William Keith: From the Grandiose to the Intimate
2011/05/27 § 3 Comments
From the Heroic Landscape to Tonalism
By Jeffrey Morseburg
William Keith (1838-1911) is the seminal figure in the history of early California painting. For contemporary viewers, attuned to the colorful palette of California Impressionism, the appeal that Keith has to art historians and collectors may be difficult to understand at first glance. After all, his Barbizon-inspired works were often painted in a narrow tonal range and many of the late works are dark, even murky. However, as viewers become more familiar with his career and the breadth of his artistic output, they should come to understand why Keith was the dominant figure in California painting for several decades and why his best works can be ranked among the great masterpieces of 19th-Century American landscape painting.
William Keith was born in Aberden, Scotland in 1838. He was raised in a strict Presbyterian environment first by his maternal grandparents and then by his mother. In 1852, while he was a teenager, Keith emigrated to America with his mother and sisters. They made their way to New York, where his maternal uncle, William Bruce, had settled. Like many other artistically talented boys of his era, he quit school at an early age and was apprenticed to a wood engraver before joining the Harper Brothers publishing firm.
During Keith’s formative years, New York was the thriving artistic capital of America. The Hudson River School of Romantic landscape painters dominated the artistic scene and the National Academy of Design, which was the main American exhibition venue. The young Scottish emigrant’s artist apprenticeship and early professional career coincided with the triumphs of Frederick Church (1826-1900) and his great rival Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902). Church ventured to Central and South America and his romantic pictures of the Andes became a sensation while Bierstadt’s enormous canvasses of the Rocky Mountains brought him fame if not always critical success. Keith ventured west to California in 1859, settling in San Francisco, where he began to scratch out a living as an engraver. It was there that he took his first formal painting lessons, from the noted portrait painter Samuel Mardsen Brooks (1816-1892).
Keith’s growing success in the engraving business enabled him to marry fellow artist, Elizabeth Emerson, in 1864. Two years later he began to exhibit his watercolors professionally. Keith’s chosen medium and the naturalistic handling of his subjects reflect his familiarity with the works and ideals of the British author and painter John Ruskin (1819-1900) and the English movements he influenced. His early works were of Marin County, the domesticated countryside just north of San Francisco, but by 1867 he was painting in the Sierra Nevada, which would become the subject of his greatest works. Soon, the young artist began working in oils, but his early efforts in this medium were somewhat crude and labored. On his sketching trips, he usually worked in oil on paper, waiting until he returned to his San Francisco studio to work the sketches up on canvas. Keith became an experienced outdoorsman, and in early 1869, a commission took him on an extended sketching trip throughout the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest.
Realizing that he needed further formal training, Keith held a successful auction of his works, and in the fall of 1869 left for Europe. In that era, many American painters who aspired to landscape painting chose to study in Dusseldorf, rather than Paris, so it was there that Keith went to study with Albert Flamm (1823-1906). Although Keith’s stay in Europe was brief, lasting less than a year, his formal work with Flamm and his exposure to European exhibitions introduced him to a wide range of artistic styles and helped him to reach artistic maturity.
Keith returned to the United States in 1871. He first painted in rugged Maine, where dozens of the successful New York painters summered. Then opened a studio in Boston. Keith’s large paintings of California began to win him some good notices and a following of patrons. He exhibited major paintings of Mount Tamalpais and Mount Shasta at the National Academy of Design, which were then sold to prominent California collectors. In 1872 Keith returned to San Francisco, a mature and experienced painter. He found that his competitor Thomas Hill (1829-1908) had also returned from a period of study and that in addition the Eastern painter Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) had opened a studio for an extended stay in the west. Together, these three painters built a wide following for their monumental scenes of the Sierra Nevada and other California subjects. Their major works were artistic expressions of the philosophy of American expansionism. As cities were transformed by the forces of the industrial age, the works of Keith and other landscape painters began to reflect an appreciation for the grandeur of the western landscape. Keith’s artistic philosophy was also shaped by his friendship with the naturalist John Muir, whom he accompanied on extended treks through the wilderness.
Elizabeth Keith, the artist’s wife, died in 1882. After marrying the amateur artist Mary McHenry, a restless Keith returned to Europe in 1883, now with the intention of mastering portraiture. Always attracted to a broad technique and darker tonalities, Keith ventured to Munich, where these characteristics were still favored. He opened his own studio in the Bavarian capital and had his work critiqued by some of the leaders of the Munich school. The expatriate American painter J. Frank Currier (1843-1909), for example, encouraged Keith to try a more experimental approach to painting the landscape. This second European sojurn’s exposure to new ideas had a lasting effect on the California atist, and he began to adopt a much more evocative style.
The William Keith that returned to San Francisco was a changed artist. In his later work, influenced by the stay in Munich and the works of the Barbizon painters that he had seen in Paris, Keith placed more emphasis on the mood of his chosen subject and paid less attention to the topography of the landscape. He began to paint simple scenes of sheep grazing on the hills of Marin County or cattle lying in the shady glen. He no longer sought to find the “truth” of nature, but to paint its moods. Unfortunately, these more interpretive paintings did not please the public as much as the more heroic depictions of nature that he had done in earlier years, and Keith went through a period of depression.
In 1891 George Inness (1823-1894), the American Tonalist painter, came west to San Francisco and changed the course of Keith’s career. Keith had been influenced by the writings of Inness, and the two artists shared not only a similar artistic outlook, but even the same Swedenborgian religious philosophy. Inness’s visit lifted the California artist’s spirits and the two men traveled together, shared Keith’s studio, and held a joint exhibition in San Francisco. Keith learned a great deal from Inness, whose stature in American art helped justify the change in style that western audiences had found inscrutable.
As the 1890s progressed, Keith’s popularity grew, and he became one of the most prosperous and respected members of San Francisco’s artistic community. In 1893 his works were exhibited in the Chicago World’s Fair, and he made another extended trip to Europe. Keith’s poetic, pastoral pieces were sold to California’s elite. While Keith painted some masterful paintings in his later years, his artistic oeuvre is littered with poorly composed and overly gloomy landscapes, many of which have turned even darker with the passing of time. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire destroyed Keith’s studio and, tragically, two thousand of his paintings. Unfortunately, many of Keith’s important early works were lost in the conflagration, which also destroyed the homes of most of the important San Francisco collectors. Keith managed to recover from the loss, however, and continued painting until a short time before his death in 1911.
William Keith’s artistic philosophy changed dramatically in the course of his long life. moving from the grandiose to the intimate. He began his career as a painter of the heroic landscape, celebrating California’s beauty and grandeur. As the frontier period of American history closed, and the west was domesticated, Keith turned from a romantic approach to a more subjective and poetic view of nature and he seems to have been the only notable California painter who made this type of transformation. Copyright, 2001-2011, Jeffrey Morseburg, not to be reproduced without the specific written permission of the author. This entry adapted from my brief essay in the California Art Club’s Gold Medal Exhibition Catalog from 2001.