California’s old master

December 4, 2011 § 5 Comments

Paintings by William Keith hang in the Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco. Photograph by Jim Karageorge


A great personality was evident to all who came in contact with William Keith. A rather thick-set Scot of medium height, with a head of true nobility — a broad face, wide forehead, kindly gray eyes, ample, well-shaped nose, a moustache and small beard hiding his lips, and a mass of tousled grizzly gray hair surmounting his Jovian head — such was the impression one got of him at first meeting. He generally wore a suit of fine checked gray, more often with the careless abandon of an artist than with the neatly pressed creases of a business or professional man.

To his intimate friends he was always gracious, although they sometimes found him in an exuberant mood and again utterly dejected and despondent. It all depended on whether his work was progressing satisfactorily or not. When he had dashed off an inspired masterpiece he was jubilant and triumphant, but when he had laboriously slaved over something that just would not come out as he intended, he was in the black depths of despair.

Of all his friends, the Rev. Joseph Worcester probably exercised the greatest personal influence over his life and work. Mr. Keith came of good old Scotch Presbyterian stock, but the mystic doctrines of Immanuel Swedenborg, as preached by Mr. Worcester, had quite obliterated the older faith. Indeed, Mr. Keith had grown too liberal for any creed, although he used to jokingly observe that his only chance of getting into heaven was by holding on to Mr. Worcester’s coattails.

A quiet power that could move mountains

An extraordinary person was Joseph Worcester. Shy as an inexperienced girl, reserved and restrained to an almost morbid degree, he was yet a determined fighter for his principles. Tall and slender, with a florid complexion, his averted eyes looking downward as he faced you, nevertheless there was in the man a quiet power that could move mountains. In his repressed suit of black, he stood before one as a personality of no ordinary type. His deep, low voice was full of emotion. Above all else he was a man of taste, an aesthete whose word was law in the select group of connoisseurs of which he was the center. But his taste was always for the subdued, the grave, the repressed. I could not but feel that he exercised a dampening influence over Mr. Keith. The artist wished above all to win the approbation of this extraordinary friend. When Mr. Worcester came into the studio and caught Mr. Keith working away at a great sunset of glorious color, with the golden light suffusing sky and trees, and a riot of crimson clouds reflected in a patch of water in the foreground, Mr. Worcester would look at the canvas with an air of pained tolerance, and then, turning to a dark and gloomy nocturne on an easel nearby, would say quietly: “I like this one better.”

William Keith in the 1870s

It was at the studio that I first met that other illustrious Scot, John Muir. They had been together on many camping trips in the Sierra Nevadas and were life-long friends. And yet, with so much in common, they never quite understood one another. Muir worshipped nature, but when it came to landscapes he wanted to see its geology and flora depicted with the fidelity of a naturalist. How often I have seen the two in good-natured raillery, when Keith would show him a landscape charged with poetic feeling and Muir would poke fun at it in his droll manner, appearing to utterly fail to see its beauty. Then he would turn to a hard, photographic mountain scene and exclaim: “Now there’s a real picture for you! That’s got some meaning to it.”

Sometimes Keith would get considerably annoyed at the banter, but he had far too great an admiration for Muir to let it last. All would end happily when the three of us would repair to one of those characteristic French restaurants of old San Francisco and have a hearty luncheon with soup with grated cheese, fillet of sole with tartar sauce, braised oxtail and French fried cream, with Dago red wine and fizz water to wash it down. Such a meal in such company was an experience to live in memory through all the vicissitudes of an eventful life.

Nearsightedness helped his work

One of his favorite devices was painting over old pictures. Again and again I have seen him take a large canvas with a carefully finished landscape upon it, place it upon his easel and start in with a savage onslaught, mussing it up with great daubs and masses of paint until the original picture was utterly spoiled. Then, out of the confusion, under his deft strokes, a totally new conception would emerge, glowing, brilliant and bold. When it was blocked in, he would let the paint dry and then go at it again with broken pieces of glass or an old razor blade, scraping and scratching the thick outer layers of paint to let the undercolors shine through. By this means novel textures and color effects were obtained that gave a rich tapestry-like effect to the picture.

Other effects were obtained by taking frayed old brushes that spattered on intricate foliage effects or splashes of grass that seemed so careless but were always done with the most deft and clever craftsmanship. Wiping out with rags gave still different surfaces and textures. He always painted standing, and when in an excited mood would tiptoe back and forth, vigorously attacking the canvas and then moving back to note the effect. Much of his work was done with the brush lightly held at arm’s length. He explained to me that his nearsightedness helped his work because he saw it slightly blurred and thus attained broader effects.

His finest work was done in such an abstraction that he was scarcely conscious of what he was about. Often I have seen him, after an hour of intense absorption, come out of his trance dripping with perspiration and say: “Well, that’s come out pretty well, hasn’t it?”

Then someone introduced him to Chinese temple gongs. These great hand-wrought bronze cauldrons are so finely tempered that when struck with a big felted hammer the boom goes reverberating on for many minutes. Mr. Keith was fascinated with them. Although they are expensive, he bought several for his studio. He would play on them by the hour, listening to the liquid quavering waves of sound that followed each stroke of the hammer. It produced a psychic effect upon him and induced him to paint a series of his most gorgeous and most imaginative works. He called them his gong pictures, and they were vibrant with color and charged with imaginative feeling.

The magic portals of Keith’s Studio

William Keith in his studio

Mr. Keith had long since moved from his Montgomery Street studio and had taken a large suite of expensive rooms for his studio on the second floor of a Pine Street building right in the heart of the business district. With rich oriental rugs on the floor, endless massive gold frames on the walls, Chinese furniture and temple gongs, his quarters were those of an artist prince, quite worthy of his preeminent standing in the community. No distinguished visitor to San Francisco had seen the city until he had been inducted into the magic portals of Keith’s Studio. He was in the heyday of his fame and fortune. His pictures had been hung in the Metropolitan Museum, the Chicago Art Gallery, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, in Senator Clark’s private gallery in New York and in a number of the great picture galleries of Europe.

Still he was the same simple, unostentatious man. One day he said to me: “All I care about is the fun of painting. Nothing else counts. It’s just the satisfaction of the work.”

“I’m going to put you to the test,” I replied. “Suppose over the door of your studio were a sign: ‘No mortal save William Keith shall ever enter this studio, and at his death all that it contains shall be destroyed.’ Would you, under those conditions, go on painting?”

“No,” he answered, “you are right. I wouldn’t. You must paint to win the praise and understanding of others.”

Then came the 1906 earthquake and fire

Such was the life of William Keith before that memorable morning in April 1906 when a great earthquake roiled along the coast of central California, starting a conflagration that in less than four days burned out the business heart and much of the residential areas of San Francisco, devastating nearly 10 square miles of the seaport metropolis. The fires broke out almost immediately after the earthquake, and by the time Mr. Keith was able to cross the bay, he found the flames raging along the waterfront and approaching the business center from many directions. He made a futile attempt to reach the studio. Soldiers and police turned him back at every street. It was evident his studio was doomed, and the accumulation of a lifetime of indefatigable work would inevitably be shortly reduced to ashes. He had no inventory of his pictures, but estimated that there were fully 2,000 canvases in all. The larger ones at that time were selling at from $1,000 to $5,000, and in exceptional instances he was receiving $7,000 or $8,000 for his most important works.

While all Berkeley was in a tumult, with thousands of refugees pouring in from the stricken city, and the ominous boom of dynamite sounding day and night from the firefighters vainly trying to arrest the flames, Mr. Keith was working away at home on his pictures, resolved to recreate the dreams of splendor of his lifelong devotion to the beauties of nature. He had no qualification for organization of relief work and he was helpless as a child in coping with the emergency. But he was at the zenith of his power as a painter, and was resolved to carry on though the heavens were falling about his head.

Mr. Worcester, with a little group of San Francisco admirers, made their way to his studio before it burned, cut from their frames a few pictures which they especially admired, and took them home and buried them. At that time no one knew that any portion of the stricken city could be saved. These few were the only canvasses in his studio that escaped destruction. Furthermore, great numbers of his pictures owned by San Francisco residents were burned with the homes in which they hung.

Through the succeeding days of the conflagration and through the hectic weeks and months of emergency relief work that followed, Mr. Keith was at home painting. He worked as one inspired. Every intimate secret of nature’s moods in landscape effects was photographed in his mind from a life of study and communion. All the tricks of technique were at his fingertips. His incalculable loss had stimulated his creative faculty to new heights. Like some great composer, pouring forth his emotion in mighty outbursts of inspired improvisation, he painted new and glorious landscapes. To me it seemed like a miracle as I saw the new collection grow and accumulate about him.

In an old stable, a new art gallery

No sooner was the work of destruction ended in San Francisco, the refugees fed in bread lines and clothed from distributing stations, and the debris sufficiently cleared to make passageways through the ruins, than enterprising merchants went to work remodeling homes into stores along the broad Van Ness Avenue, where the firefighters in a last determined stand had halted the onsweeping flames. The art dealers Vickery, Atkins and Torrey moved a spacious old stable upon an empty lot on California Street just west of Van Ness Avenue, built an artistic temporary annex on the front, and opened up their new art store, while the great open spaces of the city below still lay in the confused disorder in which they had been left by the fire. And on the burlap walls of that transformed stable, Mr. Keith had the opening exhibit of the new art gallery. The walls were filled with his pictures painted since the disaster. They were paintings of great beauty, of great virtuosity, of great feeling for nature, and of deep insight. There was nothing indicating haste or crudity about them. The inimitable Keith touch, the sureness, the mastery were all there. It was an incredible feat of creative productivity.

In Mr. Keith’s friends, this tour de force excited the greatest wonder and admiration. How was it humanly possible to have accomplished all this in so short a time? But unfortunately there were others who envied this great achievement. “Keith was beginning to commercialize his work,” they said. “Pot boilers!” sniffed others with a superior air. “How his work has deteriorated,” complained the jealous ones who had done nothing since the disaster but feel sorry for themselves. Probably no one had made closer study of Mr. Keith’s work than I, and for the life of me I could see no marks of haste or deterioration in his style or handling. To me these post-fire productions seemed in his very finest manner. Mr. Keith was a keen and just critic of his own work, and he considered these pictures to be in his best style. They were not to be estimated by the time it took to paint them. Indeed every one of them had taken from 40 to 50 years to achieve.

The San Francisco fire did something to San Francisco besides the destruction of over $400 million worth of property. It seemed to burn out the old romantic and poetic spirit. With Mr. Keith it appeared the turning point in his life and fame. He could not be kept away from the city where his life work had been wrought. Soon after that notable exhibition, he moved into a new studio in a temporary building just off Van Ness Avenue. John Zeile, a wealthy art connoisseur and Keith enthusiast, had built it and occupied a part of the structure with an art furniture store and studios for the artists Arthur and Lucia Mathews. Upstairs Mr. Keith continued his work with the same undiminished zeal. But one day, making his way through the ruins to the ferry, he stumbled and struck his face close to the left eye on a stake. He was a heavy man, and the injury was a serious one. I was off camping in the Sierras at the time, but on returning found him much shaken by the experience. He worked with more of an effort after that, but so long as he was able to walk to the train, he went regularly to his San Francisco studio.

The intangible power of genius

It is now many years since Mr. Keith left us in 1911. His memory is still as fresh in the minds of those who loved him as if he had but just departed. There was a simplicity, a forthrightness and a loyalty in the man that had lasting qualities. But beyond that was an intangible power which only a genius possesses. Intense, reverent, loving, guileless of heart, a passionate adorer of beauty and a worker of such concentration of purpose that he never ceased his labors until his last illness laid him low.

Here was no ordinary man.

Excerpted from an unpublished manuscript by Charles Keeler, author of The Simple Home. Photographs by Scott McCue, courtesy of St. Mary’s College Museum of Art.


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