William Keith Collection
A 19th-century leading artist and visionary in San Francisco, William Keith (1838-1911) is most known for his impact on preserving and sharing the California landscape through paint and brush. Saint Mary's College Museum of Art cares for the most comprehensive body of work created by this California Master Landscape Painter.
KEITH AND MUIR
Keith arrived at Muir's cabin in Yosemite Valley with a letter of introduction in 1872, and a lifelong friendship quickly developed. The two Scottish immigrants took camping trips together in the High Sierra, saw each other when Muir was in San Francisco and helped inspire each other's work. The idea for the Sierra Club was first formed in Keith's studio during conversations with Muir, Dr. Joseph LeConte, the first president of the University of California, and Warren Olney, a prominent San Francisco attorney.
Muir's concern with scientific accuracy reinforced Keith's early training as a wood engraver in encouraging him to reproduce the exact topography and details of a landscape early in his career. Keith had also already expressed a preference by 1870 to "study altogether from Nature," reflecting in part the admonishments of the influential writer John Ruskin.
KEITH'S ARTISTIC TRANSITIONS
Although there was a general trend in Keith's work from tightly worked detail and bright sunlight to broader brushwork and twilight scenes, his path was not a simple, straightforward one. It seems to have reflected a waxing and waning of various influences, including his personal predilections and moods, art market forces, an interest in the "old masters" (especially Rembrandt), and allegiances to friends of different persuasions about art.
Two lengthy sojourns in Europe, each bracketed by visits to the eastern United States, had particularly strong effects on Keith's artistic development. In 1869, three years after he first began exhibiting and selling paintings, he left San Francisco for visits to New York and Paris and art study in Dusseldorf, Germany. By the time he returned to San Francisco in 1872, his painting style had changed considerably. The abundance of foreground detail typical of early works like San Anselmo Valley Near San Rafael had been replaced by looser, sketchier brushstrokes as in Mount Lyell, California Sierra. While remaining convinced of John Ruskin's teaching that art must be a faithful rendering of nature, Keith had become enthusiastic about a more "suggestive" approach to capturing the natural world on canvas. His European experience had consisted more of looking at art, talking with artists, and painting on his own rather than of formal art education. He did not enroll in the Dusseldorf Academy, and he seems to have been influenced more by French Barbizon art than by the traditions associated with Dusseldorf, where Albert Bierstadt, Worthington Whittredge, and Sanford Gifford had studied earlier. The popularity of "modern" French painting in Boston, where Keith spent several months in 1871-72, may have reinforced this direction.
Keith's second trip to Europe centered around a stay in Munich in 1883-85. There he again engaged mostly in a diligent self-directed study, focusing on portraiture. Polemics is an example of the portraits he painted in Munich. He later was commissioned to paint portraits of various prominent Californians, but his mainstay continued to be landscape.
Probably through the influence of various German and American landscapists working around Munich (who in turn were admirers of French Barbizon art), Keith's landscapes after 1885 generally became even looser in brushwork as well as moodier in effect. He also painted some watercolors, such as Gray Rain Cloud, Cattle in Meadow, in his post-Munich years, returning to the medium in which he first had begun painting before he took up oils.
In the 1870s, Keith had established his reputation as a painter of grand panoramic landscapes, often of the High Sierra or other mountainous countries, and sometimes as large as six by ten feet. This type of painting could serve both as a document of a specific locale and as an homage to divine creation in the form of the impressive American wilderness. By the 1890s, Keith typically painted forest glades at sunset, with other kinds of religious overtones. Evening Glow is a rather dramatic example. Like the Eastern painter George Inness, Keith became an adherent to Swedenborgianism. He believed that his late, dark, indistinct works better suggested the spiritual reality that lay beyond the surface forms of nature.
Although he was best known in California, Keith's achievements were noted in East Coast newspapers as early as 1872. Keith had a studio in Boston for several months, and as late as April 1911, when New York art dealer William Macbeth published "Memories of William Keith" in the Christian Science Monitor.
A prominent New York art collector, architect Charles F. McKim, met Keith in 1905. According to the San Francisco Wasp, he said,
"My visit to the studio of this San Francisco artist furnished me the surprise of my life. I had heard of Keith, of course, and knew that he did good work, but I was wholly unprepared for what I saw. As I glanced around the studio, I was amazed and puzzled, for I observed pictures that at the first cursory glance suggested Daubigny and Corot and Millet and others acknowledged great masters of the poetic moods in landscape painting. But none of the pictures were in the slightest degree copies of those famous artists. A new master had arisen who could touch all the keys with which they were so familiar and use them in his own way to impress his individuality on his work. And such perfect and admirable work! Well, I bought $15,000 worth of it in ten minutes."
The great naturalist John Muir called William Keith a "poet-painter," referring to the lyrical quality in Keith's art. As with his contemporaries George Inness, Winslow Homer, and Albert Pinkham Ryder, Keith's style gradually evolved from accurate descriptions of specific places to the use of landscape elements to express and evoke feelings. His love of nature was a common thread throughout his painting career, and one of several bonds between him and John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club and "father" of the National Parks system.
KEITH'S FIRST BIOGRAPHER, BROTHER CORNELIUS, F.S.C.
It was the spiritual qualities of Keith's works, an appreciation for his artistic and scholarly rigor, and a shared love of California's mountains, that led Brother Fidelis Cornelius Braeg, F.S.C., of Saint Mary's College, to make Keith the subject of much of his life's work. The Christian Brother and art professor first encountered Keith's paintings during a 1908 visit with Muir in his Martinez home. Brother Cornelius, who was also an artist and an avid mountaineer, interviewed scores of Keith's friends, relatives, and fellow artists, read period newspaper accounts, and traveled to Keith's favorite scenic spots throughout the West. He later wrote a 900-page biography of Keith, collected more than 100 of Keith's paintings and gave them to the College, and organized several Keith exhibitions. His legacy lives on in the ongoing research and publications and conservation of the artworks.