Landscape painter. Born in Aberdeen, Scotland on Nov. 21, 1838. In 1850 Keith immigrated with his family to New York where, as a teenager, he was apprenticed to a wood engraver. He is believed to have come to San Francisco for two months in 1858 as an employee of Harper Brothers publishers. Following this assignment, he visited Scotland and worked in England for the London Daily News. Having saved enough money, he returned to San Francisco in 1858 and opted to remain. He went to work in the engraving shop of Harrison Eastman and later established his own engraving business with Durbin Van Vleck at 611 Clay Street. Keith became interested in painting and first studied with Samuel Brookes in 1863. The following year he married artist Elizabeth Emerson and, under her tutelage, began painting in watercolor. In 1868 he gave up engraving to devote full time to painting and the following year the Keiths were in Dusseldorf where he studied with Flamm and Achenbach. After visiting the galleries and museums of Dresden and Paris, they returned to the U.S. and had a studio in Boston which they shared with artist William Hahn. Upon returning to San Francisco in 1872, Keith met naturalist John Muir who took him into the most remote parts of Yosemite, taught him the names of the trees and plants, and thoroughly acquainted him with nature's wonders. Keith's wife died in 1882, and one year later he married Mary McHenry who was the first woman to graduate from Hastings Law School. In 1883 Keith made his second trip to Europe to study portraiture with Carl Marr in Munich for three years. Shortly after returning to California, the Keiths moved to Berkeley into a home at 2207 Atherton.
William Keith's oeuvre can be divided into two periods: his early works are often mountain epics in descriptive realism as espoused by the Dusseldorf School; whereas, the paintings done during the last two decades of his life are more closely akin to those of the Barbizon painters. His later paintings are darker, smaller and more intimate with emphasis on mood. Keith commuted daily by ferry to his San Francisco studio and many of his later works are pastoral landscapes of Berkeley with oak trees, cows, and ponds which he sketched en route. He painted nearly 4,000 oil paintings of which 2,000 burned in the fire of 1906. The women artists who studied under Keith are many; he seldom took male pupils, and his style was copied by several artists. He has been called "Dean of California Artists" and "California's Old Master." Honors accorded Keith include an entire room devoted to his work at the Pan-Pacific International Exposition of 1915; The Keith Gallery was opened in 1934 at St. Mary's College in Moraga; and in 1956 the William Keith Memorial Gallery opened at the Oakland Public Library. Streets in Oakland and Berkeley are named for him.
Exhibited: California State Fair, 1872-94 (medals); San Francisco Art Association, 1872-1911; Mechanics' Institute (SF), 1874-1911 (medals); National Academy of Design, 1882; World's Columbian Expo (Chicago), 1893; California Midwinter Expo, 1894; London, 1897 (solo); Pan-American Expo (Buffalo), 1901 (bronze medal); Lewis & Clark Expo (Portland), 1905; Del Monte Art Gallery, 1907-12; Alaska-Yukon Expo (Seattle), 1909 (gold medal).
In: Los Angeles County Museum of Art; California Historical Society; Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington DC); Metropolitan Museum; Nevada Museum (Reno); Crocker Museum (Sacramento); Art Institute of Chicago; Oakland Museum; Southwest Museum (LA); National Museum of American Art; Mills College (Oakland); UC Berkeley; Stanford University; Boston Museum; Bohemian Club; De Young Museum; California State Capitol; Cleveland Museum; Society of California Pioneers; Carnegie Institute; Brooklyn Museum; Orange County Museum; Jonathan Club (LA)
(Source: Hughes, Edan Milton. "Artists in California, 1786-1940, Vol. II" Sacramento: Crocker Art Muesum, 2002.)