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William Keith (1838-1911)

William Keith was born in Scotland in 1838 and began his career as a commercial artist, apprenticed to a wood engraver in New York. In 1859 he ventured west to San Francisco, where he continued his engraving work but ultimately aspired to paint easel works. In the mid-nineteenth century, four main subjects were popular among America's growing middle class: portraits, still lifes, genre scenes and landscapes. San Francisco, though small, had a budding art scene and abundant raw material in the Sierra Nevada to satisfy any Romantic Realist. Keith began to depict the mountains in watercolor and then in oil. He undertook further art study in Europe and gained some experience on the East Coast before returning to California in 1872. Keith's friendship with the naturalist John Muir, their extended hiking trips through the Sierras, as well as Keith's belief in nature being a physical representation of God resulted in the artist's creation, for a a period of time, of heroic panoramas of the Sierra Nevadas.  

In 1885, after another trip to Europe to study art, Keith's style changed dramatically. Ascribing to the modest Barbizon style that had become prevalent in France, he rejected panoramas for intimate views, often domesticated them with sheep or cattle, and dropped his interest in detail for soft, blurry, moody interpretations. Since photographers could capture details, the job of the artist was now to capture the spirit and mood of a scene. Keith was further influenced in this direction by his admiration for the work of East Coast Tonalist George Inness, was well as the religious philosophy of the Swedenborgian church, which he joined. Shortly after his return to California, Keith settled in Berkeley where he remained until his passing in 1911.

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