William Keith was one of the leading western landscape painters of the late nineteenth century.
Keith was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and emigrated to New York with his family in 1850. He apprenticed with a wood engraver and later worked for Harper Brothers publishers. He may first have visited California in 1858 on assignment, but also visited Scotland that same year, and worked at the London Daily News.
In 1859, Keith moved to San Francisco where he worked for an engraver before setting up his own engraving shop with a partner. He first studied painting with Samuel Brookes in 1863, and took watercolor instruction from his wife, Elizabeth Emerson, whom he married in 1864. In 1868, Keith gave up engraving to pursue painting full time, encouraged by having received a commission from a steamship company to paint landscapes along the Columbia River.
In 1869, the Keiths left for Dusseldorf, Germany where William studied with Albert Flamm and Andreas Achenbach, although he did not enroll at the Royal Academy. More influential on his style of painting were the French Barbizon painters who emphasized mood and emotion over the dramatized realism of the German romantic painters. Leaving Europe, the Keiths spent the winter of 1871-72 painting in the Boston studio of William Hahn. The Barbizon and other “modern French” paintings had become popular on the east coast, and Keith’s canvases received critical acclaim at exhibitions in Boston and New York.
After returning to San Francisco in 1872, Keith joined the Bohemian Club and started exhibiting his work there. He met naturalist John Muir that same year and the two became lifelong friends. Muir led the painter into seldom visited landscapes around California, especially in his beloved Sierra Nevada and Yosemite. During the 1870s, Keith completed several eight by ten foot paintings of High Sierra views which were thought to rival the monumental canvases of Thomas Hill, the other renowned California landscape painter of the era.
Elizabeth Keith died in 1882, and the next year William married Mary McHenry a pioneering female law school graduate. The couple soon left for Munich where Keith studied portrait painting for two years. Returning to California, the Keiths settled in Berkeley although William maintained a studio in San Francisco, commuting each day on the ferry. The studio burned in the earthquake and fire of 1906, and Keith is said to have lost as many as 2000 paintings.
After a trip to Alaska in 1887, Keith mounted a show at the Bohemian Club he titled Dreams of Alaska. These paintings were not literal translations of the views he sketched on location, but rather “fantasies of a poetical nature” as the catalogue from the show reported. Following his second trip to Europe, Keith’s style of painting had become even looser and more evocative under influence of the French landscapists. By the 1890s, he had pushed this “suggestive” approach to capturing the landscape into the realm of tonalism, perhaps partially influenced by George Innes who painted in Keith’s studio for several weeks in 1891. The two also painted together in Monterey and Yosemite, and both were Swedenborgians, which probably drove their search for the spiritual truths of the landscape that lay behind its surface appearances. Paintings made during the last two decades of Keith’s life tend to be smaller, darker, and moodier than his brighter and more evenly lighted early work.
Keith exhibited widely from the 1870s until his death, including participation in international expositions, museum shows, and solo shows in London and at the Macbeth Gallery in New York. He received numerous awards for his work. Four years after his death, Keith was honored with an entire room devoted to his paintings at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.