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William Keith, a Friend of John Muir

by Steve Pauly

John Muir developed a diverse set of long time friends from many different walks of life: educators, scientists, writers, philosophers, artists, mountaineers, and confidants. In this issue we discuss one of these friends, landscape artist William Keith.

Muir and Keith met in October 1872 in Yosemite Valley. Keith carried a letter of introduction from a mutual friend, Jeanne Carr. Floy Hutchings led Keith and two other painters to Muir who was at his cabin below the Royal Arches. Keith inquired whether Muir knew of any views that would make a picture. Muir replied that he did, and two days later led the a group of five (Muir, Keith, Irwin Benoni, Thomas Ross, and Merrill Moores) to the upper Tuolumne River area. As it turned out, Willie and Johnnie, as they soon called each other, were born in the same year in Scotland. They became close friends for the next forty years, until Keith's death in 1911. Keith wrote in his journal that "When we got to Mount Lyell, it was the grandest thing I ever saw. It was late in October, and at an elevation of 10,000 fttet. The frost had changed the grasses and a kind of willow to the most brilliant yellows and reds; these contrasting with the two-leafed pine and Williamson spruce, the cold gray rocks, the colder snow, made a glorious sight." Muir reported the outing rather differently, writing that when they rounded a corner and Mt. Lyell came into view, "Keith dashed forward, shouting and gesticulating and waving his arms like a madman." Keith, an epicure, also wrote that Muir was a poor provider on their outings, and that he tired of bread, dried meat, and sugarless coffee.

Muir and Keith enjoyed serveral other outings together, including the Tuolumne Canyon (with Mrs. Carr and Albert Kellogg, 1873); Yosemite Creek, Lake Tenaya, past Mt. Hoffman, Tuolumne Meadows, Soda Springs, Mts. Dana and Gibbs, and down Bloody Canyon to Mono Lake (with John Swett and J.B. McChesney, 1875), Mt. Shasta (1888), and Muir Woods (1908).

The two Scots had differing opinions on many topics. For example, in Keith's early career, he included great detail in his paintings and worked hard, following John Ruskin's admonition "to copy nature," to recreate the scene with great accuracy. Naturally, Muir approved. In later years, Keith avoided detail and became more impressionistic. Muir chided him to put the detail back in. For his part, Keith kept after Muir to take the detail out of his writing.

In 1876 when Muir was highly nervous over his first public lecture in Sacramento, Keith knowing this loaned one of his paintings, The Headwaters of the Merced, telling Muir to take it to the Congregational Church and "Just look at the painting Johnny. You'll think you're back in the mountains. You'll relax and be fine." Muir did take the painting to Sacramento and placed it in the church before the guests arrived. The painting did rescue Muir from a dismal, aploogetic, beginning, and during the lecture, Muir pronounced it "as topographically correct as it is beautiful and artistic."

Several Keith paintings hung in the Muir ranch house, including Yosemite, Tuolumne Meadows, Mt. Shasta, Sierra Scene, Yosemite (on a cigar box lid), Mt. Rainier, a sketch of Wanda, The Berkeley Oaks, and portraits of Dr. Strentzel and Mrs. Strentzel. The Strentzel portraits hang in the County Museum in Martinez. The ranch house has photographic reproductions of several of these, and the originals are in the homes of the descendents. The Hearst Art Gallery at St. Mary's College in Moraga has a collection of 150 Keiths, and a permanent exhibition of a small portion of these can be seen in the Keith room at the Gallery. Keith's Mt. Lyell, painted from sketches done on the 1872 trip to the upper Tuolumne area with John Muir, is in the St. Mary's collection.


From the February, 1996 issue of The View from John Muir's Window, the John Muir Memorial Association Newsletter.

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