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 William Keith  (1838 - 1911)

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Lived/Active: California / Scotland      Known for: plein-aire landscape painting, history, genre, portrait

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William Keith
from Auction House Records.
YOSEMITE VALLEY
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
A native of Scotland, William Keith became in the late 19th and early 20th centuries a leading Northern-California landscape artist.  In fact, he was so well known that he is referred to as the "Dean of California painters."  His romanticized views of nature found much favor among the culturally aspiring citizens of San Francisco and hung in many foyers and dining rooms in their elegant homes.  He completed thousands of paintings and drawings, and many of them were lost in his studio in the fire of 1906.

His early works are dramatic mountainscapes in a realistic style adopted from the Dusseldorf School of Germany.  The paintings of the last two decades of his life are looser and obviously influenced by his exposure in France to the Barbizon School of landscape painters, who were the first colony of painters to complete paintings "en plein air," or directly from nature rather than in studios.  A forerunner of Impressionism, this style also included Tonalism espoused by Barbizon painter Camille Corot [1796-1875] and also apparent in Keith's later works, which are darker, smaller, and much more intimate with emphasis on mood.

Born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, Keith came to New York with his family and, apprenticed to a wood engraver.  In 1859, he moved to San Francisco where he worked for an engraver and later set up his own engraving business.  Studying with Samuel Marsden Brookes in 1863, he determined to become a painter.

He married artist Elizabeth Emerson and did watercolor painting with her guidance.  In 1868, he became a full-time painter, and that same year was commissioned to paint scenes along the Columbia River including Mount Hood.  By August 1869 he had sold enough paintings to finance an extended journey to the East Coast and Europe including Dusseldorf, Germany throughout most of 1870, studying with Albert Flamm.  After a visit to Paris, he expressed great admiration for "the modern school of French landscape painting including the Barbizon School.

During the winter of 1871-1872, the Keiths lived in Boston where they shared a studio with William Hahn.  Keith's work received critical acclaim there and in New York at the National Academy of Design.

In 1872, he returned to San Francisco. A friendship with naturalist John Muir exposed Keith to many remote places and in-depth knowledge of nature. During the 1870s, he painted several "epic" eight by ten-foot High Sierra views.  He also visited Alaska, and his paintings of Alaska were exhibited upon his return to San Francisco in a show at the Bohemian Club, titled 'Dreams of Alaska'.  Keith's Alaska works are significant because they are not close transcriptions of actual scenery, but rather are fantasies inspired by Alaska.  They are important as they represent a major break from the documentary tradition in landscape painting of Alaska, as they show an interest in capturing its spirit versus just the topography.

The first wife of William Keith died in 1882, and in 1883, he married Mary McHenry, the first woman graduate of Hastings Law School.  They soon went to Europe, and Keith studied portrait painting in Munich with consultations from J. Frank Currier and Carl Marr for two years.  Keith then settled for the remainder of his life in Berkeley, California, at 2207 Atherton Street. His studio was in San Francisco where he commuted daily, painted prolifically, and taught many classes, mostly for aspiring female artists .

In 1891, he shared his studio for several weeks with East Coast Tonalist George Inness, Sr. [1825-1894]. Both men painted in a similar style and were followers of the mystical teachings of Swedenborg. Among the locations where Inness and Keith painted together were Monterey and Yosemite, and it was reported they discussed art from every possible angle. Under Inness' influence, Keith painted more than ever in a Barbizon-influenced vein with many sunset and twilight scenes.

By the early 1900s, Keith was likely one of the wealthiest artists in the United States and certainly earned the most money of any California-based artist.  People from all over the world sought out his studio where it was said that he would specially select a painting for a client from behind a black velvet curtain, order everyone to be quiet, part the curtains, and set the work on a easel, flooded in light.  It was unthinkable not to buy a painting on these occasions.  Many of his paintings were shown in New York at the Macbeth Gallery, and in 1898, he had a special exhibition in New York.

Keith died April 13, 1911, and his work is in most of the institutions representing major California artists. Saint Mary's College in Moraga, California has a collection of Keith paintings established by his biographer, Brother Cornelius.

CHRONOLOGY
1838 Born in Scotland
1850 Family moves to New York
1856 Becomes wood engraver's apprentice
1859 Moves to San Francisco, works as wood engraver
1863 Takes painting lessons from Samuel Marsden Brookes
1866 Begins exhibiting watercolors, including Yosemite views
1868(?) Begins painting oil landscapes; hired to paint in Northwest by Oregon Navigation & Railroad Co.
1869-70 To Maine and New York, then Düsseldorf; visits Paris (paints Mt. Tamalpais)
1871-72 Back to Maine, then Boston and back to San Francisco
1872 Meets John Muir and camps with him and artists Benoni Irwin and Thomas Ross near Mt. Lyell
1870s Paints numerous large-scale "epics" of Sierras, Tamalpais and Shasta
1880 Spends several months in New England, New York and Philadephia
1883 Marries Mary McHenry after death of Elizabeth Emerson Keith; tours and paints California missions on "honeymoon"; then to Munich via New York, New England and Washington, D.C.
1883-85 Lives in Munich, focusing on learning portraiture; gets critiques from  J. Frank Currier and Carl Marr
1885 Returns to S.F. via Paris; moves to Berkeley
1886 Visits Alaska; paints several Alaska landscapes
1888 Gives lecture on landscape painting at UC Berkeley
1891 Spends several weeks working alongside George Inness in studio, Monterey and Yosemite; paints FAMSF Glory of the Heavens
1893 Solo exhibition at Macbeth Gallery, New York; included in World's Columbian Exhibition, Chicago; travels to Chicago, New York, Glasgow, London, Paris and Madrid
1895-1905 At peak of recognition and prosperity; paints in wide range of styles; commissioned to paint two large murals for St. Francis Hotel (destroyed in 1906 fire along with many other Keith paintings); another European trip includes Amsterdam
1907 Solo shows of new work at Macbeth Gallery, New York, and Blanchard Gallery, Los Angeles; visits and paints Hetch Hetchy Canyon
1909-11 Gradually failing health and death

Written and submitted by Ann Harlow.

Sources:
Cornelius, Brother F. Keith, Old Master of California. New York, 1942, and vol. 2, Fresno, 1956.

Harrison, Alfred C., Jr., and Ann Harlow. William Keith: The Saint Mary's College Collection. Moraga, 1988, and Supplement, 1994.

Hjalmarson, Birgitta. Artful Players: Artistic Life in Early San Francisco. Los Angeles, 1999.

Moure, Nancy Dustin Wall. California Art: 450 Years of Painting and Other Media. Los Angeles, 1998.


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Aberdeen, Scotland on Nov. 21, 1838. In 1850 Keith immigrated with his family to New York where, as a teenager, he was apprenticed to a wood engraver. He is believed to have come to San Francisco for two months in 1858 as an employee of Harper Brothers publishers. Following this assignment, he visited Scotland and worked in England for the London Daily News. Having saved enough money, he returned to San Francisco in 1859 and opted to remain. He went to work in the engraving shop of Harrison Eastman and later established his own engraving business with Durbin Van Vleck at 611 Clay Street. Keith became interested in painting and first studied with Samuel Brookes in 1863. The following year he married artist Elizabeth Emerson and, under her tutelage, began painting in watercolor. In 1868 he gave up engraving to devote full time to painting. The following year the Keiths were in Düsseldorf where he studied with Flamm and Achenbach. After visiting the galleries and museums of Dresden and Paris, they returned to the U.S. and had a studio in Boston which they shared with artist Wm Hahn. Upon returning to San Francisco in 1872, he joined the Bohemian Club and began exhibiting. Keith met naturalist John Muir who took him into the most remote parts of Yosemite, taught him the names of the trees and plants, and thoroughly acquainted him with nature's wonders. Keith's wife died in 1882, and one year later he married Mary McHenry who was the first woman to graduate from Hastings Law School. In 1883 Keith made his second trip to Europe to study portraiture with Carl Marr in Munich for three years. Shortly after returning to California, the Keiths moved to Berkeley into a home at 2207 Atherton where Keith was to live until his demise on April 13, 1911. His oeuvre can be divided into two periods: his early works are often mountain epics in descriptive realism as espoused by the Düsseldorf School; whereas, the paintings done during the last two decades of his life are more closely akin to those of the Barbizon painters. His later paintings are darker, smaller and more intimate with emphasis on mood. Keith commuted daily by ferry to his San Francisco studio and many of his later works are pastoral landscapes of Berkeley with oak trees, cows, and ponds which he sketched en route. He painted nearly 4,000 oil paintings of which 2,000 burned in the fire of 1906. (In an effort to recoup his losses Keith turned out hundreds of potboilers in his last five years.) The women artists who studied under Keith are many; he seldom took male pupils. His style was copied by several artists and there are forgeries in existence. He has been called "Dean of California Artists" and "California's Old Master." Honors accorded Keith include an entire room devoted to his work at the PPIE of 1915; the Keith Gallery was opened in 1934 at St Mary's College in Moraga; and in 1956 the William Keith Memorial Gallery opened at the Oakland Public Library. Streets in Oakland and Berkeley are named for him. Exh: Calif. State Fair, 1872-94 (medals); SFAA, 1872-1911; Mechanics' Inst. (SF), 1874-1911 (medals); NAD, 1882; World’s Columbian Expo (Chicago), 1893; Calif. Midwinter Expo, 1894; London, 1897 (solo); Pan-American Expo (Buffalo), 1901 (bronze medal); Lewis & Clark Expo (Portland), 1905; Del Monte Art Gallery, 1907-12; Alaska-Yukon Expo (Seattle), 1909 (gold medal). In: LACMA; CHS; CGA; MM; Nevada Museum (Reno); Crocker Museum (Sacramento); AIC; Oakland Museum; Southwest Museum (LA); NMAA; Mills College (Oakland); UC Berkeley; Stanford Univ.; Boston Museum; Bohemian Club; De Young Museum; Calif. State Capitol; Cleveland Museum; Carnegie Inst.; Brooklyn Museum; Orange Co. (CA) Museum; Jonathan Club (LA).
Source:
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
From Frontier to Fire; Bay of San Francisco; California Art Research, 20 volumes; New York Historical Society's Dictionary of Artists in America (Groce, George C. and David H. Wallace); History & Ideals of American Art (Neuhaus); Keith, Old Master of California (Brother Cornelius); Art in California (R. L. Bernier, 1916); Art News, 4-22-1911 (obituary).
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.

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
WILLIAM KEITH -IN ALASKA

Drawn to Alaska by the urging of his friend John Muir, William Keith took a cruise along its Southeast and South Central coasts in the summer of 1806 to paint landscapes.  A year after his return to San Francisco he exhibited at the Bohemian Club the paintings resulting from that trip, including Cordova Bay, Prince William Sound.   In the soft-focus image of a quiet cove in the Sound, the color and tonal range is subdued and the paint handled in a loose, sure manner that ignores detail in favor of an overall effect.   This painting chronicles a change in the way artists were seeing and dealing with the Alaskan landscape.

His 1886 trip to Alaska almost immediately followed Keith's return to America from Munich, where his studies had reinforced his growing desire to paint in a broader, moodier, and more evocative style.  He was at this time more influenced by the French Barbizon painters than by his contemporaries Thomas Hill, Albert Bierstadt, and Frederic Church.  The late 1880s are sometimes characterized as a watershed period for the painter.

It is perhaps significant in this regard that Keith called his 1887 exhibition at the Bohemian Club 'Dreams of Alaska'.  As noted in a catalogue of a retrospective of his work: "From this title we are to infer that these paintings are not close transcriptions of actual scenery, but fantasies of a poetical nature inspired by Alaska".  If this is true, and the works seem to support such a reading, then Keith's may be the first Alaska paintings to be 'inspired by', rather than simply 'descriptive of' the magnificent Northern Coast landscape.  Although others took interpretive liberties, we see in Keith's work the beginnings of a primary interest in capturing on canvas the spirit of the Alaskan landscape as opposed to its topography. Although some time passed before Keith's example was followed and expanded, it represents a major break from the documentary tradition in landscape painting of Alaska.


Source:
Bohemian Club of San Francisco, 1887 Exhibition Catalogue

Biography from Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers, II:
Brought to New York City in 1850, William Keith was apprenticed to a wood engraver in 1856 working for "Harper’s" magazine. In 1858 (or 1859) he visited California for "Harper’s" and then after a trip to Great Britain, settled in California as an engraver in 1862. He began exhibiting paintings in 1864 in San Francisco where he opened his studio, after having been taught painting by his wife.

The Northern Pacific Railroad commissioned him to do landscape paintings along its route about 1868. In 1869-70 he studied in Dusseldorf, Germany; in 1871-72, he shared a studio in Boston with William Hahn; and in 1872, he returned to California. A nature lover, he found there was “scarcely a mountain in three-fourths of California where he had not kept vigil for days as a time, studying every detail of color, flower, rock, forge, shadow, and sunshine.”

Keith became Thomas Hill’s rival in monumental landscapes, saying, “I’d be satisfied if I could reach the power and success of Tom Hill.”

When George Inness visited California in 1890, he worked in Keith’s studio for many weeks, and they made sketching trips together. The result for Keith was an influenced style reflecting the subjective rather than the spectacular. His "Majesty of the Oaks" painting sold at auction in New York City in 1903 for $2,300., and about the same time "Glory of the Heaven" sold at auction in San Francisco for $12,000.

Of medium height with unruly curly hair, Keith had his studio next to the live oaks on the Berkeley campus where it was the center of the university-oriented California culture. The 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed 2,000 of Keith’s works.

Resource:
Peggy and Harold Samuels, "Encyclopedia of ARTISTS of THE AMERICAN WEST


Biography from The North Point Gallery:
William Keith rivalled Thomas Hill as the most accomplished and successful landscape painter working in California during the 19th century. After two years spent studying art in Düsseldorf, Paris and Boston, Keith returned to California in 1872 as a sophisticated painter whose work drew on several prevailing styles popular in the cultural centers of the world. Many of his paintings reflect the influence of the "Hudson River School" and depict sublime mountain scenery à la Church or Bierstadt.

But at the same time as he was painting alpine panoramas, Keith also focused on the more intimate landscapes of the French Barbizon movement that had come to the forefront of Parisian art appreciation during the 1860s. Barbizon painters adopted a more natural and impressionistic style than that of the academic painters; their works often communicate a rougher and stronger presence of nature than sweeter, more sentimental academic landscapes. Major works of the English painter John Constable, exhibited at Paris Salons of the 1820s, influenced the Barbizon painters in the direction of this stronger style.

Biography from William A. Karges Fine Art - Carmel:
William Keith was one of California’s earliest artists. A native of Aberdeen, Scotland, Keith settled permanently in San Francisco in 1859. Keith’s early works are most closely aligned with the romantic vision of the Hudson River School artists. His clear, crisp, monumental vistas were a common sight in the homes of San Francisco’s wealthy elite.

The latter part of Keith’s oeuvre was focused onsmaller, more intimate scenes more closely aligned with the French Barbizon artists. Keith’s brush was dramatically loosened, as his emphasis was shifted to tonal moods.

Immensely influential and prolific, Keith taught (primarily women) in his studio throughout his career. It’s believed that 1000-2000 of Keith’s paintings were lost in the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire.

Four years after his death, an entire room was devoted to Keith’s work in the 1915 Panama-Pacific international Exhibition.

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


William Keith is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Painters of Grand Canyon
Notable Alaska
California Painters
Tonalism



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