Born in Scotland in 1838, William Keith immigrated to New York with his family in 1850. As a teenager he apprenticed to a wood engraver and later traveled to San Francisco, Scotland, and England plying his skills before settling in San Francisco in 1859 where he set up an engraving shop on Clay Street. Keith became interested in painting in 1863 when he began studing with still-life artist Samuel Brookes at his Clay Street studio. Brookes was a founding member of both the Bohemian Club and the San Francisco Art Association. Later, Keith began studying watercolor painting under the guidance of his wife, artist Elizabeth Emerson. In 1868 he gave up engraving to become a fulltime painter accepting commissions by the Northern Pacific Railroad to paint scenes along its routes in the Pacific Northwest, including scenes of Mount Hood and the Columbia River.
By 1869 Keith’s success with painting financed travel to Europe to study with the German Dusseldorf romantic landscape painters who favored detailed, realistic landscapes with fanciful, allegorical themes influenced by both the plein air and tonalist art movements. Keith’s style would continue to mature as he revisited Europe four times during his career. On his first trip he met fellow art student William Hahn. In Paris he studied with the Barbizon School before returning to America to share a studio with Hahn in Boston before they both moved to San Francisco in 1872 where they continued to share a studio. Hahn became one of the best known genre painters of the American West. On his return to San Francisco Keith met and forged a close friendship with naturalist John Muir. Keith and Muir later joined efforts in the unsuccessful campaign to save the Hetch-Hetchy Valley from becoming a reservoir (Jones, 1996). Art historian Dwight C. Miller has called the remarkable friendship between Muir and Keith as “one of the important cultural transactions of the period in California” (Miller1975).
After the death of his first wife, Keith married Mary McHenry, the first woman to graduate from Hastings Law School. He became one of the wealthiest artists in the United States by the early 1900s. Keith seldom accepted male students and was known as an art teacher of emerging women artists whom he introduced to plein air painting at locales such as Lands End (Wilson, 1983). After a second trip to Europe to study portrait painting in Munich, the Keith’s settled permanently in Berkeley, California and William commuted daily by ferry to his studio in San Francisco.
Keith’s early style reflected the realism of the Dusseldorf School in large epic landscapes, including several eight by ten foot paintings of the High Sierras completed in the 1870s. He became the rival of fellow epic landscape painter Thomas Hill and once commented, “I’d be satisfied if I could reach the power and success of Tom Hill” (AskArt, by Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers). Keith’s monumental early landscapes in the romantic realist style graced many homes of wealthy San Franciscans. After a painting trip to Alaska, his show at the Bohemian Club titled “Dreams of Alaska” represented a major break from what has been called the “documentary tradition” (AskArt) of landscape painting. Where previously subject matter dominated the painting, Keith now introduced the Tonalist poetic interpretation of the landscape. In 1891 Keith began painting with Tonalist George Inness on excursions to Monterey and Yosemite. Keith and Inness were followers of the teachings of scientist turned occultist Emanuel Swedenborg whose mystic dreams were revealed during trances and meditation. Swedenborg influenced a number of important writers and artists of the day. In the 1880s and ‘90s the Swedenborgian minister Joseph Worcester urged Keith to paint spiritual visions and much of the artist’s late period was devoted to Swedenborgian visions of dream-like landscapes (Harrison, 1989; Mills, 1956). By 1891 and for the next two decades, Keith’s became a more abstract, emotional painter exhibiting the strong influence of the Barbizon School in smaller and more intimate mood paintings of pastoral sunsets (Hughes 2002; AskArt). Keith had a great influence on other artists of the period and many imitated his style so much that it has been said there was a “cult” (Baird, 1969) following of his later, mystical landscapes. As a result, there are many forgeries by artists copying his style (Hughes, 2002). Keith’s more painterly later style set the stage for the development of modern California painting after the Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915. Occasionally Keith would revert to the more literal landscapes of his earlier style represented by one of the finest paintings in the collection of the Pioneer Society titled California Coast, San Mateo County, which shows the bold influence of the Barbizon School (Harrison, 1989).
Keith was a very prolific artist painting over 4,000 oil paintings in his lifetime, half of which tragically burned in his studio in the earthquake and fire of 1906. In his heyday, collectors from all over the world visited Keith’s studio where the artist would select a painting for clients, order everyone to be quite, and then dramatically reveal the painting from behind a black velvet curtain on an easel flooded in light. Keith died in 1911 and, despite turning out hundreds of lesser paintings that have been called “potboilers” (Hughes, 2002:614) in the last five years of his life in an attempt to recoup the losses from 1906, he is honored as the “Dean of California Painters” (Hughes, 2002:614). When he died at home in 1911, he was both wealthy and famous. An entire room was dedicated to his work at the The Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915 and a special gallery dedicated to his life’s work, the Keith Gallery at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, opened in 1934.
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Harrison, Alfred, Jr. 2010. Catalog: “Discoveries in California Paintings VII.” San Francisco: The North Point Gallery.
Hughes, Edan Milton. 2002. Artists in California 1786-1940. Third Edition. Sacramento: Crocker Art Museum.
Mills, Paul. 1956. Catalog: “Early Paintings of California.” Oakland Art Museum.