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 John Ross Key  (1837 - 1920)

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Lived/Active: Maryland/District Of Columbia      Known for: landscape and historical painting, illustration

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John Ross Key
from Auction House Records.
Lake Tahoe, California
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
John Ross Key was the grandson of Francis Scott Key, author of the Star Spangled Banner.  He was born in Hagerstown, Maryland in 1837, and raised in Washington, D.C.  Key was a draftsman with the United States Coast Survey from 1853 to 1856, serving with Gilbert Munger (1837-1903) and James Abbot McNeill Whistler (1834-1903).

He served with the Federal Corp of Engineers in Charleston, South Carolina, and made an artistic record of the Federal siege of that Confederate city in 1863.  Immediately after the war Key worked in New York City (1866), and then in Baltimore (1867-1868) and later Boston (1878).  In the late 1860's and early 1870's Key was in Northern California.  In 1869 he moved to San Francisco. 

While in California, Key traveled extensively, painting scenes of Yosemite, Carmel, Lake Tahoe, and the Giant Sequoia trees.  He resided in San Francisco and painted many landscapes including popular subjects in the Sierra Nevadas, as well as the Golden Gate and Point Lobos.

Key studied art in Munich and Paris from 1873 to 1875.   He worked in a number of American cities including Chicago, St. Louis, New York, and Baltimore before settling in Boston where he established an art studio.  sIn Boston he showed over 100 works of art in 1877. Critics praised his work as "firm and masterly, strong and graceful."

Louis Prang, the Boston lithographer, sent Key to California to paint a series of landscape.  Key painted in California from 1871-1872 and is mentioned in the art notes of Scribner's Magazine. Subjects painted by Key are listed in Prang's catalogue of 1878, and include The Golden Gate (after a painting that won a Gold Medal at Philadelphia's Centennial Exposition in 1876).  Prang made many of his paintings into chromolithographs in the 1870's.   In addition to his oil paintings, he was noted for exceptional charcoal drawings.

From 1908 to 1917, Key settled in Washington, D.C., then moved to Baltimore for his remaining years.   John Ross Key died in Baltimore in 1920. Key exhibited at the National Academy of Design (1866-1879); The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; The Boston Athenaeum; Mechanics Institute, San Francisco; The Boston Art Club (1875-1878); Corcoran Gallery (1908); and Society of Independent Artists (1917).  He was a member of the Society of Washington Artists and the Boston Art Club.

Sources include:
Peter Hastings Falk, Who Was Who in American Art 

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Hagerstown, MD on July 16, 1837, John Ross Key was raised by his grandfather Francis Scott Key, the author of The Star Spangled Banner.  The younger Key studied art in Munich and Paris before establishing a studio in Boston.  During the Civil War he worked for the Corps of Engineers and made many sketches of the siege of Charleston.

After the war, he worked in New York City and exhibited at the National Academy of Design, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Boston Art Club.  In 1869 he moved to San Francisco for a two-year stay and established a studio in the Mercantile Library Building.

While in California he painted landscapes of Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, Point Lobos, and the Mariposa big trees.  His California works were lithographed by the Prang Company in the 1870s.  Key died in Baltimore on March 24, 1920.

Member:
Boston Art Club; Society of Washington Artists; SFAA. Exh: Mechanics' Inst. (SF), 1870; SFAA, 1872; Centennial Expo (Philadelphia), 1876 (gold medal for Golden Gate); NMAA, 1927 (solo).

Collection: 
CGA; Bancroft Library (UC Berkeley); CHS; Oakland Museum; Amon Carter Museum (Fort Worth); Joslyn Museum.
Source:
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
Dictionnaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs, et Graveurs (Bénézit, E); Artists of the American West (Samuels); Dictionary of American Painters, Sculptors & Engravers (Fielding, Mantle); New York Historical Society's Dictionary of Artists in America (Groce, George C. and David H. Wallace); American Art Annual 1909-20.
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

Biography from William A. Karges Fine Art - Beverly Hills:
John Ross Key was raised by his grandfather, Francis Scott Key, the author of the Star Spangled Banner. The younger Key studied art in Munich and Paris before settling in Boston where he established a studio.

Key enjoyed success while in Boston, and showed his works at the National Academy of Design, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, and the Boston Art Club. In 1869 he moved to San Francisco. While in California Key traveled extensively, painting scenes of Yosemite, Carmel, Tahoe, and the Giant Sequoia trees. Key left California after only two years.

He died in Baltimore in 1920.

Biography from The Johnson Collection:
Stirring scenes of national significance figure heavily in John Ross Key’s oeuvre. From his panoramic painting of Charleston, South Carolina’s Fort Sumter and grand vistas of the frontier West to this view of the nation’s capital, Key’s proud heritage as the grandson of Francis Scott Key, author of the lyrics of "The Star Spangled Banner," is evident.

Born in Maryland, Key was raised in part by his famous grandfather in Washington, D.C. His youthful proficiency in drawing led to employment as a topographical artist and draftsman with the United States Coast Survey in the 1850s. James McNeill Whistler was a colleague in the department, a friendship Key later recounted in a manuscript titled “Recollections of Whistler While in the Office of the United States Coast Survey.” He also served as a cartographer with the Lander Expedition of 1859, charting overland trails through the unsettled western territories of Nevada and Wyoming as part of the establishment of the California Trail. At the outbreak of the Civil War, the artist, along with several Key cousins, joined Confederate forces. From 1863 to 1865, he was assigned to Charleston, where he executed meticulous maps of the strategic harbor and recorded dramatic battle scenes, including the monumental Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Siege of Charleston Harbor, 1863, a work once misattributed to Albert Bierstadt.

At war’s end, Key settled in Baltimore where his war scenes found a sympathetic audience and critical acclaim. He also worked in New York and was represented in important exhibitions over the following decades, including the National Academy of Design, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Corcoran Gallery. Beginning in 1869, Key lived in San Francisco and traveled throughout California, painting dramatic scenic views, including The Golden Gate, an oil painting that was awarded a gold medal at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. From 1873 to 1875, Key is believed to have studied at European art academies in Munich and Paris before establishing a studio in Boston. His tenure in Boston was a season of heightened productivity and praise. In 1877, a selection of charcoal drawings shown at the Boston Athenaeum was noted as “among the best ever shown in Boston, firm and masterly, strong and graceful." Key’s final years were spent in Baltimore, where he died in 1920.

Key’s works are represented in important museum collections across the country, including the White House Historical Association, Fine Art Museums of San Francisco, University of Michigan Art Museum, Missouri History Museum, Morris Museum of Art, and Greenville County (SC) Museum of Art.

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina
www.thejohnsoncollection.org

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery:
Bombardment scenes gained John Ross Key quite a reputation while he was stationed in Charleston in 1863.  Aside from painting scenes of Fort Sumter, he was a grandson of Francis Scott Key, the author of The Star Spangled Banner.

John Ross Key had shown great talent for drawing as a boy, which led to a job as a draftsman and mapmaker with the United States Coast Survey in the 1850's.  Later, while on assignment in New York City in 1856 and 1857, he is said to have studied at the National Academy of Design.

Key and seven other grandsons of Francis Scott Key, chose the Confederacy at the outbreak of the Civil War.  He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Confederate Engineers, and in August 1863 was ordered to Charleston, where he remained until early 1865.  Key's official duties included drawing maps of Charleston harbor.  We also know from confederate newspaper articles that Key painted scenes of Fort Sumter during the war, which were scheduled to be engraved in 1864.

In April or May 1865, Key returned to Baltimore, where former Confederate soldiers and sympathizers congregated, and painted a large, panoramic view of Drewry's Bluff, Virginia, on the James River near Richmond.  Key then spent the summer sketching along the slopes of Cheat Mountain, West Virginia.  By December he was able to exhibit at Butler, Perrigo and Way three large paintings of Fort Sumter under bombardment, presumably painted during the autumn of 1865.  One was a panoramic view of Charleston harbor showing Fort Sumter being attacked by monitors.  The latter painting was the subject of a description on the front page of the Baltimore Gazette in December, 1865.

Key's Fort Sumter paintings were mentioned in The Cosmopolite, a monthly magazine published briefly in Baltimore in 1866 by Key's Confederate friend T. C. DeLeon.  Its critic specifically referred to the general view of Charleston harbor as a "panoramic view."  Panoramic was a term that described severely horizontal, topographical paintings.

After their enthusiastic reception in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., the Sumter paintings were exhibited a the Snedecor Gallery in New York City, where the critic for the New York Evening Post for March 9, 1866, remarked: "The exhibition of Mr. Key's three historical pictures illustrating the bombardment of Fort Sumter . . . continues to attract a large number of spectators, especially among those who were at any time personal actors in the scenes represented."

Key's Fort Sumter paintings attracted a great deal of attention for works by an unknown Confederate artist.  One of them earned him a mention in Henry T. Tuckerman's Book of the Artists in 1867: "Key . . . has shown great talent in his picture of Fort Sumter."  The pictures were also remembered in New York; when Key exhibited landscapes there in 1869, the Evening Post critic recalled in the issue of June 15 that Key's "earliest considerable efforts were pictures of Fort Sumter and the entrance to Charleston harbor."

Key exhibited at the National Academy of Design, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Boston Athenaeum.  In 1877, he exhibited at least 100 works in Boston.  The critics praised the show, saying that Key's "charcoal drawings are among the best ever shown in Boston, firm and masterly, strong and graceful."

Key died in Baltimore in 1920.

MEMBERSHIPS: Boston Art Club; Society of Washington (D.C.) artists.

MEMBERSHIPS: National Academy of Design, New York; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; Boston Athenaeum; Centennial Exposition, 1876, Philadelphia (medal).

WORKS REPRESENTED: Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Amon Cater Museum of Western Art, Fort Worth, Texas; other museums in the U.S.

Excerpts taken from The Magazine Antiques, February 1986, and American Art Analog, Volume I, Zellman, Michael David, Chelsea House Publishers, 986, page 252.

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at registrar@AskART.com.


John Key is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Civil War Art

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