Frye Art Museum

Seattle, Washington

(206) 622-9250


William Keith, California's Poet-Painter


Pacheco Pass, 1874, oil on canvas, 14 3/4 x 24 inches, courtesy of St. Mary's Colleege


First tagged a "poet-painter" by the legendary naturalist John Muir, William Keith's rugged turn-of-the-century paintings of Northwest and California landscapes inspired the wilderness preservation movement. Beginning January 30, 1999 and continuing through March 30, 1999, the Frye Art Museum will present over 50 images spanning Keith's entire career in the exhibition William Keith, California's Poet-Painter.

Columbia River, Mt. Shasta, Mt. Hood, the Sierras, Yosemite and other American landmarks were captured on canvas before they were preserved as national parks. With works reminiscent of Albert Bierstadt, Keith left a little-known legacy of grand sweeping vistas that ultimately set the stage for a national park system. A champion of naturalists, Keith was inspired by John Muir to paint the scenery they frequently hiked through. Together they explored lands that Muir fought to preserve.

On other occasions, he traveled up and down the West Coast on assignment. On one such trip, Keith was commissioned by the Oregon Navigation and Railroad Company (1868) to paint dramatic Northwest scenes for promotional posters.

Scots-born, Keith's prolific career began as a wood engraver in New York. He spent the bulk of his career as a landscape artist in San Francisco. His work was influenced by a brief period of study in Dusseldorf (l870s), a period in Munich (1883 -85), and by his belief in the spiritual theories of Swedenborgianism (a religious system based on the teachings of the eighteenth-century scientist and mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg). But the strongest influence came from his contemporary and friend, the painter George Inness with whom Keith shared a studio in San Francisco for a time.

A spiritual presence emanates from Keith's romantic landscapes, reflecting his ideology and belief in nature as an expression of God. Keith's broad strokes of light and dark add depth and drama to familiar American scenes.

Keith's work, which fell from fashion and was forgotten for many years, was preserved and collected by a single man, Brother Cornelius of Saint Mary's College in Northern California. Cornelius, who appreciated the passion and spiritual duality in Keith landscapes, set out to gather an impressive collection, making it his life work. This collection, now housed in the Hearst Art Gallery at the college, reflects the development of one of America's most prolific and influential landscape artists. The Frye reintroduces the artist to Northwest audiences with this exhibition, loaned by the Hearst Art Gallery at Saint Mary's College, Moraga, CA.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 8/24/10

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