John Ross Key

John Ross Key (1837-1920) was born July 16, 1837, two months after the death of his father. He was brought up in Georgetown, District of Columbia, until age five by his grandfather, Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star Spangled Banner.” As a teen-ager John Key was forced to go to work to support his widowed mother. His early talent for drawing led logically to a job as topographical artist and draftsman with the U.S. Coast Survey. In 1859 Key was hired as mapmaker in the advance party of the Lander Expedition whose mission was to chart the best overland trail for large wagon trains through the hostile Indian territories of Wyoming and Nevada. In 1861 along with several other grandsons of Francis Scott Key, Key chose the Confederacy and became a lieutenant in the Confederate Engineers, serving as a mapmaker in Charleston, S.C. and Richmond. His panoramic view of the bombardment of Fort Sumter enjoyed a glamorous exhibition history in the 20th century through its false attribution to Albert Bierstadt.

After the Civil War, Key launched into a career as a landscape painter, dividing his time between Baltimore and New York City.  He came to California in 1869 under the guidance of Gen. Henry Naglee of San Jose. Naglee had become wealthy as a businessman and banker in San Francisco during the 1850s and by 1869 had retired to a large estate on San Jose to manufacture brandy. He was the widower of Key’s first cousin, Marie Ringgold Naglee, who had died at age 22 earlier that year. Apart from painting views from the Naglee estate, Key also traveled to Yosemite and Lake Tahoe in the late summer and fall of 1869. He returned to the Bay Area and held exhibitions and sales of his paintings in San Francisco in the spring and fall of 1870. In Dec. 1870 Key borrowed some money from Gen. Naglee and returned east, first to Baltimore where he painted and exhibited views of California in April of 1871 and then to Boston where he was based for most of the 1870s. In 1873 the Boston firm of Louis Prang & Co. published about twelve chromolithographs of California scenes after his paintings. Key spent much of 1873 and ’74 in Germany, France and England. In 1876 his painting, “The Golden Gate,” was one of the few recipients of the first class honor at the Philadelphia Centennial. In 1881, Key, now married with three daughters, moved to Chicago where he opened a business devoted to interior decoration, painting only occasionally. In 1893 he was commissioned to paint views of the buildings and grounds of the World’s Columbian Exposition. He developed a career as an Exposition artist in Omaha, Buffalo and St. Louis. In the early part of this century, he once again devoted himself to pure painting, often choosing patriotic buildings for his subject matter. He died quite suddenly in 1920 of heart failure brought on by the flu.