John Ross Key (1837-1920)

John Ross Key (1837-1920)

As the great grandson of a U.S. District Attorney, the great nephew of a Supreme Court Chief Justice and the grandson of Francis Scott Key, author of the “Star Spangled Banner,” John Ross Key may have been expected to pursue studies in the law, yet he had a proclivity for the arts. Primarily self-taught, Key grew up in Washington, DC, and was employed as a draftsman for the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey while still a teenager. Through this work, he was given the opportunity to accompany the Lander expeditions out West as a mapmaker, a trip that would foment in young Key a desire to explore and sketch as many new places as he could. When the Civil War broke out, Key joined the Confederacy, serving with the Corps of Engineers in Charleston, South Carolina. His duties included mapmaking and recording scenes in and around Charleston Harbor and Fort Sumter, and after the war, he would exhibit paintings inspired by these studies in Baltimore, Washington, DC, and New York to positive reviews.  

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Key stayed on the East Coast immediately following the war, working in Boston and New York, but traveled to San Francisco in the early 1870s to paint popular scenes of the Northern California area including views of the Sierra Nevadas, as well as the Golden Gate Bridge, Point Lobos and Yosemite. Many of his West Coast paintings were made into chromolithographs by Louis Prang in the 1870s. Between 1873 and 1875, Key went abroad to continue his training, working in Munich and Paris, and traveling through the continent studying the old masters. 

Upon his return to America, Key worked in a number of cities including New York, Baltimore, Chicago and also Boston, where he held an exhibit of nearly 100 works at Williams and Everett Gallery in 1877. Boston also allowed him close proximity to the popular painting grounds of New Hampshire’s White Mountains and the wilds of Maine. 

Key exhibited at the National Academy of Design, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Boston Athenaeum, among other institutions, and was awarded a gold medal for his painting of the Golden Gate Bridge at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Today his work can be found in several public collections, including the Greenville County Museum of Art, in Greenville, South Carolina, which counts Key’s panoramic view of the Bombardment of Fort Sumter as part of its holdings.

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