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

Editorial Staff Art

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

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.

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

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.