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The nursery of patriotism

William Keith, Yosemite Valley, 1875

Focus work

William Keith
Yosemite Valley 1875
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, AT Jergins Bequest, photo © Museum Associates / LACMA

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation granting the Yosemite Valley to California for ‘public use, resort and recreation’. This act set a precedent for the later declaration of Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872.

William Keith first journeyed to Yosemite with John Muir, naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, in 1872. In the Yosemite Valley, Muir declared, ‘Nature had gathered her choicest treasures, to draw her lovers into close and confiding communion with her’. Keith’s painting of the placid Merced River and the massive Cathedral Rocks reflected Muir’s contrasting of the ‘stern, immovable majesty’ of rocks and the ‘frail and fleeting’ ecology of the valley floor. Keith has included in the painting both tourists and the Native American inhabitants of the valley, the Ahwahnechee, who were repeatedly evicted from the area.

Issues for discussion

Discuss the term ‘the nursery of patriotism’. What does it mean and how does this landscape painting support its ideal? What other layer of meaning has the artist captured by including both Native Americans and tourists in this scene? Is this painting a true interpretation of the landscape and the people? Discuss.

Artist biography

William Keith migrated to America at the age of 12 with his widowed mother. He began work as a wood engraver at the New York publishers Harper & Brothers in 1857 and in 1858 was sent on assignment to San Francisco, where he decided to settle. Keith studied painting with Samuel Marsden Brookes in 1863 before taking watercolour classes from Elizabeth Emerson, whom he married in 1864. Encouraged by his wife, Keith began to make watercolours of the Californian landscape. In 1868 he began oil painting, receiving a commission to paint sites along the Northwest Coast route of the Oregon Navigation & Railroad Company. Between 1870 and 1872 he travelled in Europe, spending six months in Dusseldorf, where he studied with Albert Flamm before travelling to Paris where he saw the work of the Barbizon painters. He returned to Europe twice, in 1883–85 and 1893–99. Keith travelled widely in the American West in the company of photographer Carleton E Watkins and naturalist John Muir. With Muir he explored the Sierra Madre Mountains of California numerous times, developing an intimacy with the landscape that was reflected in his light-filled, panoramic vistas of the period and earned him recognition as the chief painter of the American West Coast. In the 1880s he became influenced by the philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg and his aesthetic moved towards atmospheric landscapes more concerned with mood and tone rather than evocations of a particular place. In the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 Keith lost more than 2000 paintings when his studio burnt down.

More information

Los Angeles County Museum of Art website

Further activities

By the mid 19th century, US territory had expanded from the original Atlantic colonies to reach the Pacific coast. Frontier life had shaped an American character and advocates of expansion had dubbed natural scenery ‘the nursery of patriotism’.

By 1869, however, the transcontinental railroad connected east and west, and by 1890 the American frontier was declared closed. Nevertheless, landscape and the national narrative remained strongly linked. The modification of the landscape – referred to as ‘improvement’ – was an affirmation of the success of the great experiment of liberty.

The contemplation of creation – reading ‘the book of nature’ – offered a moral and spiritual narrative. Artists, poets and philosophers urged the contemplation of nature, for the beautiful was the good. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s declaration that ‘Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact’ suggested that landscape paintings offered an opportunity to transcend materialism and establish a ‘pure sympathy with universal’.