Thanks to a Saint Mary's College professor, the work of landscape painter William Keith is ours to enjoy
In the spring of 1908, Brother F. Cornelius Braeg paid a visit to Sierra Club founder John Muir in his Martinez home. Braeg, a Christian Brother and future art professor at Saint Mary’s College, loved the outdoors and was eager to meet the famed naturalist.
The visit turned out to be life-changing for the 31-year-old monk, but not in the way he probably expected. Above Muir’s desk, Braeg noticed a landscape of Berkeley oak trees. He was fascinated by the painting and learned that it was by San Francisco artist William Keith, a longtime friend and colleague of Muir’s.
"I was intrigued," Braeg recalled in later years, "… because I found [the trees] the nearest to expressing the quality, mystery, and wonder of nature of any paintings I had ever seen." Braeg spent the next 50 years studying Keith’s life and collecting his works. In the process, he introduced future generations to one of America’s foremost landscape painters and showed how Keith’s friendship with Muir led him to visually document the natural wonders of the American West that Muir sought to preserve. Also because of Braeg, Saint Mary’s College now houses the world’s largest collection of Keith’s work.
Perhaps part of Braeg’s fascination with Keith stemmed from the fact that both were immigrants who had lost their fathers at a young age. Braeg grew up in the foothills of the Swiss Alps, where his love of mountainous landscapes took root. Keith, meanwhile, was just 12 years old when he emigrated to New York City in 1850 from Scotland with his mother and two sisters. He loved to draw and was apprenticed to a wood engraver before getting a job with Harper’s Illustrated.
He came to California in 1859, and opened an engraving shop. He soon switched to painting with watercolors and began exhibiting his work. By 1868, he was able to support himself as a painter.
Keith met Muir in 1872, when the naturalist offered to take several painters on a packing trip through Yosemite. As Braeg learned, Keith and Muir felt an immediate kinship. They were the same age, and like Keith, Muir was a native of Scotland. Keith also shared Muir’s interest in recording nature in meticulous detail.
Both men thrilled to the transcendent glories of nature. Indeed, Muir later wrote in a San Francisco newspaper that as his group rounded a bend on the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne River and saw Mt. Lyell looming ahead, Keith jumped off his horse "and dashed forward, shouting and gesticulating and waving his arms like a madman." In the same issue, Keith explained his excitement by declaring Mt. Lyell "the grandest thing I ever saw."
Throughout the 1870s, Keith produced a series of large, sunlit wilderness landscapes (often set in Yosemite and begun on hiking trips with Muir), which helped to introduce Americans to the vast wilderness of the Sierra, much as Ansel Adams’s photography would do in the next century. Muir dubbed Keith "California’s poet-painter."
By the early 1900s, Keith was one of the most successful artists in California, making, according to one account, more than $100,000 per year. He also remained close friends with Muir; the two continued to hike, sketch, and camp together throughout the Sierra and the Pacific Northwest. In 1907, Keith accompanied Muir on one last hiking and sketching trip—this time through Hetch Hetchy Valley. The resulting paintings, although gorgeous, did not stop the damming of Muir’s beloved valley. Keith died four years later in 1911.
Braeg never got the chance to interview Keith. But he did everything else he could to document Keith’s life, even retracing the painter’s steps—through Europe, the East Coast, the Sierras, and up into Alaska—and sometimes painting the same scenes (Braeg was a talented oil and pastel artist). After 20 years, he wrote the two-volume Keith, Old Master of California—a 900-page tome that former state librarian Kevin Starr claimed "sweeps forward with Balzacian amplitude" and is "one of the first full-fledged cultural histories of 19th century California." Braeg lectured on Keith at Saint Mary’s every Sunday for 48 years, and he was instrumental in setting up a permanent gallery on campus to showcase Keith’s work. Braeg died in an automobile accident in 1962, at the age of 84.
The college’s Hearst Art Gallery now includes a William Keith Room, in which a rotating exhibit from the college’s 150-painting Keith collection is displayed. This month, the gallery will show Keith’s paintings from the 1880s.