Arts & Events

Comprehensive William Keith Art Exhibit At Saint Mary’s

By Steven Finacom
Friday November 11, 2011 - 12:29:00 PM
A bust of William Keith is grouped with several of his smaller, gold framed, paintings, in the exhibit.
Steven Finacom
A bust of William Keith is grouped with several of his smaller, gold framed, paintings, in the exhibit.
A succession of green-walled galleries display 120 works of art by California’s master landscape painter, William Keith, through December 18.
Steven Finacom
A succession of green-walled galleries display 120 works of art by California’s master landscape painter, William Keith, through December 18.

With “Occupy” movements currently agitating our very urban inner Bay Area turf, it’s perhaps a strange time to think about bucolic landscapes. But there’s a good reason to switch mental gears, at least for a few hours, in the next month.

The expanded and renamed museum at St. Mary’s College of California is hosting a splendid exhibit of the artwork of William Keith the prolific, famed California landscape painter—and once-notable Berkeley resident, I should add—of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The exhibit, entitled “The Comprehensive Keith”, commemorates the centennial of the death of the painter in April 1911. It runs through December 18 and features well over one hundred of his oil paintings and some watercolors. Most are landscapes, but there’s also a selection of his lesser-known portrait paintings. 

William Keith grew up in the same part of Scotland as John Muir where both were born in 1838. But they didn’t meet and become friends until 1872 when Keith went to Yosemite with a letter of introduction to Muir.  

Keith captured in paintings what Muir expressed in words—the magnificence of the California landscape. The Sierra and the then-largely undeveloped countryside around San Francisco Bay gave Keith many of the settings for his best-known works of art—grand scenes of nature, sprinkled for scale with human influences—a few figures, a group of cattle, a wood cabin. 

St. Mary’s has what is believed to be “the world’s most comprehensive collection of William Keith paintings” (185 works), thanks to Brother Cornelius, one of the faculty, who discovered Keith art in 1908 and became an avid collector, promoter and, later, the definitive biographer, of the painter. 

In the exhibit you experience several stages of the development of Keith’s artistic style. First, as a younger artist he prolifically participated in the realistic recording of the amazing natural wonders of the West in paintings—some truly heroic in size—that carefully chronicled scenes down to individual leaves on an oak tree or the petals on a poppy. 

His later art turns more impressionistic. The natural settings and detail are still recognizable, but conveyed in a much looser form. You could put some of these paintings anonymously in a show of Impressionist Masters and they would fit right in and very favorably compare.  

Finally, as his skill and ability matured, Keith produced what is perhaps the most popularly recognized form of his art today—moody, evocative, landscapes, often drenched in shadow or light and focused down from mountain ranges and sweeping panoramas to the more intimate level of a forest glade, a mountain hillside, a meadow.  

The quintessential Keith painting in this later era is a orange red sunset glowing through mysterious woodland, and there are a number of examples in the exhibit—but there are also scenes I didn’t know Keith had painted, such as the wonderfully titled “Joy Comes With Morning”, where white light floods through what looks like a redwood grove along a stream, or paintings of Alaska scenes. 

There are other spectacular pieces that kept drawing my attention as I wandered through the exhibit. Keith painted marvelous skies and clouds. “After The Storm” from 1896 looks down a partially wooded vale at a distant landscape—overhead there’s blue sky to the left, shading into puffy clouds, then the trailing edge of a gray downpour, all depicted with amazing ability. 

Keith executed thousands of paintings in his career. What’s as impressive is that after many of the paintings he had sold—and his entire San Francisco studio—were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, he sat right down and started creating a whole body of both replacement and new work. 

Much of that painting was done in his Berkeley studio and home, which stood on Atherton Street, where Edwards Track Stadium is now located and where he lived with his second wife, Mary McHenry Keith.  

Is her name familiar to Berkeleyans? It should be. A pioneering woman lawyer in California, she was an ardent women’s suffrage advocate. It seems a tragedy that one of her political triumphs—the passage of votes for women in California in October, 1911—came just a few months after her husband died. 

There are a number of named or recognizably likely Berkeley scenes in the exhibit including one of Strawberry Creek and others of the Berkeley Hills. Keith was a regular walker through the Berkeley campus, taking the train back and forth from Downtown to the San Francisco ferries.  

If you’ve hurried or strolled through the Grinnell Natural Area on the campus following the footpath up from Center Street—well, that’s where Keith walked, too, a century and more ago. 

The exhibit also includes some three dimensional items associated with Keith, including a Japanese bell he kept in his studio and a massively scaled wooden desk believed to have come from his Berkeley home. 

Although 120 paintings may seem like a lot to take in at one viewing, the exhibit can easily be wandered in an hour or less. 

There’s also a pricey ($45) but detailed soft cover book about Keith and his art available in the Museum gift shop. 

The recently enlarged and renamed Saint Mary’s College Museum of Art (formerly the Hearst Art Gallery) is tucked away in the back of the country campus in Moraga. It’s not a long drive past the Caldecott Tunnel. Find your way from Highway 24 to the appropriately named Saint Mary’s Road, and follow it to the campus entrance at 1928. 

Staff at the entrance / security kiosk can give you directions to parking adjacent to the Museum. Admission is a modest $5 per person, and the Museum is open 11:00 to 4:30, Wednesday through Sunday. 

In addition to the Keith exhibit, there are two other small gallery spaces with varied displays. 

The Museum website is here