(1838 – 1911)
Keith arrived in New York
as a boy in 1850. He travelled widely with the
photographer Carleton E. Watkins and the naturalist and conservationist John
Muir, who called him a “poet-painter.” Keith arrived in Yosemite Valley with a
letter of introduction from a mutual friend, Jeanne Carr, in1872. Flor Hutchings led Keith and two other painters to Muir who
was at his cabin below the Royal Arches. Keith inquired whether Muir knew of
any views that would make a picture. Muir replied that he did, and two days
later led a group of four (Keith, Irwin Benoni,
Thomas Ross, and Merrill Moores) to the upper Tuolumne River area. As it turned out, Willie and
Johnnie, as they soon called each other, were born in the same year in Scotland. They
became close friends for the next forty years, until Keith's death in 1911.
Keith wrote in his journal that “When we got to Mount
Lyell, it was the grandest thing I ever saw. It was late in
October, and at an elevation of 10,000 feet. The frost had changed the grasses
and a kind of willow to the most brilliant yellows and reds; these contrasting
with the two-leafed pine and Williamson spruce, the
cold gray rocks, the colder snow, made a glorious sight.” Muir reported the
outing rather differently, writing that when they rounded a corner and Mt.
Lyell came into view, “Keith dashed forward, shouting and gesticulating and
waving his arms like a madman.” Keith, an epicure, also wrote
that Muir was a poor provider on their outings, and that he tired of bread,
dried meat, and sugarless coffee.
Using canvasses as large as 10
feet, Keith’s early landscapes showed the grandeur and scale of the Sierras. It
was a world that few in the American East could have dreamed existed. While
Muir’s words could fire the Eastern imagination, Keith’s paintings made those
imaginings concrete. Later in life, Muir asked Keith to accompany him on two
final trips, in 1907 and 1909, to California’s
Hetchy Valley. Muir's final environmental
crusade was to save the Hetch
Hetchy Valley from being flooded in order to serve as a
reservoir for San Francisco.
Muir held up Keith’s paintings of the valley during a plea before Congress,
asking members to “preserve (the valley) in pure wildness for all time for the
benefit of the entire nation.” Keith was also one of the founders of the Sierra
Keith completed many thousands
of paintings, some of which were lost in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.
Mount Lyell, California
from Glacier Point, 1879
Sentinel Rock, 1872
Headwaters of the Merced, 1901
The Crown of the Sierra, unk
High Sierra Canyon, 1876
Three Brothers, 1869
El Capitan, unk
Stream in the Sierra
Sierra River Landscape, unk
In the Sierra Nevada Mountains,
California Pines, 1878
Mono Pass, 1877
Hetch Hetchy Side Canyon,
Donner Pass, 1895
Hay, Emily H. William Keith as Prophet Painter. (Kenneth Starosciak Bookseller),1983.
St. Mary’s College. William Keith: The Saint Mary's College Collection),
Eugen Neuhaus. William
Keith: the Man and the Artist. 1938. Berkeley:
University of California Press.
Keith: The Artist and His Times (St. Mary’s
College), 2005. Contact
(925) 631-4379 to order a copy.