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


While pursuing his career as a portrait painter, Jackson also took lessons from an eccentric transplanted Italian artist named Domenico Tojetti (1806-1892). Tojetti tackled subjects from the Bible and literature—such as Romeo and Juliet and Elaine, from one of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poems-and he may have encouraged Jack­­­­son to try his hand at producing paintings based on engrav­ings after works by then glamorous Parisian painters.

A Jackson painting in this mode is Suite of the Army (Fig. 3) after an engraving of an oil by Édouard de Beaumont (1821-1888). When Jackson unveiled his work at an exhibition in Sacramento in March 1885, the writer for the Sacramento Record-Union called it a "delicately-colored figure piece...[that does] credit to the skill of the artist."6 Buoyed by this reception, he sent the painting to the Art Loan Exhibition organized by the Native Sons of the Golden West in the then small city of Los Angeles. Prudish objections to its nudity caused removal of the painting from the exhibition after opening night.7 A stern editorial in the Los Angeles Times castigated the organizers for exhibiting it, pointing out that it showed "a young and very handsome woman" who "would be entirely nude were it not for the fact that she is about to don a chemise."8

This episode inspired sneering rejoinders in Sacramento, the editorial writer of the Record-Union concluding: "Prudery...is evidenced by such rejections as that at Los Angeles....That committee would find itself sadly out of place in the London National Gallery or in the Louvre, and in an atmosphere stiflingly foreign to its views if it walked the halls of Dresden or the art avenues of Florence."9

During his San Francisco years, Jackson also tried his hand at landscape, coming under the influence of William Keith (1838-1911), a painter who worked in a style quite different from Tojetti's. Keith portrayed sublime Hudson River school type subjects but used the rougher, bolder style of the French Barbizon artists.

During the summer of 1876, Jackson went on a sketch­­­­­­ing trip with Keith to the high country of the Sierra Nevada at Donner Lake and Soda Springs.10 He later recalled to Keith's biographer that one morning when they were sketching together, Keith asked him, "How many branches do you see on that tree ahead of us?" When Jackson replied, "Quite a few," Keith said: "Being very short-sighted, I have an advantage over you, since I see only a few branches and that simplifies my compositions."11 Keith urged Jack­­­­­­son to summarize and paint with broad brushstrokes.

As the 1870s came to a close in San Francisco, the prosperity that had flowed from the Comstock silver mines decreased dramatically and the robust art market of the 1870s slowed to a trickle. Jackson moved back to Sacramento, where he faced almost no professional competition as a painter.

In November 1884 a group of Sacramento businessmen founded the California Museum Association to create a museum for the enjoyment and education of the public. To raise money to get the project started, they held a loan exhibition with objects borrowed from local citizens. Margaret Crocker (1822-1901), the widow of Judge Edwin B. Crocker (1818-1875), who, along with his brother Charles (1822-1888), had made a fortune as a major stockholder in the Central Pacific Railroad, volunteered to loan her private art gallery for the exhibition. The show opened in March 1885 with a reported twelve thousand objects on view.12

In the midst of the festivities, Margaret Crocker an­nounced that she would donate her gallery, including its substantial collection of paintings, to the city of Sacramento. Jackson was asked to be "custodian" of the museum (now the Crocker Art Museum), and he reluctantly agreed to do the job for a year.13 He kept it until the day he died—though his title was eventually changed to curator.

As the 1880s progressed, Jackson's ambitions as a painter shifted increasingly to landscape. Virtually every summer during the decade, he took sketching trips to scenic areas. In June 1885 he embarked on a major tour of western sites, sketching at Shoshone Falls and Yellowstone. Shoshone Falls was a spectacular subject for an energetic artist, and unlike Yosemite and Lake Tahoe, had not been painted thousands of times. The major exhibition painting Jackson did as a result of the trip (Fig. 4) captures the view from the rock formations overlooking the top of the falls—a portrayal reminiscent of the famous painting of Niagara Falls by Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), now in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington. Perhaps by choosing this vantage point, Jackson was suggesting that Shoshone was the Niagara Falls of the West, quite equal in grandeur and beauty to its more famous eastern cousin.

One of his favorite haunts in the Sierra Nevada was Soda Springs near the North Fork of the American River. The railroad baron Mark Hopkins (1813-1878) had built the luxurious Summit Soda Springs Hotel in the wilderness there, twelve miles by a rough wagon road from the railroad, and Jackson was a frequent summer guest until the hotel burned in 1898.14 In Soda Springs of 1885 he depicted the rugged terrain seen from the hill above the hotel in his Keith-influenced style (Fig. 5). Anderson Peak is in the left distance and Tinker's Knob in the right. This, like all Jackson's landscapes, was based on the widely held assumption during the romantic period that contemplating unspoiled nature—God's handiwork—was a soul-cleansing experience for the city dweller mired in urban life and worldly affairs. Paintings like this reminded one of how simple and pure life could be out in the wilderness.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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