Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on March 3, 2009 with permission of the authors. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact Julianne Burton-Carvajal directly at julianne@ucsc.edu and Scot Shields via http://www.crockerartmuseum.org/. For questions concerning the exhibition Reverent Sparks: Missions of California and the Southwest Painted by Will Sparks, 1933-1937, on view at Carmel Mission Basilica October 2008 through June 2009, contact Carmel Mission Basilica through either this phone number or web address:


Will Sparks: California's Mission Painter

by Scott Shields and Julianne Burton-Carvajal


Aspiring artist William (Will) Sparks (1862-1937) made his first sale at the age of twelve. [Fig. 1] A decade later, having chosen a career as newspaper illustrator and reporter, he began moving westward -- from Cincinnati to Denver, then to California's Central Valley and finally, in 1891, to the shores of San Francisco Bay, where he became known as "the mission painter." His twilight scenes and nocturnes in particular made his reputation. [Fig. 2]

Sparks credited his westward migration to timely advice from the most celebrated American writer of the era, fellow Missourian Mark Twain. When he was just a few years older than Sparks, Twain set out for the far west, an aspiring journalist who attained fame if not yet fortune while adding a uniquely Western voice to American letters. Although the writer returned to the refinements of the eastern seaboard, the painter would remain in California for the rest of his days, producing some 3,000 works -- many of them inspired by the physical vestiges of California's storied past.

The Sparks family had ties to the eastern seaboard and the British Isles. Will's father Sampson Sparks was born in England and reared in Richmond, Virginia. His mother, the Irish-born Julia Plowman, grew up in New York City. Will was born on February 7, 1862, after the couple moved to St. Louis.

Educated in the local public schools along with his four brothers, Sparks worked as an engraver and sold occasional political cartoons to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. At eighteen, he enrolled in Washington University and, two years later, St. Louis Medical College, where he majored in anatomy while simultaneously studying at the St. Louis School of Fine Arts under John Fry and Paul Harney. Aside from brief stints as anatomical illustrator -- first in Paris for Louis Pasteur and later at the University of California -- Will Sparks would never practice medicine professionally; the call of art was too compelling.

Like so many American artists of his era, Sparks went to Paris in 1886 to pursue his studies at Académie Julian, where he counted Gustave Boulanger, Jules Lefèbvre, and Adolphe William Bouguereau among his teachers. Years later, he would reencounter several of his fellow students on the San Francisco art scene-among them Alexander Harrison, Amédée Joullin, and the influential artist-teacher Arthur Mathews.

Sparks also studied at Académie Colarossi, submitted work to Jean-Charles Cazin for criticism, and sketched under the tutelage of Henri Harpignies. He was most influenced by the pastoral Barbizon-style landscapes of the latter two artists, and in particular by Cazin's nocturnal scenes, admiring their "poetical charm" along with the painter's ability to confer "dignity and beauty" on the commonplace. [1] Sparks also looked to the example of other Barbizon artists, especially Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot and Charles-François Daubigny, whom he praised years later in articles written for the San Francisco press. Toward the end of his eighteen months abroad, a walking trip through France and Italy with fellow art students bore fruit in sales at a group exhibition in Bordeaux.

Paris employment as dispatch editor for the Anglo-Italian Galignani's Messenger may have helped Sparks secure a position on the Cincinnati Inquirer upon returning to the United States in 1886. That same year, the St. Louis Exposition displayed some of his paintings. It was on a visit to the fair that the author who had just completed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn urged him west.

After brief employment with a Denver newspaper, including the plum assignment of reporting the opening of the Great Northern Railroad, Sparks sketched his way through New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico before finally arriving in California in 1888. His first job, as reporter and illustrator for the Fresno Daily Evening Expositor, brought both his medical and journalistic expertise into play. Dispatched to cover crimes and altercations, he often found himself dressing the wounds of individuals whose exploits would be duly reported in the next edition. His paintings of that period depict the watery byways of the Sacramento River Delta as well as historical landmarks like John Sutter's fort, frontier nucleus of the eventual state capital.

A note published in the Fresno paper indicates that even before relocating to genteel San Francisco in 1891, Sparks had discovered his special predilection for capturing twilight on canvas:

Will Sparks, formerly artist on the Expositor of this city, but now connected with the Stockton Mail, is winning good opinion on his fine work. He can write, paint, put up presses, speak Choctaw, shovel coal, drink beer, and lie with an ingenuity that puts [others] in the shade. He can [also] paint, which is his real forte, and shows us the repose of a closing day with all the cappuccino coloring made on water by a setting sun or approaching darkness.

Sparks had already found his signature subject in California's century-old mission churches and their outposts, having visited over two dozen sites from San Diego to Sonoma within a few years of his arrival. The Monterey Peninsula was a top priority. As capital of Alta California under both the Spanish and Mexican regimes, the region was replete with colonial-era structures in various stages of picturesque decline. Easily accessible by train, it was a magnet for amateur as well as professional artists. The deteriorating Carmel mission complex inspired Junípero Serra's Adobe Home Near Carmel-1770 [Fig. 3], fragmentary remain of the padres' quarters.

As feature writer, illustrator, and assistant editor for the San Francisco Call, Sparks penned and illustrated stories that were both humorous and fable-like. He also covered the art beat, reviewing group shows held under the auspices of the San Francisco Art Association among other organizations. The legendary Bohemian Club, which he joined the year after his arrival, provided an exhibition venue as well as a congenial place to socialize with fellow artists, journalists, and leading businessmen. During the following decades, Sparks was an active member of the Society of California Artists and the California Society of Etchers, among other groups.

In 1893, he made another pilgrimage to the Southwest and, the following year, a second painting excursion to Monterey. From 1904 to 1908, Sparks held a faculty position at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught anatomical drawing and produced illustrations for medical classes. From fall 1904 through spring 1906, he was also on the staff of the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art on San Francisco's tony Nob Hill. He kept his studio there, commuting by ferry to the East Bay island of Alameda and the home he shared with Clara White, whom he had married in 1894. Like countless fellow artists, Sparks lost years of production in the inferno that followed the fateful 1906 earthquake. In its aftermath, he helped restore damaged artworks salvaged from the Institute's collection.

After a brief trip to the eastern seaboard, Sparks was back on the Monterey Peninsula in 1907 [Fig. 4], exhibiting his paintings at the newly inaugurated Hotel Del Monte Art Gallery, the first venue exclusively dedicated to California artists. Built in 1880 under the supervision of railroad baron Charles Crocker, Hotel Del Monte was the nation's first year-round resort. The gilded-age gem lured enthusiastic guests from across the nation and around the world, providing the ideal meeting point for artworks and buyers,thanks to a sympathetic manager who offered to convert a ballroom for the cause. Scenes of El Paso and Tucson as well as Alameda and Monterey were among the works that Sparks exhibited at Del Monte Gallery during the next several years.

On repeated visits to Monterey as a member of the gallery's eminent planning committee, Sparks recorded views of the area's dramatic coastline, wind-sculpted trees, colorful fishing scenes, and celebrated landmarks -- among them Custom House [Fig. 5], Colonel José Castro's military headquarters [Fig. 6], Jules Simoneau's restaurant, where Robert Louis Stevenson dined regularly in 1879, and the grave of beloved San Francisco poet Charles Warren Stoddard, friend of Sparks and other artists. A lifelong printmaker, Sparks also produced etchings, lithographs, woodcuts and monoprints of these and other subjects. [Fig. 7]

Another of his post-earthquake activities was the editorship of Philopolis, an exquisite little magazine issued by Arthur and Lucia Mathews to encourage an artful rebuilding of the ruined San Francisco. In 1912, with San Francisco largely rebuilt, Sparks established a studio at his previous location on Sutter Street. Solo exhibitions at the Vickery, Atkins & Torrey Gallery and the Bohemian Club, as well as his studio, featured landscapes and architectural works. Examples of his more narrative approach to architecture include A Christmas Allegory [Fig. 8], perhaps painted in homage to The Nativity, a well-known work by Cazin which Sparks admired for its quotidian treatment of a sacred subject. [2]

Widowed in 1914, Sparks resumed his friendship with fellow artist Ethel Hannah Martin (1871-1954) the following year, while painting the board-and-batten remnants of once-booming gold rush towns in the Sierra Nevada foothills, where Martin made her second home. Along with his mission paintings, these works helped earn him a reputation for "brilliant little canvases, jewel-like and inspiring."[3] Many echoed well-known nocturnes by American expatriate James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Whistler's famous Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875) rendered fireworks as near-complete abstraction, unleashing what Sparks described as "a furor" among the critics and provoking John Ruskin's famous accusation that the "impudent" Whistler was "flinging a pot of paint in public's face." In an article published during the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition held in Golden Gate Park, Sparks praised Whistler's fireworks series as "masterpieces" while lamenting the "confusing movement" that compromised their "brilliant color and inky blackness."[4]

In 1915, during San Francisco's year-long Panama-Pacific International Exposition, Sparks took Whistler's theme for his own, depicting the palatial exhibition halls bathed in beams of colored lights and crowned with fireworks. In contrast to Whistler's nebulous showers and setting, Sparks rooted his compositions in solid architectural forms. His subjects included the Owl's Nest, a second-floor pavilion leased by the Bohemian Club, and architect Bernard Maybeck's Palace of Fine Arts with reflections from above sparkling on the surrounding lagoon. [Fig. 9] In the judgment of a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, the paintings appealed to all who "felt the enchantment of the Exposition."[5] The Crocker Printing Company of San Francisco disseminated a series of postcards featuring Sparks' daytime and evening views of the various exhibition palaces. Gump's, San Francisco's leading emporium, sold the originals.

The exuberance of such scenes seems to have mirrored events in the artist's personal life. He and Ethel Martin married in Sonora in 1916 and settled for a time in nearby Soulsbyville. [Fig. 10] In addition to romantic, even poetic scenes of once-boisterous foothill boom-towns, Sparks continued to produce images of California's missions, an unwavering fascination. [6] As he declared toward the end of his life:

My acquaintance with the missions of the Southwest dates back to 1887, when I made my first visit to San Xavier [del Bac] in Arizona. . . I have endeavored to show the missions in their most interesting and romantic aspects, and many of them had changed little except the three that were gone before my time. I have seen all of them substantially as painted. [Fig. 11]

Sparks experienced the California and Southwestern sites long before informed, systematic restoration began. For missions that had disappeared or were missing notable features, he may have looked to sketches left by earlier artists and photographers but in most instances, he simply painted what he saw, even capturing well-meaning 19th-century "improvements."

From the 1870s, numerous artists had embraced the challenge of depicting the entire chain of twenty-one Alta California missions. Prompted by the United States centennial celebrations of 1876, westerners began searching their past for a comparable legacy. The 50th anniversaries of American annexation of California in 1896 and of statehood in 1900 helped fuel a statewide movement to restore the crumbling Franciscan churches and led to a revival of "Old Spanish California" as idealized in literature, music, architecture, fashion and design. Along with "mission style" furnishings, mission paintings embodied arts and crafts ideals that championed rusticity as an antidote to dehumanizing industrialization. Into the 20th century, founding arts and crafts architect Charles Sumner Greene was still exhorting, "The old art of California -- that of the mission fathers -- is old enough to be romantic and mysterious enough too. Study it and you will find a deeper meaning than books tell of, or sun-dried bricks and plaster show." [7]

By presenting these subjects in twilight or darkness, Sparks romanticized the past and concealed its blemishes. In his 1894 reflections on "Light and Shade" he explained:

As the evening shadows deepen, sentimental pictures will suddenly spring into existence all over the ground. What was a few hours ago only a clump of commonplace trees will be relieved against the brilliant sunset sky, and the characteristic masses of shadow form pictures of great beauty..[8]

This softening afterglow also reinforced the notion that the sun had set on those earlier phases of California's history.

In haunting depictions of surviving vestiges of the Spanish-Mexican era in Monterey and elsewhere along El Camino Real (The Royal Road), Sparks met the challenge posed by Dolores Estrada in an essay published in 1905:

The old adobe houses, with their red-tiled roofs and their white-washed walls, now yellow. . . make such a soft, lovely picture as they blend with the greens and browns of the mountains, which surround the little town on three sides, while in front glisten the ever-changing colored waters of the bay. Only an artist who is a genius with colors can give an adequate picture of this gem of American scenery. [9]

Always striving for more than "an adequate picture," the accomplished draftsman eschewed precision in favor of metaphysical qualities evoked through dramatic deployments of light. "A beautiful building is not attractive to an artist on account of its elaborate carving or detail," he explained in his 1894 essay, "but for its pleasing massing of light and shade. The way [it] looks to different painters is what makes their individuality." [10]

According to anointed tastemaker Porter Garnett in a 1912 article for the San Francisco Call, Sparks knew how to introduce romance into subjects that were, in and of themselves, quite matter of fact. Although deep in tone, his paintings were permeated with "warm, rich color" so that "spectral, moonlit houses," rendered in a subdued tonalist palette, still shone with intensely saturated hues. Garnett perceptively commented that these were "so different from the work of other painters that. . . they might as well be charming pieces of enamel [fired onto copper], which they strongly resemble."[11]

The enigmatic aura that many contemporaries perceived as "mystery" or "romance" derived in part from the artist's interest in mysticism, particularly the belief that psychological and spiritual worlds overlap the physical- -a nd are every bit as real. Among the clippings on the subject filed away, by the artist and now part of the Will Sparks Papers at the Crocker Art Museum, one from 1932 is particularly resonant: "The temporal world is a reflection of the eternal reality. In the human soul also there is 'something above the soul -- divine, simple, unnamed rather than named.'. . . This core of the soul [is called] 'the Spark.'"[12]

In seeking to evoke "the unnamed over the named," Sparks generalized his subjects, reducing his compositions to the essentials. His flat, patterned shapes -- learned from Japanese woodblock prints, art nouveau design, and the work of the Nabis in France -- suggest a quiet, contemplative mood.[Fig. 12] By illuminating architectural surfaces with a waxing or waning light source outside the picture plane, he managed to juxtapose golden adobe walls, vermilion tiles, green-to-russet foliage, and azure skies to captivating effect.[Fig. 13] He also achieved greater depth and richness by layering pigments and glazes (while inadvertently contributing to future cracking), and further enhanced the range of mood through expressionistic variations in the texture of his pigments.

In addition to numerous depictions of specific sites [Fig. 14], Sparks produced two complete sets of California mission paintings during his long career. It was the prospect of the missions' imminent "rescue" that led him, in 1916, to accept A.L. (Abraham Livingston) Gump's commission to paint them as "a series . . . mellowed as well as ravaged by time."[13] Paintings in this series, exhibited at Gump's in 1919, were dispersed to the homes of often prominent buyers ­ except for the painting of San Francisco's Mission Dolores, which in 1957 was still hanging at the store for "sentimental reasons." [14]

With the apogee of modernism after World War I and the rise in social themes during the Great Depression, mission subjects fell out of fashion. The final suite of mission paintings by Sparks -- produced at the urging of patron, dealer and friend Albert G. Haskell -- is an especially notable instance of an artist grappling with this venerable theme because his entire career trajectory is embedded within it.

In late 1933, Sparks was stricken with a sudden attack of pleurisy, which made painting difficult. For a time he was confined to the house, and Mrs. Sparks assumed the task of selling the contents of his Sutter Street studio. The artist spent extended periods recuperating at Haskell's Napa Valley retreat, where he sketched the local landscape. By 1934, he was sufficiently recovered to turn his attention to his second mission series, ultimately rendering twenty-eight California missions and dependencies, to which he would eventually add nine associated structures across the Southwest. [Fig. 15]. Drawing from early sketches in his portfolio and reworking unfinished canvases, some begun ten or even twenty years earlier (a practice that explains why two different dates appear on several stretchers in the artist's penciled hand) Sparks completed the bulk of the new series by 1936. [Fig. 16]

Haskell displayed many of the paintings that year at his National Art Galleries on Sutter Street in San Francisco. [Fig. 17] The gallery owner's lyrical preface to his full-color publication of the series, Old Missions of California: A Rosary of California's Early Spanish Missions for the Indians on El Camino Real, exulted in "dreamy beauty [and] symphonies in color. . . from elaborate saracenic domes and arches to the stark simplicity of primitive chapels . . . in twilight, in moonlight, and in the darker nocturnes from which their Moorish outlines loom mysteriously."[15]

Sparks added the finishing touches to what became the final painting in the series on March 28, 1937. Dipping a fine-tipped brush in his customary scarlet hue, he signed his palette, expressing the desire that the set of 37 canvases remain forever intact. He died two days later at St. Mary's Hospital in San Francisco.

In August 1939, San Francisco's Palace of the Legion of Honor mounted an ambitious retrospective in tribute to Sparks, including his final mission series among other notable accomplishments. With an eye to increasing viewership, Haskell simultaneously distributed his Rosary of Missions booklet from the Mission Trails Pavilion at the Golden Gate International Exposition on nearby Treasure Island.

Thanks to the generous impulse of leading San Francisco art patron Alma de Bretteville Spreckels Awl, for the next sixty years the Sparks mission suite graced the walls of a Santa Barbara equestrian club dedicated to preserving the graceful customs of rancho days. De-accessioned in the early 1990s, the collection currently awaits a permanent home. After 75 years, the reverent legacy of Will Sparks appropriately ­ if only temporarily ­ graces the walls of one of the missions that inspired it.



1 Will Sparks, "Success at Last: Story of a Picture by Cazin." Unidentified clipping, Will Sparks Papers, Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento.

2 Sparks, "Success at Last." Clipping, Will Sparks Papers, Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento.

3 Albert G. Haskell, Old Missions of California: A Rosary of Early Spanish Missions for the Indians on El Camino Real. San Francisco: Albert G. Haskell Publishing Co., n.d., n.p. (c.1937)

4 Will Sparks, "Light and Shade: Artistic Effects at the Fair," San Francisco Call, May 20, 1894.

5 Anna Cora Winchell, "Art and Artists," San Francisco Chronicle, 16 May 1915.

6 Haskell, Rosary of California's Early Spanish Missions, n.p.

7 Charles Sumner Greene, quoted in Timothy J. Andersen, Eudorah M. Moore, and Robert W. Winter, eds., California Design, 1910 (Pasadena: California Design Publications, 1974), p. 96.

8 Sparks, "Light and Shade," San Francisco Call, May 20, 1894.

9 Dolores Estrada, "The Passing of the Spanish in California," Overland Monthly 46 (July 1905): 28.

10 Sparks, "Light and Shade," San Francisco Call, May 20, 1894.

11 Porter Garnett, "News of Art and Artists," San Francisco Call, 24 Nov. 1912.

12 "Mysticism, East and West," Times Literary Supplement, 24 March 1932.

13 Carol Wilson, Gump's Treasure Trade, New York: Thomas Crowell, 1965, p. 150. In an unpublished 1957 essay, Charles Sexton James claimed that A.L. Gump "commissioned Sparks" to paint "thirty-two missions in sizes that would go together as a set." All of the paintings were sixteen vertical inches and between twenty to twenty-six horizontal inches. James noted that Sparks painted a second set for Albert George Haskell that depicted similar views, but which were generally smaller and irregular in size. Charles Sexton James, "Will Sparks, 1862­1937: Illustrator, Engraver, Painter," 1957. Photocopy, Will Sparks File, Edan Milton Hughes Collection, San Francisco.

14 James, "Will Sparks, 1862­1937: Illustrator, Engraver, Painter," 1957. Photocopy.

15 Haskell, Rosary of California's Early Spanish Missions, n.p.


Legend of illustrations

Fig. 1 Photographer Unknown, Will Sparks, ca. 1905. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Ruth Neill Johnson.

Fig. 2 Will Sparks, Mission Santa Clara de Asís, 1934. Oil on canvas, 9 x 12 in. Collection of Trotter Galleries.

Fig. 3 Will Sparks, Father Serra's Adobe Home, 1934. Oil on board, 9 x 12 in. Collection of Trotter Galleries.

Fig. 4 Will Sparks, Point Lobos, July 1908. Graphite and colored pencil on paper, 71/4 x 4 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Ruth Neill Johnson.

Fig. 5 Will Sparks, Monterey Farm House, n.d. Oil on canvas, 8 x 11 in. Collection of Mercedes and Richard T. Kerwin.

Fig. 6 Will Sparks, Commander José Castro's Monterey Headquarters, n.d. Oil on board, 15 x 21 in. Private collection.

Fig. 7 Will Sparks, Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Río Carmelo, n.d. Woodcut in two colors, 2 1/4 x 2 3/4 in (image). Crocker Art Museum, gift of Ruth Neill Johnson.

Fig. 8 Will Sparks, A Christmas Allegory, 1912. Oil on canvas on board, 16 1/2 x 21 in.Private collection.

Fig. 9 Will Sparks, Owl's Roost, 1916. Oil on board, 15 1/2 x 20 1/2 in. Private collection.

Fig. 10 Will Sparks, Soulsbyville, June 20, 1916. Graphite on paper, 4 5/8 x 4 1/4 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Ruth Neill Johnson.

Fig. 11 Will Sparks, Mission San Xavier del Bac, Arizona, 1934. Oil on canvas, 12 x 28 in. Collection of Trotter Galleries.

Fig. 12 Will Sparks, Nocturnal Harbor Shoreline, n.d. Oil on canvas, 12 x 10 in. Collection of Mercedes and Richard T. Kerwin.

Fig. 13 Will Sparks, Adobe, n.d. Oil on canvas, 15 1/4 x 20 1/4 in. Crocker Art Museum Purchase.

Fig. 14 Will Sparks, Vespers (Mission San Juan Capistrano), 1919. Oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches. Courtesy of Garzoli Gallery.

Fig. 15 Will Sparks, Napa, Oct. 27, 1935. Graphite and colored pencil on paper, 7 1/4 x 5 5/8 in. Crocker Art Museum, gift of Ruth Neill Johnson.

Fig. 16 Will Sparks, Mission San Carlos Borromeo del Río Carmelo, November 10, 1935. Oil on canvas, 10 x 16 in. Collection of Trotter Galleries.

Fig. 17 Will Sparks, Asistencia San Antonio de Pala, 1935. Oil on canvas, 12 x 16 in. Collection of Trotter Galleries.


(above: Jo Mora Chapel Gallery containing paintings of the exhibition Reverent Sparks: Missions of California and the Southwest Painted by Will Sparks, 1933-1937. Photo © 2009 John Hazeltine)


(above: Jo Mora Chapel Gallery containing paintings of the exhibition Reverent Sparks: Missions of California and the Southwest Painted by Will Sparks, 1933-1937. Photo © 2009 John Hazeltine)


About the authors

Dr. Julianne Burton-Carvajal is guest-curator of the exhibition Reverent Sparks: Missions of California and the Southwest Painted by Will Sparks, 1933-1937 and teaches Latin American cinema and California studies at University of California Santa Cruz.

Dr. Scott A. Shields is Associate Director and Chief Curator of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, CA.


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on March 3, 2009, with permission of the authors, which was granted to TFAO on February 17 and 18, 2009.

This essay is a revision of the text that appeared in the January-February 2008 (Volume XX, Number 1) issue of American Art Review and pertains to the exhibition Reverent Sparks: Missions of California and the Southwest Painted by Will Sparks, 1933-1937 on view at Carmel Mission Basilica October 2008 through June 2009.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Lou Sanna of Carmel Mission Basilica for his help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text and for permissions concerning the environmental photographs of the exhibition.

RL readers may also enjoy:

and images of the historic Southern Arizona mission referenced in this text.

Also see William Sparks from Jennie V. Cannon: The Untold History of the Carmel and Berkeley Art Colonies, vol. one, East Bay Heritage Project, Oakland, 2012 by Robert W. Edwards

Carmel Mission Basilica is located at 3080 Rio Road, Carmel, CA 93923. For hours and fees please see Carmel Mission Basilica's website

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