of 1926 Sample began teaching drawing for the School of Architecture at the University of Southern California. This position allowed him to continue pursuing his art studies at the studios of F. Tolles Chaimberlain and Stanton MacDonald-Wright. Sample's part-time job was later increased to full-time and, by the mid 1930s, he became Chairman of the Art Department. Sample also taught evening art classes at Chouinard School of Art. In 1927 Sylvia Howland, a young Vermont woman Sample had fallen in love with at Saranac Lake, came to visit Sample while traveling with her family. They married the following year.
During his years in California Sample exhibited his work at local and regional art annuals throughout California and befriended local artists, such as Philip Dike, Barse Miller, and Millard Sheets. Sample also frequently participated in annual national juried exhibitions at such organizations as the National Academy of Design, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Carnegie Institute. As a result of this national exposure, several New York City galleries started to exhibit his work. Sample soon became affiliated with Macbeth Gallery in New York and Stendahl Galleries in Los Angeles. Sample's later New York dealers were Ferargil Galleries and then Associated American Artists.
In 1934 Sample accepted the first of many commissions from Fortune magazine, initiating a continuing relationship with Time-Life. In 1936 Sample took a sabbatical from teaching and toured the nation's ports for several months working on commissions for Fortune magazine.
In 1938 Sample accepted the position of Artist-in-Residence at his alma mater, Dartmouth College. This position did not require him to teach, just to be present on campus and to open his studio to students and faculty. Sample felt obliged to offer drawing and painting classes in return to students, faculty and members of the community. During the summers Sample and his wife would travel to Vermont to visit with her family.
In 1942 Sample took time away from Dartmouth to be an artist correspondent for Life magazine. His first assignment was with the Department of Naval Aviation producing sketches of the naval air station at Norfolk, Virginia. His second assignment took him to Pearl Harbor, where he was able to join the Pacific Fleet at sea and on land. Although he was often on the front line, Sample sketched whenever he had the chance, capturing images from his own experiences.
After the War Sample traveled widely with friends and family and painted commissioned murals in various government buildings, private companies, hotels, and inns. He retired from Dartmouth in 1962, maintaining a studio on campus. Sample continued to work and exhibit until his death on February 26, 1974.