The following is the full text of a paper presented to the John Muir Conference, 2006.

William Keith: On the Impossibility of Painting Mountains

By: Jennifer Phelps

April 28, 2005

In October 1872, a young wood-engraver-turned-painter named William Keith eagerly traveled to the Sierra Nevada with a letter of introduction to mountain resident John Muir, naturalist and geologist, enthusiastically searching for a “landscape suitable for a large painting.” 1  Landscape painting was in its prime at that time, and painters in the western United States were actively scouring the surrounding earth’s surfaces for subject matter whose sublimity could rival that of the Alps in Europe or the White Mountains popularized by the Hudson River School of landscape painters on the East Coast.  The Sierra Nevada, higher in elevation than either of these mountain ranges, seemed to be perfect subject matter for asserting the superiority of the Californian landscape over landscapes anywhere else in the world.  William Keith, newly “revealed to [him]self” as a full-time artist, 2 actively and almost exclusively took on this subject matter for the next decade, gaining prominence as one of California’s foremost painters.  This artistic exploration, fueled with the energy of the young artist’s discovery of the powers and limitations of oil painting as a medium, was fraught with constant difficulties and frustrations, ultimately leading Keith to reject the Sierras as unpaintable, contenting himself instead with “very slight material, – a clump of trees, a hillside and a sky.” 3

What caused this eventual and drastic shift in attitude towards the mountains as subject matter?  Certain personal and art historical influences most definitely played a role: the death of Keith’s first wife coupled with continual conflicts with his son, his deepening friendship with the Swedenborgian minister Joseph Worcester, and contact with the Barbizon school of landscape painting have all been cited as affecting his moody and gloomy oak tree paintings of his later years in which mountains are markedly

absent. 4  However, though the effect of these influences can explain a shift in thinking about what was appropriate subject matter as well as a shift in mood of the paintings, they do not fully do justice to Keith’s more extreme rejection of the mountains as inherently unpaintable.  This extremity of position reflects a more subtle force at work.  Ironically, it can be argued that Keith’s absorption of John Muir’s geologic understanding of the continual and eternal forces affecting the formation of the Sierra Nevada mountains greatly contributed to Keith’s eventual declaration of his inability to capture them on canvas.  It is perhaps for this reason that Keith slowly came to rely more and more on religious and art historical influences to guide him through his later artistic production.

William Keith’s early artistic career coincided with a dynamic period in the history of geologic thought.  Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, written in 1830-33, forwarded the now textbook idea that the earth was an immensely ancient entity whose surface features were formed through various processes of slow, continual transformations that had been taking place since the beginning of the earth’s existence and were still occurring.  Lyell explained the impact of this concept, saying, “Never, perhaps, did any science, with the exception of astronomy, unfold, in an equally brief period, so many novel and unexpected truths, and overturn so many preconceived notions…. The surface of the planet [was] regarded as having remained unaltered since the creation, until the geologists proved that it had been the theatre of reiterated change and was still the subject of slow but neverending fluctuations.” 5  Though these ideas came about some time before Keith began painting, as with any such profound paradigm shift they took some time to filter into the discourse around landscape painting, and it was his generation of painters (and some slightly before), including Thomas Moran, Asher Durand, and Frederic Church, that were beginning to adapt to these ideas in their artworks.  Many of these artists, including Keith, participated in the government-sponsored geologic surveys of the newly acquired western United States that had begun the process of understanding the specific geologic formations that Americans could call their own.  In Keith’s case, his relationship with John Muir further reinforced these ideas; their many traveling expeditions in the Sierras gave him the chance to absorb all that Muir had to say about the geological formation of his “range of light.” 6

Glacial action was one of the primary forces at work in Muir’s writings on the Sierra Nevada, including the articles he published in various Californian newspapers during Keith’s painting career.  In The Mountains of California, for example, Muir made innumerable references to ancient glaciers, moraines, glacier-polished boulders, fountain peaks, and many other, more lyrical ways of alluding to the same processes.  In fact, he saw everything in the Sierra Nevada as a product of the activities of glaciers: he could trace a stream back in time to the last ice age, he could project into the future to determine where the glacial lakes would be, and even the vegetation was discussed specifically as a product of moraine soil.  Change and eternity were persistent themes in his thinking about the mountains.  Of the view from Mount Ritter, from his first trip out with Keith, he said, “Standing here in the deep, brooding silence, all the wilderness seems motionless, as if the work of creation were done.  But in the midst of this outer steadfastness we know there is incessant motion and change…. These cliff-bound glaciers, seemingly wedged and immovable, are flowing like water and grinding the rocks beneath them.  The lakes are lapping their granite shores and wearing them away, and every one of these rills and young rivers is fretting the air into music, and carrying the mountains to the plains.  Here are the roots of all the life of the valleys, and here more simply than elsewhere is the eternal flux of nature manifested.  Ice changing to water, lakes to meadows, and mountains to plains.”  Muir took this further to describe a feeling of the sublime in geologic terms: “as he [the visitor to the Sierras] gradually gains a knowledge of the forces at work, of the actions of the glaciers, of the actions of the waters and the actions of the rains, that feeling [of awe] dies away and he feels neither small nor great, but as if he had blended in with and become part of nature itself.” 7  This version of the sublime asserted man’s losing of himself in temporal terms; it was an awe triggered by an understanding of the immense and continual passage of time.

Keith published a few articles concerning his experiences with Muir in the Sierra Nevada.  While his early writings focused on the activity of humans in a difficult (but essentially passive and still) environment, his later writings emphasized the incredible activity of the human characters in relation to an environment characterized as moving and changing.  Keith absorption of Muir’s geologic understanding of the region was reflected in this shift in emphasis from a passive and still environment to a moving and changing environment.  In Keith’s lengthy articles which described his first 1872 journey with Muir into the Tuolumne Canyon, most of the writing energy was fixed on conveying the hardships of travel.  He started his essay with a statement that, “Eastern artists who read this will see that sketching here on the Pacific slope is a very different thing from sketching in New England…. One has to undergo a good deal of hardship and keep it to oneself.”  The sheer height of these mountains caused a completely different experience than the East Coast sites previously selected for American landscape painting, many of which Keith had visited.  A good summary of Keith’s first experience of the High Sierras was his account, “It is a matter of scramble, tumble, rumble, and wallow, over moraine, rock, chaparral, rock polished by glaciers so that it glitters and shines in the sun, – chaparral so thick that when you get into it the only way of getting out is to get into a rage and tear things.” 8  As he went on to explain his near-death experiences sliding down the mountain, almost falling from the face of a slippery rock in an attempt to get water for cooking, having a stone for a pillow, going without sugar, making a mule of himself with a leaden pack, having his provisions eaten by bears, and finally ending his journey half-dead with hunger and fatigue, 9 Keith made it apparent to the reader that he didn’t have much time to focus on the still views of the landscape that he had been hoping for as a painter.  Perhaps it is telling that, in his article titled “Sketching with William Keith,” he never discussed sketching (except to say that it was different from sketching in New England); the subtitle “The Great Artist in the Role of an Explorer” more adequately captures the experiences Keith was reflecting upon.

In fact, the only time the reader even gets a glimpse of any sort of still, contemplative landscape view potentially suitable for painting was when the group of travelers stopped to rest, when they literally were not being forced to move from one place to another.  In a particularly clear moment, Keith exclaimed, “A golden haze concealed and half revealed a glorious sight.  You felt as if you had no resting place, but floated on space.”  This sense of spatial disjuncture conveyed an experience of the feeling of sublimity.  Keith went on to describe the scene in a way that paralleled the building up of passages of a painting, focusing on areas of color, “The summits, in the clear higher air, looked like a company of angels with their lofty heads tipped with the sun’s last rays in a flush of glory; patches of snow rose-colored, patches of pine and chaparral, dashes of purple and blue and gold, and over it all the silence of eternity – inexpressible things.” 10  This last phrase points more specifically to an experience of one aspect of the geologic sublime – an indescribable sense of eternity or deep time.  However, at this stage in Keith’s development, the few references he made to geologic processes were expressed as somewhat detached understandings: he mentioned glacier-polished rock, deep channels worn by water, and ice-polished granite as facts but did not seem to reflect on the deeper meaning of these as evidence of slow and continuous geologic change.

By the time of Keith’s 1875 writing on his experiences in the Sierra Nevada, describing a much more extensive trip through some of the same terrain, the tone of Keith’s writing had changed dramatically.  An essential point was declared at the very beginning of the essay: “Yosemite has yet to be painted; painter’s visits of a month or so have not done it.  Time is required to take it in, and digest it, or else the inevitable result will be artistic dyspepsia (in the shape of conventional yellow and red rocks).” 11  Keith clearly believed that he had not yet painted a successful painting of Yosemite, despite a decade of painting in the region.  Further, he considered it possible that he never would accomplish this feat.  It is interesting that this question began to crop up after only three years of companionship with Muir; this fact strengthens the idea that Muir’s geologic understanding of the mountains contributed to Keith’s frustration with attempting to paint them.  Though Keith seemed to be more adjusted to the type of travel required for the region (by this time, he rarely complained about hardships and even positively described such day-to-day events as “leisurely walking,” sleeping in “a fragrant pine-bough bed,” experiencing “a keen sense of enjoyment,” drinking “champagne-like water,” and a eating a “simple breakfast… all the better for its simplicity”), 12 his frustrations in this essay turned to his attempts at painting.  These difficulties tended to be expressed in terms of shifting light making it impossible to mix colors (the color in Keith’s paintings was often hailed as one of his strongest attributes, to the point where Muir asked readers of San Francisco’s Daily Evening Bulletin to add a line to their prayers: “Thanks for Keith and his color”). 13  Thus, the “artistic dyspepsia” Keith referred to comes from an inability to capture “the cliffs [that] are neither red nor yellow, but an indescribable shifting gray, changing and shifting even as you look.”  This translation from direct experience of the mountains to paint on canvas ended up being an approximation, in which the artist attempted with each new painting to get closer and closer to the reality of the situation.  Keith demonstrated for the reader that, “a hasty dash will only approximate to its truth of color.  ‘Try, try again, and if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,’ is a very good motto to calm your rising agitation” in attempting to capture the scene. 14

This constantly changing light in the form of indescribable gray colors was by no means unique to the Sierra Nevada, or even to mountains in general.  Keith acknowledged as much when he said, “A French painter of the first rank, like Corot or Lambinet, would rejoice in this richness of gray – but French painters do not paint mountain pictures.”  This statement suggested that these grays could present difficulties in the attempt to translate subject matter other than mountains into paintings, and implied that other forces were at work in Keith’s frustrations.  Indeed, light was not the only thing described as shifting or moving in this essay: everything was.  The group’s actions, as well as the descriptions of the landscape, were all captured using constant present participle verb forms; the entire essay was a mass of –ing endings.  Moving through the landscape with Keith, “Cliffs… seem to be moving up…. Yosemite Fall… weave[s] in a slow and downward motion…. [we see] a heavy sodden mass of cloud, moving with a scarcely perceptible motion, slow and solemn.”  Not only were the otherwise solid cliffs seemingly moving, but the adjectives used to describe the motion of this scene (slow and scarcely perceptible) were also remarkably reminiscent of how one would describe the pace of the geologic changes that were also acting on this location.  Likewise, Keith’s description of the evidence of slow, geologic action in the region was juxtaposed with the immediate and more perceptible changes taking place on the earth’s surface: he verbally depicted “peak piled upon peak, flashing fields of snow glistening and shining in the sun… fields of forest sinking to the purple sage-brush plains below…. Faint markings of greenish gray show the tracks of streams directing their course toward Mono Lake, which fades in the distance shimmering and fainting, into the quivering sky-light and heat radiating and reflecting from lake to sky, and from plain to peak.” 15  As in Muir’s linking of the individual surface features of the Sierras to the geologic changes gradually taking place below and above the earth’s crust, Keith described all of these changes happening simultaneously, contributing to the feeling of instability felt when experiencing the mountains.  In this sense, it seems fitting that the only rock specifically identified in this essay was the metamorphic red slate, a name which acknowledged its transformative properties, which Keith referred to a number of times.

Keith communicated the more sinister feelings associated with the sublime in his description of the scene at Bloody Canyon, which significantly occurred as the group stopped to camp.  He explained, “As the excitement of motion dies away, we begin to feel the influence of the savage desolateness of the place…. the black lake – colorless, except at your feet, where the submerged boulders look green and brown, abruptly fading into the blackness – suggesting unknown horrible depths…. A general feeling of blackness and darkness completes the picture, leaving fearful impressions which the real danger behind and before us failed to create.” 16  While it remains unclear specifically what these “unknown horrible depths” referred to (whether they were spatial or temporal depths), this lake’s apparent connection to something beyond physical reality provided a parallel to Muir’s somewhat less sinister but equally powerful view that looking into a glacier lake in the Sierra Nevada “forms a picture that enriches all your afterlife, and is never forgotten.” 17  Indeed, lakes were the only landscape feature described by Keith as still, still enough to see “Mount Hoffman. . . nodding and smiling to itself in.”  He went on to distinguish the glacial lakes from other types of lakes: “These mountain lakes have the peculiarity – I mean their intense depth of gray color; they look like spots in the picture… they are much darker than the top of the sky, which is an intense blue-gray, wonderfully soft and deep.”  Other mountain lakes were described as “cavernous-looking,” “as though bottomless,” with “deep transparent waters.” 18  In the midst of the incessant motion of the rest of the landscape, the glacier lakes provided Keith a unique window into the depth of the sublimity of the region, whether expressed in geologic or spatial terms.  Water was the vehicle of change in Muir’s writings, and these lakes provided Keith with the only opportunity to fixate on a solid mass of this substance.  Perhaps this explains why practically every Sierra landscape Keith painted included a body of water in some form, including every Sierra landscape painting owned by John Muir. 19

By this point in Keith’s writing, he appeared to have evolved a deeper understanding of Muir’s geologic sublime.  The idea that this mountainous landscape was undergoing a process of slow, continual, eternal change had profound implications for his attempts to translate these scenes into painting, and Keith expressed frustration at this process.  Muir, on the other hand, seemed to be able to look through Keith’s paintings into the landscape itself.  In addition to being essential to Keith’s experience of the Sierra Nevada, Muir was also his foremost champion, at least in his early career.  Reviews of Keith’s paintings often included long passages written by Muir, praising Keith’s artistic genius.  Muir’s descriptions of Keith’s paintings were almost identical to his descriptions of the mountains.  For example, about Keith’s “California Alps,” Muir explained, “The background is a world of stormy Alps, crowding, jagged and bare, into the thin blue sky, out of unmeasurable snowmelds and glaciers that load their sides and fill the chasms between.  The middleground is a sublime revelation of sculptured granite over which the ancient glaciers have swept like a wind, crushing, grinding, polishing, through long, icy years, giving rise to profound canyons, and rocks of every conceivable form….The walls of the deep central canyon, down which the river glides, display the tremendous crushing and grinding power of the glacier which occupied it.” 20  In fact, aside from a few references to Keith’s artistic genius, it appears as though Muir saw Keith as a medium through which the genius of the mountains, as opposed to that of the artist, could be expressed.  He spoke of one painting as an “outspoken manifestation of the sublimest attributes of the Sierras… a kind of inspired bible of mountains,” and in another, “the whole picture glows with the very genius and poetry of the Sierras.” 21  This is not surprising, considering that in other writings he referred to “Nature” as a poet or artist, creating “clusters of peaks… fashioned like works of art,” “poems carved on tables of stone,” and other “glacial compositions.” 22  Indeed, Muir went so far as to say of Keith’s “Headwaters of the Merced” that “paint, pictures, and artist are alike forgotten when we gaze into this glorious landscape.” 23

Muir’s praise of Keith’s paintings took place on a dual level, in which he recognized the “scientific as well as picture value” of the works. 24  This explicit recognition of the paintings’ picture value was important, because it has often been suggested that Muir eventually gave up on Keith’s paintings due to his gradual shift to a broad painting style, in which paint is used to suggest forms rather than to faithfully render all of the specifics.  This ultimate dismissal seemed to be affected by more factors than just a simple loss of surface detail.  Indeed, by the time Keith and Muir met in 1872, Keith had already been influenced by the Düsseldorf School of landscape painting, which emphasized a broad style.  In a letter home from Düsseldorf in 1870, Keith conveyed his response to a comparison between “this broad and yet detailed work and this one with every leaf and flower and shrub marked.  You’ll feel at once how petty is the detail.”  He went on to suggest that he wanted to be able to paint in a broad yet detailed way, melding the influence of the popular Californian painting styles of the day with his influence from Germany.  “Suggestive painting is the thing here – they say that anybody can do niggling detail – but one must feel to do the other, but I want to be able to do the detail and then with that power kept in hand, to suggest.” 25

It was precisely this blending of a broad yet detailed painting style that Muir seemed to respond to in Keith’s work.  With no trace of negativity, Muir said of one particular painting, “Nowhere has the touch of the artist produced an uncertain effect.  The whole is so perfectly unified that it is difficult to observe detail…. Repose overbroods all its energy, and perfect unity presides over its inexhaustible variety.”  The power of this response came from the painting’s naturalistic variety coupled with its ability to suggest a mood; later in the passage Muir stated that “one of the chief excellences of the whole effect is its vivid suggestiveness.” 26  These statements would be uncharacteristic of a viewer who was basing his or her criticisms solely on surface detail.  However, it must be noted that Muir did value having at least some detail in the paintings.  Though Muir recognized the power of Keith’s painterly suggestiveness, even as early as 1874 in one particular area of a specific painting he made the slight criticism that “the botanist would perhaps like to see a little more attention bestowed upon the smaller plants.”  Muir also made various references to the paintings being “fit for scientific illustrations” and being “admirable illustrations of mountain structure and sculpture.” 27  Despite these remarks, Muir acknowledged that the detail was not the driving force behind what he saw as Keith’s ability to capture a mountain scene: on top of their “plain truth to form,” in Keith’s mountain paintings, he was described as “observing a devout truthfulness to nature, yet removing veils of detail, and laying bare the very hearts and souls of the landscapes.” 28  Indeed, many of the Keith paintings that Muir owned were not especially detailed (often broad particularly in the foregrounds), but they did capture a sense of mountain light and unique color that many have cited as the strong points in Keith’s paintings.  In contrast to Muir’s writings, where immense detail was the vehicle for an understanding of the workings of the mountains, in Keith’s paintings this understanding was attempted through “singing color” (according to Keith) and “vivid suggestiveness,” all “inspired with pure mountain light.” 29

Muir’s dismissal of Keith’s later paintings was apparently generated not so much from his eventual lack of surface detail, but from his gradual rejection of mountains as subject matter, his lessening emphasis on the role of direct experience of nature in the artistic process, and his increasing linkage of painting with God as opposed to Nature with God.  In a lecture given during the mid-1890’s, Keith acknowledged Muir’s dismissal, saying, “Since I… in a sense have turned my back on the mountains and objective nature, Mr. Muir thinks of me as one of the lost, a son of perdition.” 30  Muir’s outspoken criticism of some of Keith’s later paintings was so extensive that Keith would hide certain paintings from Muir when he came over to visit.  Eventually Muir gave up on Keith, artistically, criticizing his “snuff-brown pictures” 31 of oak trees.  Remarkably, this coincided with a time in Keith’s life in which he had virtually stopped painting mountain scenes and nearly discontinued visits to the mountains altogether, except for a few exceptional painting expeditions commissioned by Muir himself.  Tellingly, one of his last visits to Yosemite occurred around the same time as Muir’s above criticism.    According to the story, in 1891, fellow landscape painter George Inness and Keith “went together… Keith now of the opinion that Yosemite was unpaintable, Inness of the opinion that he could easily do it justice.  Keith rested on the porch of the hotel while Inness went off to paint.  Returning, Inness threw down his sketches and said, ‘It can’t be done!’” 32

The grandiosity and complexity of John Muir’s view of the Sierra Nevada, its emphasis on deep geologic time and continual and imperceptible change, an experience in which “you lose all sense of time, even,” 33 became impossible for Keith to translate into painting.  As demonstrated by his earlier writings, Keith conveyed that he understood the forces working on the mountains; he later elucidated that “to paint a mountain picture in any successful way means a lot of knowledge of the art methods and the structure of the mountains.” 34  However, this nature and structure of the mountains was such that the materials of paint and canvas couldn’t rival the size, depth (temporal or physical), or color of the mountains.  Keith explained his dissatisfaction with his paintings with mountains as subject matter: “The mountains are inspiration for everything that is grand, but I don’t know of any famous landscape painter who paints them from choice, for it is only by the grossest exaggeration that the impression of them can be given.”  He further added that “you have never seen such a thing [mountain scene] successfully painted; the result would be chromo-like.  The painter has only white paint to compete with the sunshine.”  Later, he characterized his painting problems in terms of physical size, explaining that “the trouble about painting mountains is that you are so hampered with the bigness of them, that it would require a canvas as big as a house and then it would only be a panorama.”  Keith made continual references to panoramas and to photography as caricatures and deception, and ended up implying that his own paintings of mountains couldn’t do much better than that.  He almost humorously dismissed all painters’ attempts at landscape, wondering at one point “if the best way to do landscapes would not be to make them as you sometimes see in the theatre; with wings at the side, planes of distance and real water.” 35  This statement conjures up a ridiculous vision of a puny stage-set with contained water trying to compete with an actual range of sublime mountains being gradually worn down by roaring waterfalls.  Keith’s frustrations in the two-dimensional realm paralleled the ridiculousness of this vision.

Keith’s determination that the mountains were unpaintable eventually also filtered into a belief in the impossibility of imitating nature in any form in a painting.  Early in his painting career, Keith seemed energized by the challenge presented when nature usurped his ability to translate his experience into painting, “I… found myself wishing for a little conventional studio-shadow tone in the landscape.  There are, I fancy, but few painters who think for themselves, and who leave the studio behind them when studying from nature, who have not had some sense of this puzzled feeling in finding nature oblivious to their preconceived ideas.” 36  At this point in 1875, Keith was delighted by the unexpected findings presented to him by nature.  However, by 1888, Keith seemed to have given up on being able to rise to this challenge.  As if in response to Muir’s oft-quoted question, “Why in the deuce don’t you imitate nature?” Keith explained, “In imitating nature, the artist will be at the great disadvantage, because he is trying to do the impossible thing.” 37  Further, “you hear all the time the advice to students.  ‘Go to nature, go to nature.’  In its way, that is all right and well and must be done, but the impression is that a painter can copy nature.  Why, that is an absurdity!  It is all a matter of convention.”  This idea of the impossibility of imitating nature led Keith to shy away from the extensive nature experiences that he had previously thought essential to his artistic practice.  Voicing this feeling, he states, “Nature is so rich and compelling that if an artist lives too near her she tyrannizes over him, and he tries to swallow more than he can digest.” 38  Ironically, at this point in Keith’s career, nature became the force that he saw as hindering his artistic development rather that pushing it forward.  For this reason, he turned more and more to himself and his moods for inspiration.

In the end, Keith characterized his attempts at painting mountains as a sort of fallacy of youth, brought on by immaturity.  He explained, “I think it is the experience of every painter that when they begin to paint they are seized with the desire to paint lurid things, and mountains miles high.  I know I was, and I used to go in company with John Muir all over the Sierra Nevada.”  By the time of this statement (1894-5), this mode of working was clearly a thing of the past for Keith.  He distinctly established himself as beyond this mode as early as 1888, when he expostulated his theory of a painter’s development: “A painter’s experience consists of three states, just as in life there are the three states of childhood, youth and manhood.  In the first state the young painter is full of ideas and vague feelings, but he cannot express them.  In the second state, he gets down to hard work and in the pursuit of knowledge he accumulates all kinds of facts, and gradually the knowledge and facts crowd out the vague and mysterious impulses and feelings, and here is where many stop.  The next state is where there is a return to the childish state of feeling, but with an increase of knowledge which gives him the power to expression.” 39 The implication of Keith’s reasoning was that, after a certain period of experiencing the world (in his case, in the form of nature), the painter no longer needed to go back to those sources in order to renew his artistic vision because he has already gained that knowledge.  Indeed, this was the course of Keith’s artistic path.

Perhaps it is not surprising, in light of Keith’s near-complete abandonment of a direct experience of nature for artistic inspiration, that he added to these three states of painterly development another state imposed by an outside audience, “Some critics may think that I have arrived at the fourth state in my artistic career, viz., the state of dotage.” 40  Keith had always been a studio painter (his mountain scenes were painted in the studio from sketches made in the field), but towards the end of his career he made fewer and fewer treks to the wilderness and ended up turning to other painters, including the old masters (particularly Rembrandt and Velasquez), his friend George Inness, and the French Barbizon painters, for inspiration and artistic direction.  The influence of his friend Joseph Worcester, a Swedenborgian minister, became more and more a factor in his work (Inness was also a Swedenborgian).  His primary experience of the “natural world” became the oak trees around Berkeley, which were also the subject of a growing proportion of his paintings.  The luminous and unique light and color of Keith’s earlier works virtually disappeared in these gloomy and dark oak tree paintings; this is the point where his generalized artistic vision was most limiting and somewhat problematic, working against the strong points of his critically acclaimed works.  His eventual separation of the direct experience of nature from his artistic process caused the individuality of the mountain scenes, including the illumination of pure mountain light, to be lost in many of his later paintings.  Titles for his mountainous landscapes were usually specific (“Mount Shasta and McCloud River,” for example), while his “gloomy” pictures tended toward more generalized titles, some simply called “Mood” or “Landscape.”  Finally, the visual effect of many of these later paintings became generalized; often paintings were uncannily similar in tone, composition, and paint handling, some works being virtually indistinguishable from each other.

In the end, Keith turned to painting itself as a spiritual experience, in opposition to Muir’s point of view, which posited a direct experience of nature (specifically the Sierra Nevada) as a spiritual endeavor.  In contrast to the “terrestrial immortality” experienced by Muir in the mountains, Keith stated his divine revelation when, “Looking up at the sky, it came to me as if [landscape painting] after all, was nearest to God.” 41  Painting brought value to Keith’s life, for “One day of such work, even if life were to end there, and then you could truly say that you had had a glorious time…. What would life be to a painter without paint and brushes?  Heaven wouldn’t be Heaven without them.” 42  Indeed, one contemporary historian has determined that Keith had come to believe that he had been fated by God to be an artist: “Fate, which I consider to be the manifestation of the will of Providence, governs all things…. Born with certain forces, many of which I had inherited… I was played upon by circumstances and became what I am…”  For a man who had determined that the old masters were “made by the Lord,” it is easy to see how Keith could come to think of himself as an artist whose “inspiration was divinely sent.”  It is perhaps for this reason that Keith began to speak of finding the “sublime in himself,” rather than the sublime in the landscape, to be translated through the act of painting.  Keith increasingly spoke as though possessed by the act of painting, saying that he told his wife almost every night that he wished it were morning so he could start painting again, and telling an interviewer that painting “is not work at all.  It’s all fun and fun all the time!” 43  Freed from the constraints of the task of trying to capture nature, Keith’s attitude towards painting in these late quotes stood in marked contrast to his earlier frustrations.

Strangely enough, the frustrations of Keith’s confrontation with the unsuitability of the Sierra Nevada for translation into landscape painting was foreshadowed in Muir’s account of meeting Keith for the first time.  Keith and his painting companions met Muir and asked if he “had ever come upon a landscape suitable for a large painting.”  Muir, who had, earlier in the same paragraph, been wishing that he “might carry colors and brushes with [him] on [his] travels, and learn to paint,” took the group up to the head of the Tuolumne River, at which point the artists expressed their disappointment, saying “All this is huge and sublime, but we see nothing as yet at all available for effective pictures.  Art is long, and art is limited, you know; and here are foregrounds, middle-grounds, backgrounds, all alike; bare rock-waves, woods, groves, diminutive flecks of meadow, and strips of glittering water.”  This preconceived idea of what a landscape painting could capture obviously already rendered certain subject matter unsuitable.  Ironically, at this point in time Keith did not realize just how limited landscape painting would prove to be.  Muir described Keith’s joy at finding something that seemed paintable: “The whole picture stood revealed in the flush of the alpenglow…. The more impulsive of the two [artists], a young Scotchman, dashed ahead, shouting and gesticulating and tossing his arms in the air like a madman.  Here, at last, was a typical alpine landscape.” 44  Unfortunately for Keith, he would discover that it was precisely this type of landscape that, after years of hard work, he would determine to be impossible to paint, thanks in part to the intense perception of his fellow Scotchman John Muir.




BFC:  Brother F. Cornelius Papers, Saint Mary’s College, Moraga, California

KMP:  Keith-McHenry-Pond Papers, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, California

UOP:  John Muir Archives at University of Pacific, Stockton, California

All SMC Sup. Citations:

Reprinted from Ann Harlow, ed. William Keith: The Saint Mary’s College Collection, exh. cat. (1988. Second Printing with Supplement. Moraga, California: Hearst Art Gallery, 1994).

SMC Sup. 1a:

William Keith.  “Sketching with William Keith: The Great Artist in the Role of an Explorer,” The Wasp (San Francisco, California, Feb. 9, 1907, p.92, reprinted from Boston Daily Advertiser, 1874, exact date unknown).

SMC Sup. 1b:

William Keith.  “More about the Great Artist’s Mountain Climbing,” The Wasp (San Francisco, California, Mar. 2, 1907, p. 140, reprinted from Boston Daily Advertiser, 1874).

SMC Sup. 2a:

William Keith.  “An Artist’s Trip in the Sierra: First Letter,” Overland Monthly (Aug. 1875, Vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 198-201).

SMC Sup. 2b:

William Keith.  “Second Letter,” Overland Monthly (Oct. 1875, Vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 389-391).

SMC Sup. 3:

William Keith.  “Lecture at University of California,” (University of California, Berkeley, Longfellow Association, Feb. 29, 1888).

SMC Sup. 4:

William Keith.  “Lecture to Sorosis Club,” (Lecture at Keith’s studio, date unknown, labeled “1894 or ’95,” manuscript, part handwritten and part typed, in KMP).

  1. John Muir, The Mountains of California (San Francisco, California: Sierra Club Books, 1989), 40.
  2. Quoted in Alfred C. Harrison, Jr., William Keith: The Saint Mary’s College Collection, exh. cat. (1988. Second Printing with Supplement. Moraga, California: Hearst Art Gallery, 1994), 6.
  3. SMC Sup. 3, S-9.
  4. Alfred C. Harrison, Jr., William Keith: The Saint Mary’s College Collection, exh. cat. (1988. Second Printing with Supplement. Moraga, California: Hearst Art Gallery, 1994), 23 & 33.
  5. Information in this paragraph based on: Rebecca Bedell.  The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001), 52 & 14.  Quote on page
  6. John Muir, The Mountains of California (San Francisco, California: Sierra Club Books, 1989), 2.
  7. First quote from John Muir, The Mountains of California (San Francisco, California: Sierra Club Books, 1989), 55.  Second Quoted in [author unknown] “Our John Muir,” The [San Francisco] Morning Call 8 (May 15, 1893). (UOP: Kimes A10, printed copy).
  8. Both quotes from SMC Sup. 1a, S-1.
  9. Paraphrase from SMC Sup. 1a, S-1 & S-2, and SMC Sup. 1b, S-3 & S-4.
  10. Both quotes from SMC Sup., 1a, S-1.
  11. SMC Sup., 2a, S-5.
  12. SMC Sup. 2a & 2b, S-5, S-6, & S-7 (last 3 quotes).
  13. Quoted in [author unknown] “Art Notes,” [San Francisco] Daily Evening Bulletin 3 (Jun. 20, 1874). (UOP: Kimes 27, printed copy).
  14. Last two quotes from SMC Sup. 2a, S-5.
  15. First two quotes from SMC Sup. 2a, S-5, last quote from SMC Sup. 2b, S-8.
  16. SMC Sup. 2b, S-8.
  17. John Muir, The Mountains of California (San Francisco, California: Sierra Club Books, 1989), 97.
  18. SMC Sup. 2a, S-6, except first two quotes from last sentence: SMC Sup. 2b, S-8.
  19. Observation from reprints of paintings in: Steve Pauly.  A Tale of Two Scots: In John Muir’s House, exh. broch. (Moraga, California: Hearst Art Gallery, Aug. 17, 2002 – Feb. 23, 2003).
  20. Quoted in [author unknown] “Art Notes,” [San Francisco] Daily Evening Bulletin 3 (Jun. 20, 1874). (UOP: Kimes 27, printed copy).  Note: The painting referred to in this review, “California Alps,” belongs to an unspecified private collection and thus was unavailable for reprinting in this paper.
  21. First quoted in [author unknown] “Art Notes,” [San Francisco] Daily Evening Bulletin 3 (Jun. 20, 1874). (UOP: Kimes 27, printed copy).  Emphasis in quote original.  Second quoted in [author unknown] “Art Notes,” Overland Monthly (May 1875, Vol. 14, no. 5). (UOP).
  22. John Muir, The Mountains of California (San Francisco, California: Sierra Club Books, 1989), 54-5.
  23. Quoted in [author unknown] “Art Notes,” Overland Monthly (May 1875, Vol. 14, no. 5). (UOP).
  24. Quoted in [author unknown] “Art Notes,” [San Francisco] Daily Evening Bulletin 3 (Jun. 20, 1874). (UOP: Kimes 27, printed copy).
  25. Both quotes in: Letter from William Keith to “California friends and particularly Mr. Mrs. Avery,” March 6, 1870, Düsseldorf.  (KMP, C-B595, Box 1, Folder 1).
  26. Both quoted in [author unknown] “Art Notes,” [San Francisco] Daily Evening Bulletin 3 (Jun. 20, 1874). (UOP: Kimes 27, printed copy).
  27. Quoted in [author unknown] “Art Notes,” [San Francisco] Daily Evening Bulletin 3 (Jun. 20, 1874). (UOP: Kimes 27, printed copy).  Second: Quoted in [author unknown] “Art Notes,” Overland Monthly (May 1875, Vol. 14, no. 5). (UOP).
  28. Quoted in [author unknown] “Art Notes,” Overland Monthly (May 1875, Vol. 14, no. 5). (UOP).
  29. First: SMC Sup. 3, S-12.  Second: Quoted in [author unknown] “Art Notes,” [San Francisco] Daily Evening Bulletin 3 (Jun. 20, 1874). (UOP: Kimes 27, printed copy). Third: Quoted in [author unknown] “Art Notes,” Overland Monthly (May 1875, Vol. 14, no. 5). (UOP).
  30. SMC Sup. 4, S-18.
  31. Steve Pauly.  A Tale of Two Scots: In John Muir’s House, exh. broch. (Moraga, California: Hearst Art Gallery, Aug. 17, 2002 – Feb. 23, 2003).
  32. Quoted in Paul Mills. An Introduction to the Art of William Keith, exh. cat. (Oakland, California: The William Keith Memorial Gallery of the Oakland Art Museum, 1956).  (BFC).
  33. Quoted in [author unknown] “Our John Muir,” The [San Francisco] Morning Call 8 (May 15, 1893). (UOP: Kimes A10, printed copy).
  34. Letter from William Keith to “You dear dear girls,” Jan. 26, 1902, San Francisco, California.  (KMP, C-B595, Box 1, Folder 10).
  35. First: SMC Sup. 3, S-9.  Second: SMC Sup. 4, S-18.  Third: SMC Sup. 3, S-12.
  36. SMC Sup. 2b, S-7.
  37. Muir quoted in Alfred C. Harrison, Jr., William Keith: The Saint Mary’s College Collection, exh. cat. (1988. Second Printing with Supplement. Moraga, California: Hearst Art Gallery, 1994), 33. Keith quoted in SMC Sup. 3, S-9.
  38. First: SMC Sup. 4, S-15.  Second: SMC Sup. 3, S-11.
  39. First: SMC Sup. 4, S-17.  Second: SMC Sup. 3, S-13.
  40. SMC Sup. 3, S-13.
  41. Muir quoted in [author unknown] “Our John Muir,” The [San Francisco] Morning Call 8 (May 15, 1893). (UOP: Kimes A10, printed copy).  Keith quoted in Alfred C. Harrison, Jr., William Keith: The Saint Mary’s College Collection, exh. cat. (1988. Second Printing with Supplement. Moraga, California: Hearst Art Gallery, 1994), 27.
  42. SMC Sup. 4, S-17.
  43. All: Quoted in Alfred C. Harrison, Jr., William Keith: The Saint Mary’s College Collection, exh. cat. (1988. Second Printing with Supplement. Moraga, California: Hearst Art Gallery, 1994), 44, except second: SMC Sup. 4, S-17 and fourth: SMC Sup. 3, S-13.
  44. Last passage based on: John Muir, The Mountains of California (San Francisco, California: Sierra Club Books, 1989), 40-41.



Brother F. Cornelius Papers, Saint Mary’s College, Moraga, California

Keith-McHenry-Pond Papers, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, California

Other Works:

[author unknown] “Art Notes,” Overland Monthly.  14 (May 1875) 5.

[author unknown] “Art Notes,” [San Francisco] Daily Evening Bulletin. 3 (Jun. 20, 1874).

[author unknown] “Our John Muir,” The [San Francisco] Morning Call. 8 (May 15, 1893).

Bedell, Rebecca.  The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875.  Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Harrison, Alfred C.  William Keith: The Saint Mary’s College Collection, exh. cat. 1988. Second Printing with Supplement.  Moraga, California: Hearst Art Gallery, 1994.

Muir, John.  The Mountains of California.  San Francisco, California: Sierra Club Books, 1989.

Pauly, Steve.  A Tale of Two Scots: In John Muir’s House, exh. broch.  Moraga, California: Hearst Art Gallery, Aug. 17, 2002 – Feb. 23, 2003.