The story of 'Rankin'

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It's a chilly winter day and men are walking to work at the Carrie Furnaces in Rankin, past the houses on the edge of the bluff above the mill. The year is 1912; the painter is Arthur Watson Sparks.

For several years Pittsburgh industry had been a popular subject for local painters, ever since a Lithuanian immigrant had come to town and shown them how it could be done. Aaron Gorson's paintings of Pittsburgh mills -- nocturnes, many of them -- celebrated the theater of the mill, made more dramatic still by its luminous reflection in the river.

Mr. Sparks' painting isn't like that. It's quieter. The mill is a benign but towering presence beckoning its workers, not a fire-breathing behemoth that might swallow them up. The Monongahela River is a mere sliver. At the Carrie Furnaces, men made pig iron that would be carried across the river to the Homestead Works, where other men used it to make steel. Dark but not satanic, Carrie promises shelter on this cold day, once the men cross the snow-covered field and dip farther down into the valley.

Or are they women bringing lunch or dinner to their men, and stopping to chat along the way? The artist's Impressionistic brush has rendered the figures ambiguous.

Mr. Sparks, like Mr. Gorson, hadn't been a Pittsburgh artist for long, but at age 42 in 1912, he was in an influential position, and under his wing were artists who would be among the city's most accomplished in the 20th century: Malcolm Parcell, Vincent Nesbert, Samuel Rosenberg and others. Yet Mr. Sparks' own career as a painter had been something of a detour, and before the decade was out, it would be abruptly cut short.

To Paris and beyond

"Rankin," now in the collection of the Heinz Endowments, is the second winter scene to have been chosen by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette co-publisher and editor-in-chief John Robinson Block and executive editor David Shribman for the cover of the Christmas Day newspaper. Last year's painting, Carnegie Museum of Art's "Oakland" by Martin Leisser, a circa 1914 view of Junction Hollow, had not been exhibited in many years. "Rankin," on the other hand, is currently on view in the museum's group retrospective "Popular Salon of the People: Associated Artists of Pittsburgh Annuals, 1910-2006," which continues in the Scaife Galleries through Jan. 21.

Its painter grew up in Washington, D.C., the son of a federal government clerk, Frederick Sparks, and his wife, Mary. Arthur, born in 1870, trained as an architect, perhaps apprenticing in the architect's office where he worked. But another muse was calling: In the evenings he studied at the Corcoran Art School, and in a life class met Pittsburgher Patrick J. Byrne. The two struck up a friendship that would change the course of Arthur Sparks' life.

But first, an even more propitious event: In 1898, his design for a proposed Hall of American Inventions building at the 1900 Paris Expo won a competition, and he traveled to Paris with the group that was installing exhibits in the American pavilion. The building, with a dome that seems to have been modeled on the U.S. Capitol's, was a collaboration with J. Elfreth Watkins, chief of buildings for the United States National Museum. It may or may not have been built, but the trip was inspirational. Mr. Sparks stayed on in Paris for 10 years, studying at the Julian Academy and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and taking studios in Paris and Martigues, Provence. Over the course of the decade, he also sketched and painted in Italy, Belgium, Spain, Morocco and Algeria.

And he maintained a correspondence with Mr. Byrne, who in 1908 persuaded Arthur Hamerschlag, director of the Carnegie Technical Schools, to hire his friend as the founding head of the Department of Painting and Illustration. Mr. Sparks moved to Pittsburgh and into the Oakland house where Patrick and Rose Byrne were raising their 10 children. Not long after, he went back to Paris and married Clemence Perusset, whom he'd met at the Paris Expo, where she was an interpreter. After they returned in September 1910, they moved to Beeler Street in Squirrel Hill, within walking distance of the school that was taking shape on the edge of Schenley Park.

For its College of Fine Arts building, Mr. Sparks created six charcoal murals showing progress of the construction of that and other campus buildings, as well as other campus scenes. They can still be seen today in the north stairwell.

He painted for himself, too, and joined the new art group in town, the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh. In 1912, his "Rankin" was exhibited in the Carnegie International; Mr. Sparks also showed there in 1914.

A posthumous exhibit

In 1919, he resigned from Carnegie Tech and later moved to the New Hope area in Bucks County, where he would be part of the flourishing artists' colony surrounding his friend, the painter Edward Redfield.

Did he resign for health reasons or did he simply want to spend more time painting? Mr. Sparks' service in World War I may have played a role, said Christopher Sullivan of Windsor, Colo., the artist's great-great-nephew. Whatever the motivation, his painting idyll would not last long. Mr. Sparks died in August 1919 in Philadelphia, a victim of the influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people worldwide.

After his death, his widow gave more than 50 of his paintings to Frederick R. Sullivan, Mr. Sparks' nephew and Christopher's grandfather. That body of work inspired Mr. Sparks' first one-man show, organized in 1963 by Paul Chew at Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg.

"It should be pointed out that in spite of his training in Paris under the great teachers of the academic tradition, his style developed from his love of the Impressionist movement, and especially Monet, whom he mentioned often in his letters," Dr. Chew wrote in the gallery guide. "The gray-black and smoke-laden industrial Pittsburgh, its cityscape and landscapes, were transposed through the eyes of this artist into brilliant color and light of French Impressionism."

His students -- along with Parcell, Nesbert and Rosenberg, there were Wilfred Readio, Raymond Simboli and Russell Twiggs -- "all recall with fondness their memories of Sparks as a person of great warmth, kindness and sincere devotion to the arts."

"Rankin" was among the paintings given to Frederick Sullivan. It eventually found its way into the collection of the late Arthur C. Riley and his wife, Madelene, who also owned a small, loosely painted study for the painting. Both pieces are now in the Heinz Endowments collection, which focuses on work by local artists who interpret the history, people, buildings and landscapes of southwestern Pennsylvania.

The vantage point of both paintings appears to have been near the Rankin-Swissvale line, close to where Harriet Street bends and turns into Rankin Boulevard. The picturesque houses, it seems, no longer exist.

"Rankin" is similar to a work Mr. Sparks painted in 1915 of the Carrie Furnaces from a nearby location. It can be viewed, along with about 50 other Sparks paintings and drawings, on the Web site, begun six years ago as an art history project by Christopher Sullivan, who also is a painter and an Internet technology director for a publishing company.

The paintings depict waterfronts in Provence and Maine, rural scenes in eastern Pennsylvania, views of the Grand Canyon and sun-dappled women sewing and reading under the trees. The Web site also includes photographs taken in Paris of Mr. Sparks, his sister Tillie and his friend and fellow student, the social realist painter Eugene Higgins.

Mr. Sparks has come down through the family as a rather shy, inward-looking man, a chain-smoker whose twin loves were painting and teaching, Mr. Sullivan said. The scope of his work may never be known because he left many paintings in Europe. His known Pittsburgh scenes number only a handful, making snow-covered "Rankin" both revelatory and rare.

Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590.


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