Great Re-framings: William Keith, John Muir and the Wilderness

We’re finishing 2014 with a flourish, having just re-framed two paintings by one of California’s greatest landscape painters, William Keith (1838-1911). The first is dated 1872, the year his fellow Scot John Muir introduced Keith to Yosemite, and so has great significance not only in the story of the painter’s life, but for the history of California and the United States—especially with respect to the conservation movement. The figure at the left, wearing white shirt and black trousers, is John Muir. Coincidentally, Muir died exactly 100 years ago (actually on Christmas Eve).


William Keith, “Sentinel Rock,” 1872. Oil on canvas, 18-1/4″ x 14-1/4″.


William Keith, “Sentinel Rock,” before re-framing

The following excerpt from Alfred Harrison’s excellent essay, “The Art of William Keith”* provides the historical background—and illuminates how both the painter and the great conservationist re-framed how we view the wilderness.

During their winter in Boston, [William’s wife] Lizzie Keith arranged for [the couple] to visit with her illustrious cousin, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson had recently returned from a trip to California that included a visit to Yosemite. While there, he told the Keiths that he had made the acquaintance of a remarkable, young, Scottish-born lover of the mountains named John Muir. Back in California, Keith heard Muir’s name again from his friends Ezra and Jeanne Carr… Jeanne Carr gave Keith a letter of introduction as Keith set out to visit Yosemite in the autumn of 1872. The same age, and from the same background, Keith and Muir immediately became friends…

In 1872, Muir was just beginning to be recognized as a significant interpreter of mountain environments and an advocate for preserving the wilderness. He had come to California in 1868, venturing on foot to Yosemite, where he was inspired by the grand scenery. Unlike eighteenth-century aesthetes who saw nature as a fallen world where the devil and God’s surrogates did battle, Muir considered the wilderness as God’s perfect handiwork, a morally-healthy cathedral that contained implicit sermons. Only where the clumsiness of man had interfered with creation—especially in what Muir referred to as the “choke-damp” of cities—did values deteriorate and life become a sordid struggle for survival.

The implication of such an outlook for the landscape painter was clear—paint the beauty of real nature. This view dovetailed neatly with Ruskin’s admonitions and the increasing influence of science that Muir himself was advancing. Despite his awareness that mountain grandeur was fading as a fashionable subject for landscapes, Keith himself was swept up in the enthusiasm for the newly-discovered Sierra Nevada and its awesome scenery.

Of course, one of the great transformations pointed to by this picture is that of the lives of Yosemite’s last Indians, seen here camped by the Merced River, as Europeans approach them and their lives undergo catastrophic alterations.

Among “Ruskin’s admonitions” with which both men were likely familiar, this one comes to mind: “Whenever people don’t look at Nature, they always think they can improve her.”** As I’ve argued, the main problem with gold frames is that they interfere with our ability to see the painting, and so to “look at nature.”

Wm Keith, “Mt Hood,” before re-framing

The second Keith painting, “Mt Hood,” is significant because it was a gift from the painter to the Governor of California, George Perkins. Interestingly, the Perkins family maintained that the painting depicted Mt Shasta, which is, unlike Mt Hood, located in the governor’s state. Did Keith give the governor a painting that happened to be looking for a home and render it a more suitable gift by simply telling the governor that the picture was of Mt Shasta? In any case, Keith clearly shared the sentiments expressed by Muir when he wrote, “The mountains are calling and I must go.”

William Keith, "Mount Hood," n.d. Oil on canvas, 16-1/2" x 31-1/2".

William Keith, “Mount Hood,” n.d. Oil on canvas, 16-1/2″ x 31-1/2″.

While Keith himself is known to have favored humbler settings than the gilt exhibition frames these came to us in, he had little or no control over how clients and dealers framed his work. Keith did achieve financial success, but nonetheless complained that his fortune never felt secure. As it did for most artists, living in constant fear of poverty had a lot to do with accepting the flattering packaging offered by the gilt frame convention.

The two frames are similar in profile—they’re basically our No. 348.108.1—but the one on “Sentinel Rock” is adapted to that painting’s more dramatic perspective and the walls of the Valley by sloping into the picture at a steeper angle. Both frames are quartersawn white oak, “Mt Hood”‘s stained Medieval Oak stain and “Sentinel Rock”‘s in Dark Medieval Oak.

Both examples have been added to the page, “Fixing a ‘Very Prevalent Error'”, where you can see the before and after shots side-by-side.

 More on William Keith…

Other Keiths we’ve frame are here, here and here.

*In The Comprehensive Keith: The Hundred Year History of the Saint Mary’s College Collection of Works by William Keith, ed. Carrie Brewster. Hearst Art Gallery, 2011. More on St Mary’s College’s William Keith collection…

**from “The Two Paths.”

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