Finding beauty, creating harmony: The art of William F. Jackson

November 2009 | William Franklin Jackson was an artist who spent most of his career in an out-of-the-way city that was more concerned with politics and economic development than art. Sacramento, California, was little more than a frontier outpost when he arrived in 1863, although it was already the capital city of a state with almost unlimited potential for growth. By the time of his death in 1936, it had evolved into an important center for agriculture and the hub of California's political world. Despite having an excellent museum for a city of its size and history (a museum that was lovingly cared for during its first fifty years by Jackson), it never became an art center. In its early days, Sacramento had only one fine painter—William F. Jackson.1


Jackson was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 1850. His father, Daniel Jackson (1815-1898), was a successful farmer and builder who became a state legislator and enjoyed life in the Middle West, but his mother, Phoebe Cowdery Jackson (1817-1892), was restless and wanted to move west to California. In the summer of 1863, when Will was thirteen, they set off in a wagon train to cross the plains. The future artist remembered being captivated by the immensity of the scenery and the colorful Native American camps they encountered during the journey. They arrived in Sacramento just before Christmas 1863.2

Young Will Jackson attended Sacramento schools and then worked for his father's contracting business for several years. Having always nurtured a desire to become an artist, he told a reporter later in life: "Many's the spankings and slaps I got in school for drawing pictures when I was supposed to be studying."3 In 1875, at the age of twenty-five, he enrolled in San Francisco's California School of Design. A talented student from the start, he won a silver medal in draftsmanship at the end of the term,4 earning a scholarship to extend his studies for a year. He also signed up for lessons in portraiture with the painter Benoni Irwin, whose likeness of Jackson, painted when he was a student at the School of Design, depicts a preoccupied young artist dipping his brush into a palette (Fig. 1).

In 1876 Jackson formed a partnership with Charles A. Hamilton (b. 1853), a classmate at the School of Design. The bread and butter of their business was portraiture—painted from life and photographic portraits touched over with oils or pastels. The firm created a small scandal in 1878 when they exhibited a "crayon" (pastel) portrait of the notorious murderer Troy Dye (c. 1843-1879) at the California State Fair and Exposition in Sacramento. The critic for the San Francisco Evening Post scolded: "We regret to see among [Hamilton and Jackson's] pictures a head of the champion murderer, Troy Dye... the exhibition of his face looks like an attempt to advertise their art in a manner not creditable to true artists."5

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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