In the fall of 1872, a young painter traveled to Yosemite in search of inspiration for his art. After an arduous journey from San Francisco, he sought out a young botanist, who was living in a rustic cabin in the valley, and asked whether he knew of any vistas “that would make a picture.”
As it turns out, this simple visit was one of those magical meetings that change forever the lives of those involved — and may even have changed the face of the American West.
The painter was William Keith, who later became famous for his monumental landscape paintings of the West, and the botanist was John Muir, who was to become the father of the U.S. conservation movement. In those days, though, they were both just adventurous young men looking for their way in life.
Muir invited Keith to camp under the stars that night, and as they talked, Willie and Johnny, as they soon called each other, discovered that they had a lot in common. Both had been born in Scotland in 1838, and both had immigrated to the United States at a young age. Later, both made their way to San Francisco, as free-spirited young men often did then, as now. But what truly bound them together was their passionate — even ecstatic — love of nature.
That first meeting had been suggested by Ralph Waldo Emerson, a relative of Keith’s wife. Following his advice, Keith arrived at Muir’s door bearing a letter of introduction from a mutual friend that described him as a “kindred spirit” and offered this advice: “Melt and fuse your spirits in great Nature baptism, in which all Art and Science inspiration is born and replenished.”
The letter could not have been more prophetic. The two men formed an instant bond, and their life stories were inextricably entwined from that moment on.
Not long after their first meeting, Muir led Keith and two other painters into the high Sierra — or “The Range of Light,” as he called it — in search of inspiring vistas. On horseback, they rode past Vernal and Nevada Falls to Tuolumne Meadows. When their group started up the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, Muir reined in his horse so the others could catch their first glimpse of Mount Lyell and the crest of the Sierra. Keith recalled the moment in an article for Boston Advertiser in 1874:
“When it was getting on into the fall I set out for the Yosemite and from there went two days further up into the Sierras with John Muir—one of those remarkable men one often meets in California— a very good writer and a scientist. … When we got to Mount Lyell it was the grandest thing I ever saw. … The frost had changed the grasses and a kind of willow to the most brilliant yellows and reds…”
Muir remembered the scene differently and wrote that when they rounded the bend and mount Lyell came into view, Keith “dashed forward, shouting and gesticulating and waving his arms like a madman.”
On another occasion, Keith wrote about how he and Muir “came upon a beautiful waterfall— or rather four, one leaping and tumbling after the other. We started and ran, and clapped our hands in joy of this sudden surprise.”
Their passion for nature seemed to know no bounds, and they were compelled to express it, in words and in paintings, because for them, nature was not just an object of beauty, it was an expression of the divine. although both had rebelled against their strict Presbyterian upbringing, they remained deeply religious. In adulthood, they embraced the writings of New England Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau, who glorified an instinctual sort of spirituality wedded to the natural world.
They believed fervently that “nature as it actually existed was God’s handiwork,” said Alfred Harrison, author of “The comprehensive Keith.”
In an era steeped in the values of the Industrial Revolution and Manifest Destiny, when others glorified man’s triumph over nature, Muir preached a gospel of reverence for nature in his writings, and Keith captured it on canvas.
Seeking inspiration, the two new friends set out on expeditions throughout the Sierra and beyond. Some of Keith’s most famous paintings resulted from these trips, including “Sentinel Rock” and the beautiful “Crown of the Sierra.”
Muir wrote glowing newspaper reviews of Keith’s early works, heaping praise on the six-by-ten foot “California Alps” and “Headwaters of the Merced.” Keith, in turn, introduced Muir to influential writers and artists in San Francisco and supported him during his first forays into the lecture circuit.
Steve Pauly, who has impersonated both Muir and Keith during events at the John Muir historic site in Martinez, recounts how Keith calmed his friend’s nerves before his first public lecture in 1876 by bringing one of his large landscapes and setting it on the stage, with these words:
“Just look at the painting, Johnny; you will think you are back in the mountains, and you will immediately relax and be fine.”
Although Muir admired the transcendent quality of Keith’s paintings and labeled him a “poet painter,” he famously took issue with the artist’s later style. Keith “always thought of himself as a student who had more to learn,” said Heidi Donner, public information manager at the Saint Mary’s Museum of Art, and his painting style constantly evolved, becoming more impressionistic over time.
Muir, ever the scientist, campaigned for paintings that were “topographically correct,” but Keith argued that the goal of a landscape painter is not to reproduce nature but to recreate the feeling the landscape evokes in the painter.
“Both were students and lovers of nature, but where Keith saw color and atmosphere, poetry and romance, in mountain and vale, tree and sky, Muir’s eyes were fixed on the ever-changing processes of immutable law,” wrote Charles Keeler, a writer and naturalist who knew both men well. “So it was that he failed to appreciate his artist friend’s finest work.”
Keeler recalled how the two friends would engage in good- natured banter over their artistic differences in Keith’s studio in San Francisco. “as [Muir’s] keen gray eye ranged over the pictures stacked in piles all over the place, he would fall upon a big careful objective study of a Sierra landscape. ‘Now there’s a real picture, Willie,’ he would exclaim. ‘Why don’t you paint more like that?’ With a look of defiance the big shaggy-haired painter would draw from the stack a mystical dream of live-oaks, with a green and gold sunset sky, and stand it up on an easel with an impatient wave of his hand.
‘What are you trying to make of that? You’ve stood it upside down, haven’t you?’ Muir would sally with a mischievous twinkle. And Keith would finally give it up with: ‘There’s no use trying to show you pictures, Johnny.’”
In spite of these verbal sparring matches, the two men remained great friends and true kindred spirits. As Keeler wrote, “The two Scotchmen...were big elemental natures, both of them,” adding that each treasured his “child-heart” and drew on it for inspiration.
They would meet in San Francisco, share a drink and sing the songs of the great Scottish writer Robert Burns to each other. “Of all the friends Muir had, Keith was probably the closest,” said Pauly. Of the 23 paintings Muir hung on the walls of his home in Martinez, 20 were by Keith.
And they were more alike in their approach to nature than either might care to admit. “Muir had a rapturous approach to nature, even though he had a scientific bent,” said Harold Wood, a Sierra Club volunteer who curates information about Muir on the club’s website.
In 1888, Keith was among the artists Muir recruited for a tour of the Pacific Northwest to create illustrations for “Picturesque California,” a multivolume work on the great sights of Western America that was published in serial form, to wide public acclaim. In their day, these serials were the equivalent of today’s television series – entertainment for the masses. They excited the public imagination and built support for Muir’s campaigns to preserve the pristine Western wilderness.
Keith joined in these early conservation campaigns. In fact, the idea for the Sierra Club was first hatched in Keith’s San Francisco art studio during conversations in 1889 with Muir; Dr. Joseph LeConte, the first president of the University of California; and Warren Olney, an attorney who later became a mayor of Oakland. In May 1892, they and several other conservationists organized an alpine club, which they named the Sierra Club.
Late in life, the two collaborated on Muir’s campaign to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley from being flooded by a dam to create a reservoir for San Francisco. In 1907, despite failing health, Keith joined Muir on an expedition to document the valley’s charms in an attempt to sway public opinion and halt the project.
In many ways, it was as if they had returned to the days of their youth, camping in the mountains, writing and sketching.
In a 1908 article in the Sierra Club Bulletin, Muir recalled the trip:
“The leaf colors were then ripe and the great God-like rocks in repose seemed to glow with life. The artist, Keith, under the spell, wandered day after day along the beautiful river, studying the wonderful scenery; and, after making about 40 sketches, declared with enthusiasm that in picturesque beauty and charm Hetch Hetchy surpasses even Yosemite.”
Keith also described the trip in glowing terms in a story in The Argonaut, but couldn’t help adding this note:
“Muir is a delightful companion to go off with [to the mountains]; agreeable, appreciating beauty thoroughly and all that, but I must say he’s a mighty poor provider …. Sometimes when I’ve been away with him for three weeks without any sugar the whole time, I feel that I’ll never go on another trip with him — but I generally do, just the same.”
Although the campaign to save Hetch Hetchy Valley ultimately failed, Harrison notes that “the defeat galvanized the American conservation movement to push for the creation in 1916 of the National Park Service.”
Keith died in 1911, and Muir followed in 1914, too soon to savor that victory. By the end of their lives, though, the two men who had met in Yosemite in their youth were renowned across the nation. Keith had become California’s preeminent landscape painter and Muir was the leading voice for conservation in America.
Together, in their own ways, they opened the eyes of the nation to the glories of the Western wilderness and inspired people to see nature in a new light, not as something to dominate but as something to be revered. And protected.
As Harrison put it, “Keith’s mountain paintings are perfect visual equivalents of Muir’s verbal celebrations of the Range of Light.”