Open daily. Always free.

American Art: William Keith, Mokelumne River, High Sierras

This week I am preparing for the upcoming exhibition Resource & Ruin: Wisconsin’s Enduring Landscape, which will open this December. I have been thinking about how to view American works in the collection from a perspective that foregrounds the environment. For example, this landscape painting featuring the Mokelumne River in the Sierra Nevada mountains. In 1849, gold was found in the river and prospective miners flocked there as part of the California Gold Rush. California’s population rapidly grew as “49ers” relocated there in large numbers hoping to strike gold. The gold rush was an environmental disaster. Mining operations changed the courses of rivers as miners built dams and clogged the rivers with sediment, affected water and soil quality as they released chemicals like mercury into the ground, and caused deforestation as they quickly logged the forests.

The image desxribed in the text

William Keith (American, b. Scotland, 1838-1911), “Mokelumne River, High Sierras,” ca. 1870s, oil on wood panel, 21 ¾ x 26 ½ in., gift of Mr. and Mrs. Michael Goodman, 1995.66.

Yet artist William Keith’s painting of the river from the 1870s reveals no human interference or signs of the ecological devastation in the region. Instead, the emphasis is on the vitality of the river and the majestic mountains in the distance. This scene would have pleased his California patrons, many of whom were involved in the railroad industry, which had benefited from the population surge of the Gold Rush and the subsequent national desire to build a transcontinental railroad. These railroad barons encouraged western settlement and tourism, leading to further environmental impacts in the region as Americans took trains into the mountains to see sights like the one pictured here.

—Janine Yorimoto Boldt, Associate Curator of American Art