Elizabeth Keith (1881  - 1956; pronounced Erizabesu Kisu in Japanese, エリザベス・キース) was born in Scotland and raised in London. Recently, a search of ancestry records suggests an alternate date of birth (1881 in Banff, Banffshire, not Aberdeenshire) rather than the universally cited year 1887. Keith died from complications of diabetes in London in 1956 (being a Christian Scientist, she refused medical intervention until it was too late).
There appears to be no record of Keith having had formal training in the arts. In 1915 she joined her sister Elspet Keith-Robertson in Japan and stayed for nine years. It was a fruitful period for Keith as she sketched with pencil and watercolors during travels in Japan, China, Korea, and the Philippines. In 1919 an exhibition in Tokyo of her watercolors on Korean subjects caught the attention of the central figure of the shin hanga movement, the publisher Watanabe Shôzaburô (渡辺庄三郎, 1885-1962), who soon had his studio craftsmen translate her "East Gate, Seoul, by Moonlight" into a color woodblock print. It would become one of her most sought-after and admired images. In her 1928 memoir of Japan, Eastern Windows, Keith wrote: "The leading printer [Watanabe], then a stranger to me, came to the exhibition and strongly advised me to have my water-colour of "East Gate, Seoul, by Moonlight", made into a colour-print. He declared that it would be a great success. I took his advice and he was right, for that subject is still the most popular of my prints."
Keith returned to England in 1924. Even so, Watanabe continued to publish her prints until around 1939, adapting more than 60 watercolors into woodblock prints. She traveled throughout her life, producing studies for prints that would number around 130 designs (most were color woodblock prints, the remainder color etchings). Keith's published prints are consistently professional and always well printed. At her best she combined anecdotal and documentary elements with a highly developed sense of color, a keen eye for detail, and compassion for her subjects.
For more about this artist, see Elizabeth Keith Biography.
Keith's finest color etching is offered here, known as "The Chinese Matriarch." Published in 1934 in an edition of only 25 (according to Miles, see ref. below), it was based on a watercolor study from 1919 in which a Buddhist nun posed in a finer coat than the one depicted in the etching. One is perhaps reminded of the celebrated color-print achievements of the impressionist Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), not in technique (Cassatt used soft ground etching, drypoint, and aquatint, and those works look stylistically more like Japanese woodblock prints), but in the attempts by both artists to adapt Japanese or, more broadly, Far Eastern subjects to the particular demands of European printing techniques and media. In her own way, Keith has successfully adapted the color woodblock method for the color etching process. What remains Western in manner is the volumetric shading of the figure. One of the arresting aspects of the design is the subtle and enigmatic expression of the woman's face, especially in the raised eyebrows and the suggestion of a smile. It is a singular achievement.
Our impression of the "Chinese Matriarch" is a richly inked printing of this much-admired design. This is a rare opportunity for the serious shin hanga or Keith collector to add one of her best and difficult-to-acquire works to their collection.
Prints by Elizabeth Keith are in many public institutional collections, including the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco; British Museum; Chazen Museum of Art (University of Wisconsin-Madison); Cincinnati Museum of Art; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Freer Gallery of Art (National Musuem of Asian Art, Smithsonian), Washington, DC; Honolulu Museum of Art; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, MA; and University of Southern Ccalifornia Pacific Asia Museum.
- Catalogue of Collections [Modern Prints]: The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (Tokyo kokuritsu kindai bijutsukan shozô-hin mokuroku, 東京国立近代美術館所蔵品目録). 1993, pp. 280-281, nos. 2708-2716.
- Keith, Elizabeth: Eastern Windows: An Artist's Notes of Travel in Japan, Hokkaidô, Korea, China, and the Philippines. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1928.
- Keith, Elizabeth & Robertson, Elspet Keith: Old Korea, The Land of the Morning Calm. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1928.
- Miles, Richard: Elizabeth Keith: The Printed Works. Singapore: EastWest Magazine Co., 1991, pp. 12-13, 35 (fig. 28), and 40 (caption only for fig. 44).
- Stephens, Amy Reigle (ed.): The New Wave: Twentieth-Century Japanese Prints from the Robert O. Muller Collection. London: Bamboo Pub., & Leiden, Hotei Japanese Prints, 1993, pp. 47-48 (fig. 32) and 214-216 (figs. 298-303).
- Zentner, Barbara: Elizabeth Keith: The Orient through Western Eyes. Eugene: University of Oregon, 1974