A snow-covered peak hovers above a shadowy gully of gnarled tree trunks, rocks, and a small stream. Sunlight illuminates the middle ground, lifting our gaze through the rough terrain toward the ethereal glow of Mount Shasta. This oil painting by William Keith (1838–1911) moves beyond a depiction of topography to evoke the experience of coming upon a view of the majestic mountain.
The untitled piece is featured in the California Historical Society’s recently opened exhibition From the Gold Rush to the Earthquake: Selections from the Collection. The show considers themes that were popular among California painters in the second half of the nineteenth century alongside related archival material. Keith’s Mount Shasta canvas, framed in what appears to be its original gilt molding, is the centerpiece of a section about wilderness exploration.
Keith began his career in San Francisco in 1859, first as a wood engraver and then as a painter, just as the city was poised to enter a golden age of landscape painting. New hotels and social clubs along with wealthy private patrons—rich from mining, real estate, and the railroads—needed large-scale works to hang on the walls of mansions and ballrooms. Wilderness scenery, especially views of Yosemite Valley, made for grand, regionally specific subject matter that flattered the tastes of California’s elites. The market also extended to the East Coast, where gallery audiences viewed paintings of Western scenery with curiosity and awe.
After some time away from California—honing his skills in Düsseldorf, Paris, and Boston—Keith made his first trip to Yosemite Valley in 1872 and met explorer John Muir. The same age and both Scottish born, the two became close friends. Muir, who was on his way to becoming a leading advocate for the preservation of nature, encouraged Keith to make realistic paintings of Yosemite. The large-scale works that resulted from Keith’s visits to the valley established him as among the most accomplished artists in California.
Keith traveled extensively to other wilderness sites in California and the Pacific Northwest, making sketches that he would later translate into paintings. Mount Shasta, with its dramatically rising peak, was a frequent subject. In 1888 Keith visited Shasta to create illustrations for Muir’s book Picturesque California. Though Muir pressed for verisimilitude, by then Keith’s aesthetic had matured to embrace a more impressionistic style. Keith noted his friend’s disapproval: “Since I have got to look at Nature in this way and in a sense have turned my back on the mountains and objective nature, Mr. Muir thinks of me as one of the lost, a son of perdition.”1
Keith had become increasingly interested in depicting subjective, spiritual qualities in nature. In this untitled canvas, a work from late in his career, Shasta appears as a heavenly apparition. The painting moves our eyes along a path from the blackness of the forest, through the bright green foothills, up to the seemingly weightless, opalescent mountain set against the sky. It is the revelation of an excellent view awarded to the diligent hiker and a metaphor for a journey of the soul. Surely it was not the poetry of finding signs of the almighty in nature that irked Muir—it was Keith’s loose handling of the details, his faithlessness to geological and botanical truths. The open brushwork is also what gives the painting its own kind of truth. What looks crude and incomprehensible from up close coalesces into something ordered and meaningful when viewed from a slight distance.
Come see for yourself! The painting is on view—along with many others from the California Historical Society collection—through March 2020.
 From a lecture on art Keith gave at his Pine Street studio in the mid-1890s, quoted in Brother Fidelis Cornelius, Keith Old Master of California (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1942), 1:274.