Until the mid 1960s, Arthur Watson Sparks was better known for his teaching at the Carnegie Institute of Technology than for his paintings, partly because the bulk of his work was kept from public view for more than fifteen years before it was recovered from obscurity. Although he, like Twachtman, died at the age of forty-nine, he left a reasonable amount of work upon which he may be judged.
Washington, D.C., his place of birth in 1870, was also the city in which he received his first art lessons. After an apprenticeship to an architect in the city, he studied painting privately under Howard Helmick (1845-1907) in Georgetown. Helmick himself studied under Cabanel in Paris then gained a reputation as a painter-illustrator in London; his ability as a draftsman influenced Sparks, who enrolled at evening classes at the Corcoran Art School. After some time at the Corcoran, the director E. F. Andrews (1835-1915) appointed Sparks monitor of his life class. In 1898, during the planning stages of the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900, Sparks’s design won the competition for the Hall of American Inventions (Chew, 1963). As a result of this award, Sparks was appointed to the Installation Committee of the U.S. Commission in Paris. His employment as a guard and crate packer allowed him to study at the Académie Julian where he received critiques from Jean-Paul Laurens. After more than two years, Sparks became the student of Cormon and Bouguereau at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
One of the salient features of Sparks’s painting, after he became interested in impressionism, was his ability to capture the effects of light. Undoubtedly, he was impressed with the quality of light he observed on the southern coast of France where he lived during the first few years of the new century; he took numerous trips to the Mediterranean coast as well as to Northern Africa. Sparks, in seeking to enliven his painting without losing the value of academic technique, began to adopt the freedom of impressionism. In a noticeably decorative manner he learned to subordinate his basically academic approach to the effects of light, color, and atmosphere.
With the assistance of his friend Patrick J. Byrne, Arthur Watson Sparks returned to America in 1908 to organize the Department of Painting and Illustration at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (Orville M. Winsand, Carnegie-Mellon University College of Fine Arts, to Richard H. Love, 9 March 1977). During his curriculum preparation, Sparks was told by the authorities that “if he must teach drawing from life, he could get a cow or a dog, or a calf. . . . it would be more decent, more modest.” (Naylor, 1935). It may be that the Carnegie’s first director, John Beatty, had a hand in this prudish attitude toward nude models. We know that later he attempted to censor Lawton Parker’s nude called La Paresse (Idleness) from the 1914 Carnegie International. His decision, however, was overruled by the international jury and the masterpiece was hung back on the wall. Nudes were rarely exhibited during the Beatty years. In 1895, Andrew Carnegie himself had expressed his approval of draping nudes. In spite of this suggested policy, Sparks taught a traditional, academic life-class with human models, was not challenged and remained at his post until he resigned in 1919, shortly before his death in Philadelphia (Sparks was the victim of a fatal influenza, which cut short his promising career, on August 6, 1919). In Pittsburgh while teaching, Sparks resumed an active career in painting in art organizations such as the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh and the Allied Artists of America. Moreover, he once again submitted works to various national exhibitions: to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1908-1919), the Carnegie International (1909-14), the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1912, the National Academy of Design the following year, and to the Art Institute of Chicago (1909-17). Sparks was not a member of the New Hope group of painters who gathered around Edward Redfield, though the two artists were old friends.
Naylor, Douglas, “Instructor Refused to Use Cows, Dogs, When He Began Course in 1910,” Pittsburgh Press, 17 April 1935; Chew, Paul A., Arthur Watson Sparks, American Impressionist. Exh. cat. Greensburg, PA: Westmoreland County Museum of Art, 1963; Gerdts, William H., Art across America: Two Centuries of Regional Painting 1710-1920. New York: Abbeville Press, 1990, vol. 1, pp. 295-297.
Submitted by Richard H. Love and Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.