William Keith was the giant of California landscape painters during the late nineteenth century, attaining national recognition at a time when few West Coast artists were widely known. At the age of twelve he emigrated to New York with his widowed mother. Six years later he was apprenticed to a wood engraver. While working as an engraver for the publishing firm of Harper Brothers, he was sent on assignment to San Francisco in 1858 or 1859. Determined to reside in California, he returned West within the year.
He worked as an engraver until his wife encouraged him to paint. His first paintings were watercolors, and in the late 1860s he turned to oils, prompted by a commission to depict sites along the Northwest Coast route of the Oregon Navigation and Railroad Company. In 1868 he visited Yosemite for the first time. In 1870 he spent about six months in Düsseldorf, where he studied with Albert Flamm (1823-1906).
Keith developed an intimate knowledge of the Sierras through visits he made with his close friend, the naturalist John Muir. He sketched far afield, hiking through Utah in the company of the photographer Carleton Watkins (1829-1916) in 1873-74 and visiting the California missions in 1882 and Alaska in 1886. In late 1882 Keith left for Europe, residing in Munich for three years but traveling throughout the Continent.
Keith’s art falls into two distinct phases. From 1865 to 1882 he depicted California scenery in realistic, panoramic views. After 1882 most of his paintings were less grandiose and more in the Barbizon tradition-intimate and softly shadowed glades that convey a poetic mood rather than being described in detail. Several factors caused this change in style: the emotional upheaval caused by the death of his wife; his new friendship with the Reverend Joseph Worcester, head of the Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco; and his study in Munich.
His late, poetic landscapes were compared with the art of GEORGE INNESS (who was a follower of Swedenborg) and J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851). When Inness visited California in 1891 he worked in Keith’s studio and accompanied him on sketching trips. During the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 two thousand of Keith’s paintings were destroyed.
Emily P. B. Hay, William Keith as Prophet Painter (1916; reprint, San Francisco: Kenneth Starosciak Bookseller, 1981) § "William Keith," California Art Research Project 2 (December 1936): 1-66, with lists of works, exhibitions, and collections, bibliography § Eugen Neuhaus, William Keith: The Man and the Artist (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1938) § Fidelis Cornelius, Keith: Old Master of California (New York: Putnam’s, 1942), supplemental volume (Fresno: Academy Library Guild, 1956) § Alfred C. Harrison, Jr., William Keith: The Saint Mary’s College Collection, ed. Ann Harlow (Moraga, Calif: Hearst Art Gallery, Saint Mary’s College, 1988), collection catalogue, with provenances, lists of exhibitions, literature references, published in conjunction with an exhibition held at Hearst Art Gallery, Saint Mary’s College, Moraga, Calif, 1988.