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Painted Essays: William Keith's Landscapes of the West

June 6, 2003 ­ July 27, 2003


Presented by The Hearst Art Gallery, Saint Mary's College of California, this exhibition contains more than 50 paintings that epitomize William Keith's reputation as a painter of grand panoramic landscapes, often of the High Sierra or other western mountain ranges. This exhibition portrays the landscapes of the American Far West as pristine vistas unspoiled by the touch of civilization. Keith's deep and enduring love of nature was one of several bonds between him and John Muir, a founder of the Sierra Club and the father of the National Parks system. Both Keith and Muir were born in Scotland in 1838 and both immigrated to the United States in their youth, though the two did not meet until 1872 in the Yosemite Valley. (right: William Keith, Untitled)

Whereas earlier Western artists and writers had given their audiences a kind of romantic theater on canvas and in print, Keith and Muir were conscious of the great changes playing out in the development of their beloved West. They shared a transcendent view of nature, reveling in its beauty, majesty, and mystery. The two camped together in the Sierra Nevada range and the Northwest, saw each other when Muir was in the San Francisco area, and helped inspire each other's work. Muir directly influenced many of Keith's early Yosemite scenes, encouraged him to reproduce the precise landscape details, was his foremost interpreter, and greatly enhanced his fame.

Like contemporaries George Inness, Winslow Homer, and Albert Pinkham Ryder, Keith turned gradually from the objective to the subjective in his painting, from detailed, precise depictions of specific places to the use of landscape elements to express and evoke feelings. While remaining faithful to John Muir's ideal that art must be a true representation of nature, Keith also became enthusiastic about a more reflective approach to capturing the natural world on canvas. The transition of Keith's art from journalistic reporting to spiritual expression is consistent with and parallels the transitions that took place in literature around the same period, especially in the writings of Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, and Herman Melville. The writings of John Ruskin and Ralph Waldo Emerson further shaped his aesthetic instincts, as his landscapes became even looser in brushstroke and moodier in effect. Along with his characteristic scenes of mountain grandeur, he was also painting darkly hued forest glades at sunset.

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