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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The San Francisco Portraits of Walter Cox

2011/05/18 § Leave a comment

"Outdoor Dining" by Walter Cox

Walter Ignatius Cox

San Francisco Portrait Painter

by Jeffrey Morseburg

Walter Ignatius Cox (1867-1930) was an English-born California painter who seems to have thus far escaped scholarly notice. While he painted the garden scenes and domesticated landscapes that are more frequently seen today, during his lifetime he was primarily known for his formal portraits. His tranquil landscapes show an awareness of Impressionism and a brighter palette, but maintain a solid sense of construction that is academic in origin. His landscapes, usually of gardens, front porches, parks and scenes of al fresco dining, have an innocent, almost naïve quality.

Cox was born in Broxwood Court, Hertsfordshire in England, on May 4, 1867 to Richard Snead Cox (1820-1899) and Maria Teresa Weld Cox (1828-1886). He came from an old English family who were descendants of the Plantagenet Kings. The Cox family was part of the Catholic minority and young Walter was educated at St. Gregory’s College, a Catholic boarding school in Somerset, in Southwest England. Because of his artistic talent, after completing his secondary education he moved to Paris. In the French capital he studied at the private Academie Julian under the grand history painters Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921), Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1845-1902) and Jules-Joseph Lefebvre (1836-1911), as well as the titan of the French Academy, William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905).

After the completion of his studies, Cox established himself as portrait painter in London, opening a studio in fashionable Chelsea.  A number of prominent British subjects sat for him, including Cardinal Herbert Alfred Vaughn of London (1832-1903), who may have preferred a painter with a Catholic background.  For the remainder of his career Cox would maintain good relations with the Catholic hierarchy, and he painted the official portraits of a number of Archbishops and Cardinals.

Cox married Lavina Carton Millet (1869-1933) of Hampshire in 1897. The couple immigrated to the United States in 1904, settling in San Francisco, where Cox opened a portrait studio on Van Ness Avenue. He and his wife resided on Jackson Street.  In San Francisco he became part of the downtown milieu of bohemian artists and writers.  He also established a relationship with the Catholic Church, and painted Archbishop Patrick William Riordan (1841-1914) and Archbishop George Montgomery (1847-1907), who came to the aid of the city and rebuilt the local parishes after the San Francisco Earthquake.

Cox traveled to Victoria, British Columbia in 1905, where he painted Archbishop Bertram Orth (in office 1903-1908) and a number of judges and other public officials.  His San Francisco studio was frequently in the papers and he was well known for painting fashionable women. He completed society portraits of Mrs. Maria Inez Shorb White (1868-1933) of San Gabriel, Miss Sarah Bell Collier and Miss Betsy Angus (later Mrs. St. George Holden) of San Francisco and other members of California’s elite who were well known in those days.

Because of his French academic training, Cox had the ambitions to be a “history painter” like his instructors at the Academie Julian. In Paris and London he had also come under the spell of the Orientalist movement, and he painted compositions drawn from biblical history.  According to contemporary accounts, soon after his arrival he began working on an ambitious painting of the notables of San Francisco that was nine feet high by twelve feet wide, with hundreds of figures.  Another work in progress was a scene of the Crucifixion of Christ, a grand history painting in the French manner, with the dramatic event depicted at the moment when darkness enveloped Jerusalem. Cox also painted a large composition of Gregory the Great in the Roman slave market.

Unfortunately, just as Cox was establishing himself in the Bay Area, the 1906 earthquake struck, followed by the conflagration, and like most of the other residents he lost almost everything, including the major works described above.  His small cottage, located on Sacramento, street, near the intersection of Franklin and Van Ness, was one of the last to be consumed by the out-of-control fire.  The loss of an artist’s production meant that not only was his inventory gone, but also his creative history, his sketches, studies, and sample portraits.  The Oakland Tribune dramatized the situation of the artists and sculptors for its readers, who had watched the catastrophe from across the bay with horror:

A palace razed to the ground may be reconstructed within a few months. An immense emporium with its contents may be utterly effaced, but a thousand hands and machines without number, within a comparatively short time can rebuild the one more beautifully and restock the other as it never had been stocked before.

Such however is not a possibility in the world of art. The studios of San Francisco which were destroyed – and they were all laid in common ruin – represented the work of years not only of the owners, but also of the kindred souls possessed of genius and the restoration of them and their contents can be accomplished only by hand. 

After the disaster, some painters fled south to Carmel, while others, like Cox, crossed the water and set up new studios in the East Bay.  The portrait painter leased a new studio in the El Granada, at the intersection of Bancroft Way and Telegraph in Berkeley, and his wife set up their new living quarters in an adjacent apartment.  In Berkeley, the artist began painting portraits to replace those lost in the great earthquake and also opened art classes for local residents, but Cox and his wife soon returned to San Francisco, establishing another studio on Van Ness Avenue.

Walter and Lavina Cox were frequently in the society pages of the San Francisco and East Bay newspapers.  The papers noted that the couple was dressed smartly at the opera or was seen at the Tea Room of the St. Francis Hotel, which was frequented by the “smart set.”  The painter was successful enough to have a summer studio in the Easton neighborhood of Burlingame, where he painted landscapes and attempted to take a break from his portrait commissions. Cox concentrated on portraits during the fall and winter months so that he could make sketching trips during the spring and summer months. He took trips to his native England and Scotland, bringing back watercolors and landscape studies which he sold to collectors in the Bay Area. Cox also made trips to Mexico, stopping in Los Angeles along the way, where he had portrait clients.

In 1912 Cox painted the famous novelist Gertrude Atherton (1857-1948), which resulted in a bounty of publicity for the artist.  The large portrait was reproduced in the San Francisco papers, exhibited in his studio and hung in the Tea Room of the St. Francis Hotel for a high society reception. He completed a life-size portrait of the socialite Miss Hazel King and portraits of Miss Julia Langhorne, Mrs. Tom Williams and her daughters and William Ronaldson, all well-known social figures of the era. Cox sold most of his work from his own well-appointed studio, but he also exhibited at Kilbey’s in San Francisco and had an exhibition at the Palace Hotel in 1914.

There is no record that Cox exhibited at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the San Francisco World’s Fair.  This may be because Cox was still considered a British painter and thus not eligible for inclusion, but it is probable that by the time of the exposition he and his wife had already left San Francisco for New York, where they lived for a number of years. In the east, he continued painting portraits for the Catholic Church as well as of political figures. His last studio was in the Washington D.C. suburb of Alexandria, where he did portraits of important Washingtonians. Lavina Cox, the painter’s wife, returned to England to care for an aunt in the 1920s and never returned to her husband in America, remaining there until she passed away in 1933.

Like many society painters, he was described as “genial and gentlemanly” and having the “faculty for making friends by his personality as well as creating admirers by his brush.” Cox was known for achieving a good likeness and many of his commissions were for full-length portraits in the grand manner. His upbringing and education gave him a scholarly air which gave his sitter’s confidence in his taste as well as his artistic ability. Those who sat for portraits by Cox included President Warren J. Harding (1865-1923) and former President and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Taft (1857-1930).  Copyright 2011, Jeffrey Morseburg, not to be reproduced without author’s specific written permission.

 

 

 

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