Saturday, March 8, 2014

THE GENIUS OF ROBERT LEE KEELING (born Baltimore c. 1864)

Robert Lee Keeling was born in Baltimore, USA.  His father, Robert James Keeling, was a clergyman.  His mother was Elizabeth Bend Polk (1830-1874) and her son's miniature of her is now in the New York Historical Society Museum.  He had a sister, Rose, who married Stilson Hutchins, the founder of the Washington Post, and the couple became well known in the newspaper Society columns.   

By the time he was 16, Keeling's family had moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and the 1880 Census reveals that he was still at school at that time.  In June 1891 the New York Times reported that a sketch performed at the Lyceum Theatre called 'A Lesson in Acting' featured a young Robert Lee Keeling 'hitherto unheard of, was the real thing....'   Although Keeling started his career as a stage actor, by the time he was in his 30's he was a miniature painter of great repute.   It is not known where he trained as an artist.   

In  March 1893 the New York Times announced that Keeling was to marry Nannie Key Michell (nee Tyson), a widow some 20 years older than him, previously married to a wealthy auctioneer.

Keeling's reputation as a miniature painter soon took on near legendary status on both sides of the Atlantic.  American newspapers made much of his Royal commissions  to paint Queen Alexandra in 1901, and King Edward VII the following year.  He painted many a famous family in both Europe and America and gossip about his personal life featured in a clutch of newspapers in 1897, when his first wife, Nannie Key Keeling , from whom he was estranged, aged 'in her fifties', was found dead in her home.   Apparently the marriage was unhappy and the couple had soon separated, with Nannie living most of the time in New York and Keeling living in Washington.  Even the New York Times ran the story in its September 19th 1897 edition.

Keeling was a frequent visitor to England and exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1905. He mixed with the cream of society with families like the Vanderbilts and Stuyvesants and his comings and goings were dutifully recorded in the Social Pages - what parties he attended, where he was staying, who he was seeing.  

This miniature by him dated 1903 may possibly be his second wife, Caroline.  Originally in a gold frame and kept in its Tiffany leather travel case purchased from Bond Street, London, the suggestion is that it was painted in London.  The romantic and superb setting of the miniature attest to it being a gift of love.  

There were still newspaper reports of him living with Caroline Weldon in New York in 1910 but in January 1912, his personal life again became a 'cause celebre' when Caroline divorced him, citing that 'he had failed to provide her with the necessaries of life for the past year... and had deserted her'. Much was made of the fact that she was a great beauty.  Having been granted the divorce, tongues wagged again when she remarried with indecent haste.... to her lawyer.  

New York Times June 18th 1916 showing an image of a miniature by Keeling of Mrs. William A. Hamilton

The dodgy reputation did not appear to harm his career or his  ' invitability' and Keeling was still regularly appearing in the newspaper Social Columns, often accompanied by his married sister, Rose.  His frequent trips to Europe continued with a report in the New York Times October 7th 1922 announcing his recent return and giving his address as 135 East Thirty Fourth Street, New York, an address used by him for some years.  

Keeling miniatures are rare.  He signed his work 'Keeling' with a flashy flourish.  Please let us know if you have one of these miniatures as we would love to see more of his work.  


  1. Thanks for this piece. RLK is my great uncle. I have a miniature of his sister Rose that he did, along with a framed canvas portrait of her. I also have a black and white photo portrait of "Uncle Bob". In case you did not know, through Elizabeth Bend Polk, he is a descendent of Charles Willson Peale. Would be happy to share more should you be interested.

  2. Hello. I have acquired a miniature portrait, in a molded Tiffany's travel case (suggested) of Frank Hatton, 32nd US Post Master General, by RLK. Hatton purchased the Washington Post from Stilson Huchins after he left the cabinet.
    I was hoping that someone could share some information about RLK and/or the piece that I have. I gifted the piece to my father for Christmas. I would like to have as much of the story as I can piece together, to accompany the heirloom piece, as Frank Hatton is a descendant.
    Please contact me directly through Portrait Miniature Club who will pass on your details to me without publishing them. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
    Thank you, in advance, for you time and any information you can share.
    Susan Hatton