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


A landscape with a similar theme is Indian Campfire (Fig. 6), which even more clearly reveals Jackson's use of the French Barbizon school compositional strategy. The broad open foreground is painted with summarizing brushstrokes that suggest the presence of earth, foliage, and rocks without meticulous detail. A path meanders into the picture plane, creating the illusion of three dimensions. As often in French paintings, the main focus of interest is in the middle ground. The white smoke from the campfire draws the eye into the center of the composition, while rocks on the left and larger trees on the right provide balancing elements.

In January 1886, an art school called the Sacramento School of Design opened at the museum with Jackson as its head.15 Following the teaching methods of the time, beginning students made drawings from plaster casts of famous statues, while advanced students were taken on sketching trips to scenic areas near Sacramento. In 1890 Jackson arranged for the entire school to spend two weeks in the sierra, lodged at the Summit Hotel in the high country above Donner Lake. While in the mountains, the students made studies of rocks and trees,16 the emphasis on drawing rocks suggesting Jackson's awareness of the advice of John Ruskin (1819-1900) to young artists that making such studies was an essential step in learning to paint landscapes. Gnarled and broken trees were perfect subjects for "picturesque" foregrounds in the English tradition and are often found in Jackson's own landscapes. This adventure signaled the high point in the School of Design's short existence. As the 1890s progressed, fewer students enrolled, and it closed in the early years of the twentieth century.

During the late 1880s and 1890s Jackson continued to exhibit landscape paintings at the state fair in Sacramento. In 1887 his painting The Gorge—Grand Canyon of the American River (whereabouts unknown) won the silver medal for best landscape in a show that featured works by artists like Keith and Norton Bush (1834-1894). The critic for the Record-Union noted that "the rock painting in this picture is of the best order, and the cool green pool of water in the foreground is visually refreshing."17 In some aspects it probably resembled General's Pool, Soda Springs (Fig. 7), a depiction of one of Jackson's favorite bathing spots, which shows beautifully tinted rocks in the foreground surrounding a quiet trout pool.

In September 1901 Jackson was awarded the gold medal at the state fair for the overall best paintings in the exhibition. The Record-Union praised him as being "one of the most original and painstaking artists of the coast." The critic went on to point out, "In drawing [he] is simply flawless. Yet there is nothing effortful shown. On the contrary, there is breadth, freedom, boldness and grasp of the subject."18

In 1902, the last year for which we have detailed information on the fair's art gallery, Jackson declined to exhibit because he had been appointed superintendent of the paintings' division and did not want to be vulnerable to the criticism that he was favoring his own works in the installation. This was typical, for many observers over the years commented on Jackson's modesty in promoting himself and his paintings.19

Such self-effacement can also be seen in Jackson's landscapes, where the subject matter is always more important than his treatment of it. His constant search for beautiful and pleasing corners of nature precluded any desire to join the modernist movement with its artistic distortions of visual reality. In a newspaper article published in Sacramento about 1900, Jackson declared, "We daily pass by scenes that would make rare subjects for the artist's skill, but our vision is not trained to find them out. The study of art at once puts a person in the way of finding these beauties, and thus coming into more direct communication with nature."20

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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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