William Keith: From the Grandiose to the Intimate

2011/05/27 § 3 Comments

"Cypress Point" by William Keith

William Keith

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.

William Keith (L) with Charles Keeler and John Muir

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.

"Secluded Grove" by William Keith

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.

"Dazzling Clouds" by William Keith

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.

"Carmel Bay" by William Keith


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William Wendt: The Sculpted Landscape

2011/05/18 § 1 Comment

"Verdant Hills" by William Wendt

William Wendt

The Founding Father of California Impressionism

Founder and President of the California Art Club

by Jeffrey Morseburg

In the history of California Impressionism, William Wendt (1865-1946) was the one indispensable figure. Because of the quality of his bold, masculine landscapes and his many abilities as a leader, the art scene in southern California coalesced around the figure of the quiet, sober German immigrant.  William Wendt’s mature style reduced the elements that he saw in nature to broad forms. His short, vigorous brushstrokes gave a heroic solidity to the hills and rocky outcroppings that he favored in his work.

Wendt’s works were rarely panoramic, for he liked to get close to paint. When he painted a hill near Laguna Beach or Morro Bay, the size of it in relation to the size of the composition gave the image an iconic quality. It was this ‘big picture’ approach of Wendt’s that made his the artist that eastern or western viewers thought of when the considered the California landscape.

Wendt was a deeply religious man and his love of nature was reflected in each and every painting, and a number of his works were given religious titles. With little deviation, Wendt took his compositions directly from what he saw on location. He was not one who felt he could ‘improve’ on what God created. The ‘style’ that we know him for today was not a labored attempt at finding a mannered way to paint but the natural outgrowth of his unique artistic voice.

"Creeping Shadows" by William Wendt

William Wendt was born in Bentzen, Prussia, in 1865- soon to be a part of the re-unified Germany. He attended rural schools and worked unhappily as a cabinet-maker’s apprentice before immigrating to America at the age of fifteen. Wendt joined an uncle in Chicago, where he attended school and began working as a commercial artist.

With only a few evening classes at the Art Institute of Chicago for formal training, Wendt began painting out-of-doors in his spare time. His earliest works was in the tonalist style, then favored by leading American painters. In 1893, he won the Yerkes prize in the Annual Society of Chicago Artists Exhibition, an event that helped launch his professional career.

Wendt made extended painting trips to California with fellow painter, George Gardner Symons (1862 – 1930) in 1894 and 1896. At the request of the Rindge family, he painted a series of canvases on Rancho Malibu in 1897. In 1899, he held an impressive show of his works of California in conjunction with its 12th Annual Exhibition.

"Vibrant Spring" by William Wendt

It was clear that Wendt had fallen in love with the California landscape, but it was not until 1906 that he put down his roots in southern California, purchasing Elmer and Marion Wachtel’s home in the Highland Park district. He brought his new bride, the sculptor, Julia Bracken Wendt (1871 – 1992), home with him to California. Wendt forged a successful career in the Golden State and was one of the few California artists to build a following in the Midwest and the east.

Wendt was instrumental in the founding of the California Art Club, the organization most responsible for the dissemination of the Impressionist aesthetic in southern California. He served as president for six terms, a record in the early years of the organization. Wendt opened his Laguna Beach studio I 1912 and helped form the Laguna Beach Art Association eight years later. It was Wendt’s skill and reputation that helped popularize plein-air Impressionism in California eighty years ago, and he remains its most original voice today.  Copyright, 2001-2011,Jeffrey Morseburg, not to be reproduced without author’s specific written permission.

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