John Ross Key was born in Hagerstown, Maryland. Key’s family lineage was impressive: his great-grandfather, John Ross Key (1754–1821), was a noted jurist who served as a general during the Revolutionary War, while his grandfather, Francis Scott Key (1779–1843), was the attorney, author, and poet who wrote the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Key’s own father, John Ross Key (1809–1837), died before his birth. He and his widowed mother, Virginia Ringgold Key, subsequently lived with his grandparents at the family homestead on the Potomac River.
As a child, Key demonstrated considerable artistic ability. While attending a local Catholic School, he taught himself drafting techniques, attaining a level of expertise that prompted the United States Coastal Survey in Washington, D.C., to hire him as a draftsman and mapmaker in 1853. Key remained in that position for three years, during which time he met and became friendly with the painter James McNeill Whistler, a fellow employee who spent his free time executing character sketches of his cohorts, Key among them. (Whistler’s portrait drawing of Key, executed in 1854, is in the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)
In 1859, Key joined the Lander Expedition as a cartographer, mapping trails in Nevada and Wyoming. When war broke out in 1861, he enlisted in the Confederate army, serving as an officer in the Corps of Engineers. While stationed at Charleston (1863–65), Key made sketches of the Union attack on the city that would later serve as source material for his masterwork, Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Siege of Charleston Harbor, 1863 (1865; Greenville Museum of Art, Greenville, South Carolina), an epic, topographically accurate canvas that formerly had been attributed to Albert Bierstadt. (See Alfred C. Harrison, Jr., “Bierstadt’s Bombardment of Fort Sumter Reattributed,” The Magazine Antiques CXXIX [February 1986], pp. 416–22). Indeed, when Key decided to pursue a career as a painter after the war, he adopted the heightened realist manner of the second-generation Hudson River School––a style that was well-suited to his former work as a mapmaker.
Key divided his time between New York and Baltimore until 1869, when he established a studio in San Francisco, where he painted landscapes inspired by visits to scenic locales such as Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, and the Sacramento Valley. Between 1873 and 1875 (while Key was traveling in England, Germany, and France), fifteen of his California scenes were published by the famous lithographic firm of Louis Prang & Company.
During the years he spent in Boston, Key expanded his repertoire of themes to include floral still lifes, a theme that would have appealed to collectors looking for intimate and affordable works of art for their parlors, dining rooms, and boudoirs. He also began to take an interest in interior decoration, an activity that he would avidly pursue in the years ahead. Thus far, Key had exhibited his work––landscapes depicting locales in New England, Virginia, California, and Europe––at venues such as the National Academy of Design in New York and the Boston Art Club. His growing reputation in national art circles was enhanced in 1876, when his oil, The Golden Gate, San Francisco (location unknown), was awarded a gold medal at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. In the following year, Key was accorded a one-man exhibition at the Boston Athenaeum.
In 1878, Key moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, augmenting his income by teaching high school while marketing his paintings at Boston galleries such as Williams & Everett, where he exhibited 104 of his works in 1880.
Key settled Chicago in 1883 and continued to paint and exhibit his work. However, after 1890, he made his living primarily as an interior decorator, executing commissions, including floral panels, for private homes. He also produced a series of paintings that depicted the various world fairs, including the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (1893) and the Trans-Mississippi International Exposition in Omaha, Nebraska (1898), many of which were reproduced as chromolithographs.
Key resided in the Windy City until 1904, when he settled in Washington, D.C. and devoted his time to easel painting. An exhibition of his work held in his studio in the Corcoran building in 1915 included views of public and historical buildings in the Washington area, such as the White House and Key’s ancestral home in Maryland, as well as landscapes and old-fashioned gardens.