If not for Mark Twain’s love of the Mississippi River, which brought him often to St. Louis, an artist who would come to be known for his mission oils and nocturnal adobe scenes may never have made it to California.
During the same year California oranges were first shipped east by rail, Coca Cola was invented and the Statue of Liberty was unveiled in New York Harbor, Will Sparks exhibited his art at the St. Louis Exposition of 1886. It was there that Mark Twain, whose Adventures of Huckleberry Finn had just been published in the U.S. the year before, regaled Sparks with stories of California, inspiring the artist to reach those distant shores himself.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1862, Sparks sold his first painting at age 12 but would grow up to become a doctor, reported Edan Hughes in Artists in California, 1786-1940. His love of art had such a hold on him though, that he studied it in Paris, paying his way by making anatomical drawings for biologist Louis Pasteur (already famous for his “germ theory”).
After the exposition, Sparks traveled a bit, living in Cincinnati and then Denver before he finally made it to California. He illustrated for newspapers in Stockton and Fresno, and then settled in San Francisco in 1891. He set up his artist studio at 163 Sutter Street and drew and wrote for The San Francisco Evening Call.
He’d go back to his anatomy drawings while working at the University of California, but the art for which he would earn his notoriety was unveiled at places like the Hotel Del Monte in Monterey. A group of artists, Sparks included, sought to find a new place to exhibit works after losing much of their art in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. In 1907, they worked with the hotel to convert the ballroom into a gallery.
That gathering of artists would eventually grow into the Monterey Peninsula art colony. The peninsula, with its rocky coastline, foggy blue-green bay, cypress trees, adobe ruins and California missions, inspired a landscape style known today as California Tonalist.
The last two, adobe ruins and California missions, make up the bulk of Sparks’ contribution to the art scene. At Bonhams & Butterfields, on May 1, a world record auction price for the artist was set when his painting, “Adobe Homestead,” sold for a $15,000 bid. The auction also included other paintings of Southwestern adobes. The total sales hammered in at nearly $3.5 million.