Stirring scenes of national significance figure heavily in John Ross Key’s oeuvre. From his panoramic painting of Charleston, South Carolina’s Fort Sumter and grand vistas of the frontier West to this view of the nation’s capital, Key’s proud heritage as the grandson of Francis Scott Key, author of the lyrics of "The Star Spangled Banner," is evident.
Born in Maryland, Key was raised in part by his famous grandfather in Washington, D.C. His youthful proficiency in drawing led to employment as a topographical artist and draftsman with the United States Coast Survey in the 1850s. James McNeill Whistler was a colleague in the department, a friendship Key later recounted in a manuscript titled “Recollections of Whistler While in the Office of the United States Coast Survey.” He also served as a cartographer with the Lander Expedition of 1859, charting overland trails through the unsettled western territories of Nevada and Wyoming as part of the establishment of the California Trail. At the outbreak of the Civil War, the artist, along with several Key cousins, joined Confederate forces. From 1863 to 1865, he was assigned to Charleston, where he executed meticulous maps of the strategic harbor and recorded dramatic battle scenes, including the monumental Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Siege of Charleston Harbor, 1863, a work once misattributed to Albert Bierstadt.
At war’s end, Key settled in Baltimore where his war scenes found a sympathetic audience and critical acclaim. He also worked in New York and was represented in important exhibitions over the following decades, including the National Academy of Design, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Corcoran Gallery. Beginning in 1869, Key lived in San Francisco and traveled throughout California, painting dramatic scenic views, including The Golden Gate, an oil painting that was awarded a gold medal at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. From 1873 to 1875, Key is believed to have studied at European art academies in Munich and Paris before establishing a studio in Boston. His tenure in Boston was a season of heightened productivity and praise. In 1877, a selection of charcoal drawings shown at the Boston Athenaeum was noted as “among the best ever shown in Boston, firm and masterly, strong and graceful." Key’s final years were spent in Baltimore, where he died in 1920.
Key’s works are represented in important museum collections across the country, including the White House Historical Association, Fine Art Museums of San Francisco, University of Michigan Art Museum, Missouri History Museum, Morris Museum of Art, and Greenville County (SC) Museum of Art.