William Keith
Scottish-American painter



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William Keith
Scottish-American painter
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ldewey's picture


Scottish-born William Keith began as a wood engraver in his hometown of Aberdeen, but upon arriving in California totally fell in love with the mountains and became the foremost San Francisco artist of the 19th century.

He was really good pals with John Muir, who was the same age and had also emigrated from Scotland. After Keith first visited Muir in Yosemite Valley with a letter of introduction from a mutual friend, the two men struck up a fast friendship that spanned the next 38 years. Their unabashed bromance often took the form of relentless criticism of each other’s work. Who needs enemies when you have a friend like John Muir?

This was especially true in the case of Keith’s romantic side, which led to a fair few imaginary mountain ranges and canyons cropping up in his paintings once the two were back at the studio. Muir, as a decidedly uptight naturalist, majorly disapproved of these embellishments and basically bullied Keith out of his Bob Ross tendencies.

William Keith’s legacy continues to this day-- Keith Avenue in Berkeley is named after him, Mount Keith was dedicated to him in July 1896, and San Francisco’s 1898 Mayor published a book of sonnets based on Keith’s paintings. St. Mary’s College of California owns a whopping 180 of William Keith’s paintings, which they exhibit twice a year.

This widespread fame was largely due to Keith’s strong personality and knack for business, which landed him the financially successful career that has so often eluded living artists.

amcneary's picture


Keith's grandiose landscapes brought nature to common folk during a time when wilderness adventure was only for a hardy few. A close pal of John Muir, the two would trek into the wilds of California together to paint and study. 

They had what they called a 'tough friendship', a no-holds-barred kind of bromance where they'd dole out frank feedback and criticism on one another's work.

Keith's romantic streak led him to embellish his paintings once back in his studio, often adding mountain ranges, rivers, and canyons that hadn't been part of his observations. This drove Muir, the ever-observant naturalist, completely nuts. 

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Here is what Wikipedia says about William Keith (artist)

William Keith (November 18, 1838 – April 13, 1911) was a Scottish-American painter famous for his California landscapes. He is associated with Tonalism and the American Barbizon school. Although most of his career was spent in California, he started out in New York, made two extended study trips to Europe, and had a studio in Boston in 1871-72 and one in New York in 1880.

Early life

Keith was born in Oldmeldrum, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, where he was raised at first by his grandparents, his father having died months before he was born. William claimed to have been a direct descendant of the noble Clan Keith. He emigrated with his mother and sisters to the United States in 1850. They settled in New York City, where he attended school for several years and became an apprentice wood engraver in 1856. He was hired to do illustrations for Harper's Magazine. In 1858 he visited Scotland and England and briefly worked for the London Daily News. He was then offered an opportunity in San Francisco and sailed there in May 1859.

     My subjective pictures are the ones that come from the inside. I feel some emotion and I immediately paint a picture that expresses it. The sentiment is the only thing of real value in my pictures, and only a few people understand that. Suppose I want to paint something recalling meditation or repose. If people do not feel that sensation when my work is completed, they do not appreciate nor realize the picture. The fact that they like it means nothing. Any one who can use paint and brushes can paint a true scene of nature — that is an objective picture. The artist must not depend on extraneous things. There is no reality in his art if he must depend on outside influences — it must come from within.

William Keith, from 1913 Exhibition booklet, Art Institute of Chicago

Check out the full Wikipedia article about William Keith (artist).