His Address Pays Tribute to Centennial Exhibition of Paintings by William Keith
The new Saint Mary’s College Museum of Art was inaugurated on Sunday by Kevin Starr, California’s state librarian emeritus, who delivered a scintillating lecture on the painter William Keith in honor of the grand opening exhibition, “The Comprehensive Keith: A Centennial Tribute.”
Saint Mary’s museum holds the world’s preeminent collection of paintings by the artist, and 120 of the college’s 185 paintings by Keith are on display in the museum through December 18. The museum’s two new galleries also feature two new exhibitions: “Masks and Costumes from the Ethnographic Collection” and “Reflections in Time: Stanley Truman Photographs from the Permanent Collection.”
In his lecture, Starr, a professor of history at the University of Southern California and the nation’s leading expert on California history, demonstrated the same talent seen in his great multivolume history of California, “Americans and the California Dream,” as he deftly wove together the influences and convergences that created the Keith legacy.
Starr said he first became aware of Keith’s work 45 years ago when he read “Art in California,” published at the time of the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. “It helped to engender in me a kind of enchantment with the finer California being pursued by artists in the late 19th and early 20th century.” He said Keith was one of those “foundational artists” who helped to define that vision of California.
He picked up the story of the artist’s life and work when, as a young man schooled in engraving and beginning to experiment with painting, Keith traveled to the Yosemite Valley in the Sierra Nevada. It was during that 1872 trip that he first met the naturalist John Muir, “his fellow apostle of nature,” and Starr said that trip convinced Keith “it was his destiny to paint the mountains of California.”
He embraced that destiny with enormous energy. At the time, Starr said, the nation was captivated by the untamed West and saw it as a sort of utopian land that exemplified American ideals -- an unspoiled place where dreams could flourish -- so there was a growing market for paintings of the mountains. Keith produced thousands of paintings in his lifetime and helped shape Americans’ views of California and perhaps of nature itself.
Starr traced the progress of Keith’s career, from his grand early naturalistic paintings of the Sierra through his experiments with German style he learned on sojourns in Munich and Dusseldorf to his dabblings in impressionism and on to his more mature work, with its intimate portraits of natural scenes, including many is the East Bay. Since Keith lived in the East Bay, Starr said, “it’s appropriate that Saint Mary’s would become such a great advocate and collector of his work.”
He also traced a larger arc in Keith’s career -- one that encompassed his ever-present and growing interest in the connection between the natural world and the spiritual world.
Through nature, he believed, one could “experience a direct revelation of divine majesty,” and this belief shaped his later art, which is dominated by a tension between darkness and light.
Among those paintings is one that Starr described as his favorite: Klamath Lake with Pelicans and Mount McLaughlin, which is on display in the current exhibit. In the serene scene, Starr said, he sees the vision Keith was striving for. In his later years, he said, Keith was “moving like the pelicans in angelic procession toward the light.”
Keith’s interest in the spiritual power of nature may be one of the reasons his work fell out of favor as modernism became the dominant force in the 20th century. However, Starr noted that interest in Keith’s work began to grow after the publication of several biographies of the painter, including “Keith, Old Master of California,” by Brother Fidelis Cornelius Braeg, who made the study of Keith his life’s work.
Today, his artwork -- both his intimate scenes of nature and his grand vistas of the mountains of California -- is once again in demand, Starr said, because it “reminds us of what we may be in danger of losing.”
Photo by Dan Rosenstraugh
The grand opening also marks the release of “The Comprehensive Keith: The Hundred Year History of the Saint Mary's College Collection of Works by William Keith,” with a major essay by Alfred Harrison, which can be ordered online.