William Keith

William Keith William Keith

William Keith: Mountains of Shadow and Light

Thirteen of William Keith's most beautiful mountain landscape oil paintings are on view from May 2 to July 3, 2009, at the Hearst Art Gallery.

Keith’s love of nature was one of several bonds between him and the great naturalist John Muir, whose friendship was pivotal to the artist’s career.  They shared a transcendent view of nature, reveling in its beauty, majesty and mystery.   They camped together in the Sierra Nevada range and the Northwest saw each other when Muir was in the San Francisco area and helped inspire each other's work.  Muir directly influenced many of Keith's early Yosemite scenes, encouraged him to reproduce the precise landscape details, and guided him through some of the West’s most beautiful vistas.         

Twelve mountain paintings representing four decades of Keith’s career have been selected from the collection of 174 paintings.  They represent the many influences and subtle stylistic shifts of his approach to painting.  Several were painted in his San Francisco studio after returning from sketching trips with John Muir.  All show his love of the play of light and shadow on his beloved mountains.

As early as 1872, changes in Keith’s painting aesthetic begin to emerge. While remaining faithful to Muir's ideals that art must be a true representation of nature, Keith also became enthusiastic about a more reflective approach to capturing the natural world on canvas.  By the late 1870s, Keith had established his reputation as a painter of grand panoramic landscapes, often of the High Sierra or other mountain range, on canvas as large as six by ten feet.  These paintings both documented a specific locale and paid homage to divine creation, in the impressive form of the American wilderness. 

Shortly after they first met at Yosemite, Muir led Keith past Vernal and Nevada Falls to Tuolumne Meadows via the Old Mono Trail and then to the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River.  When their group started up the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River, Muir reined his horse aside for the others to get their first view of Mt. Lyell and the crest of the Sierra.  Keith wrote, “When we got to Mt. Lyell it was the grandest thing I ever saw.  It was late in October.  The frost had changed the grasses and a kind of willow to the most brilliant yellows and reds.”  Of the same scene, Muir wrote that Keith, his shaggy mane bared, “dashed forward, shouting and gesticulating and waving his arms like a madman.”

Through nearly 40 years of friendship, Muir and Keith rejoiced in the spectacular and uplifting natural exuberance of California's grand Sierra Nevada, the Range of Light. Muir, pioneer ecologist, botanist, geologist, glaciologist, one of the founders of the National Parks System and the Sierra Club, taught us the irreplaceable value of wild places.  His fortuitous introduction of Keith to the Western vistas captured their majestic beauty on canvas.

Keith’s artistic exploration and myriad of influences –people, places, and styles –informed his synthesized, but unique style. His experimentation, accumulated knowledge of art and increasing self-awareness places Keith in the canon of great Western painters.