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" and "California's Old Master."
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.
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.
Keith’s first wife 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. His studio was in San Francisco where he commuted daily, painted prolifically, and taught many classes, mostly for aspiring female artists.
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. 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. 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.
He completed thousands of paintings and drawings, and many of them were lost in his studio in the fire of 1906. Keith died April 13, 1911, and his work is in most of the institutions representing major California artists.
Honors accorded him 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 has a collection of Keith paintings established by his biographer, Brother Cornelius; and in 1956 the William Keith Memorial Gallery opened at the Oakland Public Library. Streets in Oakland and Berkeley are named for him.
Exhibited: 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: AskArt; Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940”