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Painted Essays: William Keith's Landscapes of the American West


The Art Museum of Southeast Texas (AMSET) is presenting Painted Essays: William Keith's Landscapes of the West, scheduled to open on August 16 and run through October 5, 2003.

This is the story of three men: the man who helped create Yosemite National Park, a landscape painter and a monk.


The environmentalist and the painter

When Scotsman William Keith (1838-1911) trekked up to the door of a rustic cabin in the Yosemite Valley in 1872, he walked into the life of a kinsman in spirit, another Scot, and another passionate lover of the grand California landscape. He was famous naturalist John Muir. They were each 34 years old, and each had emigrated from Scotland to the United States as a child. The two men, both drawn to the unbridled natural wonders of California, became spiritual brothers in their love of America's most magnificent mountain range that day.

Through nearly 40 years of friendship, Muir and Keith rejoiced in the spectacular landscape of California's Sierra Nevada Mountain Range ("The Range of Light"). Muir, known as the father of the National Park system and the founder of the Sierra Club, chose to capture the majesty of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in words. William Keith chose to paint the Sierras in bold and precise colors.

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 Hetch Hetchy Valley. Muir said he wanted Keith to paint, "its sublime cliffs, crystal river, exquisite waterfalls and flowery, park-like floor." (right: Mount Tamalpais, Golden Morning 1872

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."

Born in Oldmeldrum, Scotland in 1838, Keith immigrated to New York with his family in 1851, then to San Francisco in 1859. There he worked as an engraver and illustrator before painting entranced him. His initial successes included painting landscapes along the routes of the Northern Pacific and Oregon Railroad companies. But, after meeting Muir, his style changed forever; his very objective style became a more subjective and passionate style. Keith soon became California's leading artist with national recognition.


Enter the monk

During a 1908 visit to Muir's home, a monk, Brother F. Cornelius Braeg, saw Keith's paintings for the first time. He was so moved by the paintings and by Muir's accounts of their mountain adventures together that he devoted the rest of his life to the study of William Keith's life and work.

Cornelius, professor of art at Saint Mary's College in Moraga, California (http://www.stmarys-ca.edu/arts/art_gallery/keith/) and an avid mountaineer, wrote a 900-page biography of Keith and collected more than 100 of Keith's paintings for Saint Mary's College over three decades. His legacy lives on in the Keith Room of the college's Hearst Art Gallery.

More than 50 of Keith's finest works are on loan to AMSET from the Hearst, which houses the largest public collection of Keith's works. Painted Essays is part of a 12-city national tour, organized by Smith Kramer Fine Art Services, an exhibition tour development company in Kansas City, Missouri.



William Keith: The Saint Mary's College Collection, Second Printing with Supplement, 1994 (158 pages) Major essay by Alfred Harrison; full texts of five essays and lectures by William Keith; catalog listings and black-and-white illustrations of 135 Keith paintings; 39 color plates; and more.


William Keith: The Artist and His Times, 1995 (23 minutes) When William Keith arrives in California in 1859, he begins a fifty-year artistic and emotional journey. His early paintings strive to capture the drama of the Western wilderness, but by the 1890s, Keith paints subtle, intimate landscapes that reveal his artistic and spiritual maturity. In this documentary, more than fifty of Keith's paintings show the range of his artistic vision. Historic photographs, footage of California scenes today, and the words of the artist, his friend John Muir, and their contemporaries help tell the story of this remarkable artist and his times.

Editor's Note: Please see an earlier article in this magazine, Painted Essays: William Keith's Landscapes of the West (7/10/03).

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Art Museum of Southeast Texas in Resource Library Magazine.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

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