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


Jackson often painted subjects that might be overlooked as sources of aesthetic pleasure. One was the Suisun Marsh near Sacramento. His paintings of it capture the atmospheric harmonies created when the varying tones of fog and blue sky are reflected in the water. In paintings like Suisun Marshes (Fig. 2), an image that conveys a mood of joyous serenity, the still gray water of the foreground leads the eye to a more brilliantly lit passage in the distance.

The advent of the twentieth century strengthened a spirit of optimism across the United States, as electricity, the telephone, and the automobile made life easier and increased people's freedom to move around and communicate with each other. This new spirit found expression in landscape art that became brighter, more energetic, less moody and formal: landscapes expressed the sheer beauty of nature rather than probing its surface for underlying spiritual meanings. The joy of nature was boldly celebrated in painting. Jackson's works projected this new mood when he started painting bright landscapes depicting the colorful flowers that spread across California meadows in the springtime.

Family memoirs claim that he was the originator of the so-called California poppy painting, but it is likely that he was introduced to the subject by the work of John Marshall Gamble (1863-1957), a California artist who started to incorporate impressionist elements into his paintings shortly after the turn of the century. We do not know exactly when Jackson started painting his own versions of wildflowers on California's rolling hills, but by 1911 he had become known as a leading painter of poppy landscapes. "Jackson has claimed the state flower to be his very own," wrote Katharine Clark Prosser in the San Francisco Call, "and has proceeded to make good on that claim by his absolute mastery of his subject."21 In California Wildflowers (Fig. 9) Jackson depicted the countryside outside of Sacramento looking toward the snow peaks of the sierra on the distant horizon. The season is early spring, when the winter rains are coming to an end—storms that nourish the wildflowers and bring snow to the mountains.

During this phase of his career, Jackson frequently painted views near San Francisco, including ocean scenes like Coast Range Meadow (Fig. 10). Here, a pleasing pattern of recurring blue tones is created by the foreground lupines, the distant ocean, and the sky at the top of the composition. Like the landscapes of such American painters as William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) and Willard LeRoy Metcalf (1858-1925), Jackson shunned the broken brushstrokes so prevalent in many French impressionist paintings. But his paintings are not photographs; they are artistic creations that use real nature to communicate the artist's vision of beauty. His brushwork and subtle color strategies heighten the beauty of a real scene.

Jackson also continued to paint mountain scenes throughout his late career, including locales like Yosemite and Lake Louise that were new to his oeuvre. A particularly charming panoramic view of the Yosemite Valley is shown in Figure 8. Executed in a brighter, smoother style than his earlier landscapes, this work creates harmonies out of varying atmospheric tints as the mountains recede into the distance.

In May 1935 the fiftieth anniversary of Jackson's tenure as the Crocker's curator was celebrated by a long article in the Sacramento Union. The following January, he was felled by a stroke and died. As time goes on, and more works by this fine painter come to light, Jackson will be recognized as an artist worthy of inclusion in museum collections and histories of American impressionism. His portrayals of a pristine California speak directly to our longing for a better world—a world that does not exist today, nor ever really existed. It was created by the artistic imagination of a humble man with a great talent for art.

1 Sources for Jackson's biography include "William Franklin Jackson (1850-1936): A Biography" by Sara-Louise Faustman, the artist's great-niece; various family letters and memoirs, and a small file of newspaper clippings-all this material courtesy of Scott A. Shields, chief curator and associate director of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Shields for his help in fulfilling this project. The above sources are supplemented by a clipping file on Jackson in the North Point Gallery archive; and by items found during scans of Sacramento newspapers, many of which were discovered by Amy R. Harrison Sanchez, to whom I also owe much gratitude. This project was greatly aided by Roger and Kathy Carter and Susan and William Faustman.  2 Some accounts have the Jacksons crossing the plains in 1862. However, his own reminiscence was 1863; see Sacramento Union, November 9, 1930, p. 13.  3 Ibid.  4 San Francisco Chronicle, December 10, 1875, p. 3.  5 San Francisco Evening Post, September 20, 1879, p. 3.  6 Sacramento Daily Record-Union, March 23, 1885, p. 2.  7 Los Angeles Times, June 11, 1885, p. 2.  8 Ibid., June 12, 1885, p. 2.  9 Record-Union, June 18, 1885, p. 2.  10 The year 1876 is the only one during the 1870s that Keith sketched at Donner Lake and Summit Soda Springs, so that must have been the year he went with Jackson. See San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, September 1, 1876, for coverage of Keith's trip.  11 Brother Cornelius, Keith, Old Master of California, vol. 1 (G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1942), p. 79.  12 For the best account of this event, see Record-Union, August 12, 1886, p. 2.  13 See Sacramento Union, May 12, 1935, p. 5, for Jackson's account of his hiring.  14 I thank Nick Chickering, the foremost expert on the history of Soda Springs and the North Fork of the American River, for his account of the area and identification of the subjects of Jackson's paintings.  15 Record-Union, January 5, 1886, p. 3.  16 Ibid., July 4, 1890, p. 3.  17 Ibid., September 19, 1887, p. 8. 18 Ibid., September 7, 1901, p. 8.  19 See Paul Tanner, "Crocker Gallery Shows Work of City's ‘Grand Old Man,'" Sacramento Union, February 11, 1940, p. 16.  20 William F. Jackson, "The Crocker Art Gallery and Its Influence on the People," clipping from an unidentified Sacramento newspaper, c. 1900, Jackson clipping file, Crocker Art Museum.  21 Katharine Clark Prosser, "Art and Artists," San Francisco Call, January 22, 1911, p. 32.

Alfred C. Harrison Jr. is president of the North Point Gallery in San Francisco.

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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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