Anza Trail Blog

Will Sparks: Mission Painter Along the Anza Trail

by Julianne Burton-Carvajal, El Camino Real de California Initiative, Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation

Tagged as:   Culture

Mission San Gabriel

In 1887, en route to California where he hoped to find work as a news reporter and illustrator, 25-year-old Will Sparks stopped at Mission San Xavier del Bac south of Tucson. Whether or not he realized it at the time, that late-baroque structure looming so unexpectedly above the desert landscape would redirect his career as an artist. For the next fifty years, his preferred subject would be architectural remnants of the Franciscan missionary presence in California and across the Southwest.

As he sketched and painted Spanish mission sites at Tumacácori, Guevavi, and Tucson on that first and subsequent visits, could Sparks have known that he was retracing the itinerary of the second Juan Bautista de Anza, soldier, statesman, and trailblazer? Would anyone have informed the young Missourian that, more than a century earlier, the decaying presidio at Tubac had been the point of departure for the founding colonists of San Francisco – the city where his own career as “mission artist” was about to unfold?  

Whatever the rigors of the artist’s trip westward, they could hardly have compared to the challenges that Anza faced in leading some 200 colonists and 1000 head of livestock through the forbidding Sonora desert, across the treacherous Colorado River, and over the lower reaches of the Sierra Nevada. 

Prompted by the nation’s centennial celebration and Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, Westerners began searching for a colonial legacy comparable to that of their eastern cousins. Two decades later, the 50th anniversaries of American annexation of California and the New Mexico Territory fueled movements to repair crumbling vestiges of the Spanish era. “Mission style” became the vogue – celebrating hand-made over industrial products while retrospectively coating the brash conquest saga with alluring layers of romance. Responding to the vogue for “nocturnes,” Sparks often bathed his mission scenes in warm post-sunset tones or ethereal moonlight blues – evoking a spiritual aura while reinforcing the unburdening notion that the sun had justly set on the Spanish empire.

Following a tradition pioneered in California by Bavarian Edward Vischer, Englishman Edwin Deakin and Danish-born Christian Jorgensen, among others, Sparks created two complete series depicting California’s 21 mission churches and various associated chapels “mellowed as well as ravaged by time.” The 32 paintings in his first suite, completed in 1916, were sold singly. Three decades later, another gallery owner encouraged him to create a second mission series, which he began in 1934.

On March 28, 1937 Sparks put the finishing touches on the 37th painting in that second series. Dipping a fine-tipped brush in his customary vermillion, he signed his name on his palette and expressed the wish that the set of 37 canvases remain forever intact. He was in his 75th year when he died two days later at St. Mary’s Hospital in San Francisco.

To date, collectors and gallery owners have respected that dying wish by keeping the second mission series intact for 75 years. Produced at the conclusion of a long career, it recapitulates the artist’s entire trajectory. The range of canvas sizes and techniques suggests an individualized approach to each structure and setting, while the inclusion of mission churches from New Mexico as well as Arizona makes this series uniquely comprehensive. Those who seek the story behind the series learn that one of California’s most compelling and successful mission painters found his initial inspiration in the remote, austere region that trailblazer Juan Bautista de Anza called home.

Author’s note: Anza saw only the earliest generation of mission buildings. Sparks painted the permanent churches, sometimes the sixth or seventh erected on the same site, often before restoration.

Paintings are reproduced courtesy of Trotter Galleries in Carmel and Pacific Grove. Photograph of the artist courtesy of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento.

This essay is adapted from a presentation given to the Anza Society at La Canoa, Arizona in March 2012. See also “Sparks of Genius: ‘Mission Painter’ and Printmaker Will Sparks” in Missions of Will Sparks exhibition catalogue, Santa Barbara Historical Museum, 2011 written by the Scott A. Shields, Ph.D. and the author.


Mission San Gabriel
Mission San Gabriel Archángel, as painted by Will Sparks, c. 1937, first California site to welcome Anza in 1774 and again in 1776, when he escorted the families that would establish the Presidio of San Francisco.

Mission San Gabriel (2)
During his 1775-76 expedition, Anza made an emergency detour south to Mission San Diego de Alcalá, founded in 1769 as the first link in Upper California’s chain of missions and destroyed just six years later in the Indian uprising of 1775. Painting by Will Sparks, c. 1937.

Mission Dolores
Anza helped select the site for Mission San Francisco de Asis, better known as Mission Dolores, in 1776. Painting by Will Sparks, c. 1937.

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