WILLIAM KEITH (1838 - 1911) "San Francisco Boundary Line, November 2nd. 1879" Oil on board affixed to strainer bars, 8" x 11.5"
William Keith (1838 - 1911)
His early works are dramatic mountainscapes in a realistic style adopted from the Dusseldorf School of Germany. The paintings of the last two decades of his life are looser and obviously influenced by his exposure in France to the Barbizon School of landscape painters, who were the first colony of painters to complete paintings "en plein air," or directly from nature rather than in studios. A forerunner of Impressionism, this style also included Tonalism espoused by Barbizon painter Camille Corot [1796-1875] and also apparent in Keith's later works, which are darker, smaller, and much more intimate with emphasis on mood.
Born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, Keith came to New York with his family and, apprenticed to a wood engraver. In 1859, he moved to San Francisco where he worked for an engraver and later set up his own engraving business. Studying with Samuel Marsden Brookes in 1863, he determined to become a painter.
He married artist Elizabeth Emerson and did watercolor painting with her guidance. In 1868, he became a full-time painter, and that same year was commissioned to paint scenes along the Columbia River including Mount Hood. By August 1869 he had sold enough paintings to finance an extended journey to the East Coast and Europe including Dusseldorf, Germany throughout most of 1870, studying with Albert Flamm. After a visit to Paris, he expressed great admiration for "the modern school of French landscape painting including the Barbizon School.
During the winter of 1871-1872, the Keiths lived in Boston where they shared a studio with William Hahn. Keith's work received critical acclaim there and in New York at the National Academy of Design.
In 1872, he returned to San Francisco. A friendship with naturalist John Muir exposed Keith to many remote places and in-depth knowledge of nature. During the 1870s, he painted several "epic" eight by ten-foot High Sierra views. He also visited Alaska, and his paintings of Alaska were exhibited upon his return to San Francisco in a show at the Bohemian Club, titled 'Dreams of Alaska'. Keith's Alaska works are significant because they are not close transcriptions of actual scenery, but rather are fantasies inspired by Alaska. They are important as they represent a major break from the documentary tradition in landscape painting of Alaska, as they show an interest in capturing its spirit versus just the topography.
The first wife of William Keith died in 1882, and in 1883, he married Mary McHenry, the first woman graduate of Hastings Law School. They soon went to Europe, and Keith studied portrait painting in Munich with consultations from J. Frank Currier and Carl Marr for two years. Keith then settled for the remainder of his life in Berkeley, California, at 2207 Atherton Street. His studio was in San Francisco where he commuted daily, painted prolifically, and taught many classes, mostly for aspiring female artists .
In 1891, he shared his studio for several weeks with East Coast Tonalist George Inness, Sr. [1825-1894]. Both men painted in a similar style and were followers of the mystical teachings of Swedenborg. Among the locations where Inness and Keith painted together were Monterey and Yosemite, and it was reported they discussed art from every possible angle. Under Inness' influence, Keith painted more than ever in a Barbizon-influenced vein with many sunset and twilight scenes.
By the early 1900s, Keith was likely one of the wealthiest artists in the United States and certainly earned the most money of any California-based artist. People from all over the world sought out his studio where it was said that he would specially select a painting for a client from behind a black velvet curtain, order everyone to be quiet, part the curtains, and set the work on a easel, flooded in light. It was unthinkable not to buy a painting on these occasions. Many of his paintings were shown in New York at the Macbeth Gallery, and in 1898, he had a special exhibition in New York.
Keith died April 13, 1911, and his work is in most of the institutions representing major California artists. Saint Mary's College in Moraga, California has a collection of Keith paintings established by his biographer, Brother Cornelius.
Chronology 1838 Born in Scotland 1850 Family moves to New York 1856 Becomes wood engraver's apprentice 1859 Moves to San Francisco, works as wood engraver 1863 Takes painting lessons from Samuel Marsden Brookes 1866 Begins exhibiting watercolors, including Yosemite views 1868 Begins painting oil landscapes; hired to paint in Northwest by Oregon Navigation & Railroad Co. 1869 To Maine and New York, then Düsseldorf; visits Paris (paints Mt. Tamalpais) 1871 Back to Maine, then Boston and back to San Francisco 1872 Meets John Muir and camps with him and artists Benoni Irwin and Thomas Ross near Mt. Lyell 1870 Paints numerous large-scale "epics" of Sierras, Tamalpais and Shasta 1880 Spends several months in New England, New York and Philadelphia 1883 Marries Mary McHenry after death of Elizabeth Emerson Keith 1883 Tours and paints California missions on "honeymoon"; 1883 Visited Munich via New York, New England and Washington, D.C. 1883 to 1885 Lives in Munich, focusing on learning portraiture from J. Frank Currier and Carl Marr 1885 Returns to S.F. via Paris; moves to Berkeley 1886 Visits Alaska; paints several Alaska landscapes 1888 Gives lecture on landscape painting at UC Berkeley 1891 Spends several weeks working alongside George Inness in studio, Monterey and Yosemite 1891 Paints FAMSF Glory of the Heavens 1893 Solo exhibition at Macbeth Gallery, New York; included in World's Columbian Exhibition, Chicago 1893 Travels to Chicago, New York, Glasgow, London, Paris and Madrid 1895 to 1905 At peak of recognition and prosperity; paints in wide range of styles. Commissioned to paint two large murals for St. Francis Hotel (destroyed in 1906 fire along with many other Keith paintings); another European trip includes Amsterdam 1907 Solo shows of new work at Macbeth Gallery, New York, and Blanchard Gallery, Los Angeles; visits and paints Hetch Hetchy Canyon 1909 to 1911 Gradually failing health and death.
Written and submitted by Ann Harlow.
Museums Saint Mary's College Museum of Art, Moraga, CA Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, TX Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, Anchorage, AK Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, OH Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, CA De Young Museum, San Francisco, CA Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, ME Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GA Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY Monterey Museum of Art- Pacific, Monterey, CA Museum of Art at Brigham Young University, Provo, UT Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA Muskegon Museum of Art, Muskegon, MI Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NC Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, CA Phippen Art Museum, Prescott, AZ Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery, Scripps College, Claremont, CA San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego, CA Saint Mary's College Museum of Art, Moraga, CA
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