William Merritt Chase

by Stanley Meisler

Smithsonian Magazine - February 2001"William Merritt Chase" by Stanley Meisler was originally published in the February 2001 issue of the Smithsonian Magazine. A short abstract is available on the Smithsonian Magazine website. The complete text of the article is published here (copyright © 2001 - Stanley Meisler, all rights reserved). Subscribe to the Smithsonian Magazine.


Praised by Critics, Admired by Colleagues and Respected by Students, the Distinguished 19th-Century Artist Produced Paintings and Pastels of Gentle Beauty

William Merritt Chase dominated the universe of American art during the late 19th century. He was one of the first artists to turn out Impressionist landscapes in the United States, a portrait painter of the first rank, a master of still life, a renowned teacher, a leader of societies of artists, and a gifted connoisseur of European painting. He also knew everyone who counted in American art.

Chase created the image of the typical artist for most Americans in his day. He believed in theatrical self-promotion, in the need for an artist like himself to show that he was different from the rest of society. He filled his studio with objets d'art and so much bric-a-brac that it became the talk of New York. When he walked down the street, he wanted onlookers to know he was an artist - a rather dandy, gentlemanly, eccentric artist.

All eyes, according to an artist friend, would focus on Chase, "a gallant gentleman...with mustache slightly tilted," as he sauntered "down the Avenue wearing a flat brimmed French silk hat, a broad black ribbon hanging from his glasses, and accompanied by a beautiful white Russian wolfhound." Sometimes his servant, Daniel, followed behind, dressed in a fez and Turkish pantaloons.

Despite the pose, Chase, the Indiana-born son of a failed shoe store owner, was thrilled at his own success and reputation. "He came to New York as a young guy from the Midwest," says Barbara Dayer Gallati of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, a leading authority on Chase. "I don't think he ever got over it. He may have said to himself, 'How did I get here? They are going to find me out!'"

Notwithstanding such moments of possible self-doubt, Chase produced paintings and pastels of gentle and wondrous beauty. Gallati has assembled more than 30 of them, mostly early Impressionist coastal scenes and landscapes of Central Park in Manhattan and other city parks in Brooklyn, for an exhibition called "William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes." The show opened at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in May 2000, and then went on to the Art Institute of Chicago. Its final stop is the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, where it will remain through March 11, 2001.

The works on display were created during a five-year period when Chase was experimenting with the techniques of the French Impressionists. These paintings came out of a crucial time in his career and can be understood best by looking at how they fit into his life's work as a whole.

As a young man, Chase, born in 1849, tried twice to break from Indiana. He joined the Navy as a 17-year-old but found life aboard ship miserable. His father arranged a discharge three months later. As a 20-year-old, Chase persuaded his father to pay for art studies in New York. But the Indianapolis shoe store failed a year later, forcing an end to the payments for tuition. The family then moved to St. Louis, and Chase joined them there. But he did not remain long. Art was booming in a newly industrialized America, with many new members of the wealthy class eager to become patrons. A group of seven St. Louis businessmen, impressed with Chase's work, put up $300 each so that he could study in Europe. In return, they asked that he paint a picture for each of them and act as their agent buying paintings in Europe.

Paris was the center of the art world at the time, but Chase, who left for Europe in 1872, chose a rival, Munich, and its Royal Academy. Chase said he did so to avoid the distractions of Paris. "I loved the boulevards so much that I decided to do my work away from them," he reminisced years later. Forty other Americans were attending classes in Munich when Chase arrived.

A Munich style prevailed at the academy - studio works rendered in dark, lush colors and characterized by bold brushwork. The teachers held up the works of Diego Velazquez and Frans Hals as the ideals. Chase was wary at first of "these dark, terrible things" but learned to embrace them and mastered the technique.

Chase soon began to attract attention and to make some significant sales. He sent his "Keying Up" - The Court Jester, a wonderfully comic portrait of a dwarf in an exotic jester's costume pouring a nip of drink before performing, to the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and won a medal of honor. One critic called the work "another example of the genius of that rising young American artist."


But after the bounty from his St. Louis patrons ran out, Chase found it difficult to support himself. He moved to Venice with two other artists for nine months but struggled to keep above poverty. He finally accepted a job teaching at the Art Students League in New York and returned to the United States in 1878.

Will Chase, as he was known, soon made a prominent place for himself in the art establishment of the city. He was congenial, popular and talented, lauded by critics, respected by students and admired by colleagues. A photograph taken when he was about 30 years old reveals a handsome man with piercing eyes, prominent nose and a thick mustache and beard, wearing stylish clothes and striking a languid, Bohemian pose.

But it was his studio that made Chase a celebrity. He rented a suite with a two-story gallery at the Tenth Street Studio Building. The space had once been used by Albert Bierstadt to paint enormous Western landscapes. Trying to mimic some of the studios he had seen in Europe, Chase filled his rooms with treasures--to serve as props, subjects for still-life painting and inspiration for the artist. The hoard included Japanese fans, East Indian drums, a Zulu shield, paintings, tapestries, Italian swords, Phoenician glass, ornate frames, antique books, 37 Russian samovars, a bust of Voltaire, and a large stuffed flamingo.

Chase held open house on Saturdays, invited his students and fellow artists there often, and hosted numerous soirees, including costume parties. Illustrations of the studio were featured in art magazines. Chase himself painted canvases depicting aspects of the studio, and Henry Adams and other novelists employed it as a setting for their fiction.

A celebrated use of the studio came about when the American expatriate painter John Singer Sargent, begging pardon for his "cheek," asked if he could stage a performance there by the Spanish dancer "La Carmencita." Sargent, who was on an extended visit to the United States, told his patron, Mrs. Isabella Stewart Gardner of Boston, that Chase had "a capital big place." Sargent hoped that Mrs. Gardner would buy his portrait of La Carmencita after seeing her perform. He would pay for the food and wine, Sargent told Chase, while Mrs. Gardner would pay the dancer's fee.

Accompanied by her guitarists, the performer showed up near midnight with heavy theatrical makeup. Sargent and Chase infuriated her by wiping it off and brushing her hair. One of Chase's students wrote that La Carmencita's dance was "the most wild and primitive thing I have ever seen...and the most artistic." But the dancer made some obscene gestures, and Sargent's patron never bought his painting. The artist J. Carroll Beckwith summed up the evening in his diary: "It was a stiffish company and it did not go well."


Chase, however, hired La Carmencita for more performances and persuaded her to let him paint her portrait. The second evening, said a guest at both, was "far more jolly." The portrait, an essay in motion, was one of Chase's finest and now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Chase and several artist friends traveled to Europe every summer from 1881 to 1885 to study the old masters in the museums, keep abreast of the latest in European art, and meet well-known painters living there. On one trip Chase called on the American expatriate James McNeill Whistler in London, and they quickly became friends. Dubbing Chase "Colonel," Whistler suggested they paint portraits of each other.

But Whistler was too egotistical to keep a friendship very long, and he was soon quarreling with Chase. "My dear Colonel," Whistler would snap, "I'm not arguing with you; I'm telling you." On a short trip to Belgium and Holland, Whistler apparently badgered his younger friend. "A gadfly could not have been more persistently and maliciously annoying," Chase wrote later. He escaped by grabbing his baggage and getting off the train.

Whistler evidently never finished his portrait of Chase, but Chase exhibited his portrait of Whistler in the United States. Painted in the subdued colors that Whistler himself favored, it showed an imperious man balancing a finger on a walking stick and peering down on the rest of the world. The painting was inscribed, "To my friend Whistler." Whistler called the portrait "a monstrous lampoon." But the picture, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is probably the best-known likeness today of the flamboyant artist.

Great changes in lifestyle and career loomed for Chase after he returned from Europe at the end of the summer of 1885. For years he had been a frequent guest at the home of Julius Gerson, the manager of the art department of a lithographic firm and a friend of many New York writers, musicians and artists. Gerson, a widower, had a son and three beautiful daughters; the youngest, Alice, was only 13 when Chase first met them. The daughters sometimes served as models for Chase, and he gradually became infatuated with Alice, whom he called Toady.

During their courtship, Alice, by then 20, became pregnant, and she and Chase, who was 37, were married in February of 1887. Their first child, a girl, was born the next day. It was obvious that Chase had put off marrying his love until the last moment.

Gallati, the curator of the current Chase exhibition, believes that he was caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, a wife and child "conflicted with the public image of cosmopolitan sophistication that he was so industriously constructing for himself." Yet, a refusal to marry the mother of his child would cause a scandal and harm "his reputation and therefore his prospects for professional success." Alice, a beguiling beauty, would become his most important model.

Chase faced a crisis in his career at the time of his marriage. The critics were growing tired of his rendition of the Munich style, with its dark colors and indoor scenes. "The public has looked in vain for original ideas in the composition of his works," said the reviewer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Another writer admonished him "to stop and inquire of himself seriously--whither does it all lead?"

The critics wanted something more American from their American painters. Chase's sales were slowing while the cost of his travels and the continual furnishing of his studio mounted. So he set out to please the critics and boost his sales by changing the way he painted.


Within five years, he transformed himself, says Gallati, into the first American Impressionist painting scenes of American life. The show organized by Gallati focuses on this period.

There were two distinguished American Impressionists already - Mary Cassatt and Childe Hassam - but both were painting European scenes in Europe. Chase knew Impressionism well from his travels in Europe and his meetings with artists there. In fact, he had helped introduce the works of Impressionists such as Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas to America when he was involved in organizing a special exhibition in New York to raise funds for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty.

He had no qualms about borrowing techniques from others. "Be like a sponge, ready to absorb all you can," he told his students. "...I have been a thief; I have stolen all my life - I have never been so foolhardy as to refrain from stealing for fear I should be considered as not 'original.'"

Chase, carrying small canvases and his easel, wandered through the parks of New York and Brooklyn and into Brooklyn's Navy Yard to catch scenes with his new technique. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish his work from that of the French Impressionists. In Boat House, Prospect Park, for example, Chase is entranced by the light and the reflections shimmering on the surface of the water. It was no accident that Potter Palmer and his wife, Bertha, the Chicago collectors of French Impressionist art, purchased this painting.

For the most part, Chase did not mimic the works of his European Impressionist models as closely as he did in Boat House, Prospect Park. But he did leave his Munich style far behind. He used much lighter colors, tried his hand at shorter, Impressionist-like brushstrokes, diffused features instead of delineating them exactly, and painted in the open air rather than in his studio. What resulted were American landscapes as exquisite as their European counterparts.

Large urban parks were a new phenomenon in American life. Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux had designed Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect and Tompkins parks in Brooklyn, and Chase's paintings showed Americans what those parks were like. But though geographically realistic, they were idealized views. Chase did not like to paint crowds. He would focus instead on one or two figures, who were usually well-to-do and fashionably dressed.

In one of Chase's best-known paintings, A City Park, for instance, a woman in a pink dress, black jacket and straw hat is seated on a park bench, looking sideways at someone outside the scene. A viewer must peer far beyond her into the distance to make out the activity in the park: players by a net, male and female onlookers, a woman strolling with children. But they are all only a dim background to the stylish woman on the bench and the flowered shrubbery alongside her.


Although Chase produced family scenes, he also depicted the beginnings of freedom for modern women. Women are often seen walking by themselves, neither leading children in tow nor leaning on the arm of a male escort. This was still an unusual sight for respectable, upper-class American women in Chase's day.

Sometimes Chase rendered beauty out of mundane scenes. His parents had moved to Brooklyn, and Chase may have used their backyard as a setting. In Wash Day - A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn, for example, he plays with light and shadows.

Chase earned extraordinary praise from the critics. "Nothing in all the artist's work is better than these flashing jewels," wrote a reviewer in the Chicago Tribune. The paintings, he went on, "give the lie to the familiar moan of many American artists, who persist in painting much bepainted Holland because there is nothing worth painting in America."

The critics were so pleased with the American subject matter that they did not mind that Chase's new technique was mainly French. These early Impressionist works, painted from 1886 to 1890, marked a major breakthrough for the artist and the maturing of his genius.

Despite his fame, Chase never amassed fortune enough to give up teaching. His costs - augmented by his travels, his profligate purchase of paintings and other treasures for his studio, and the needs of a growing family (there would be eight surviving children) - always outweighed his income from painting alone. In 1890 he accepted an offer from prominent New Yorkers to head the new Shinnecock Summer School of Art for Men and Women in the Shinnecock Hills near Southampton on the eastern end of Long Island. He and his family moved into a summer home there designed by the architect Stanford White.

Chase taught and painted at Shinnecock, which became the best-known art school in America, for 12 summers. During that period, according to Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., a curator of American painting at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Chase produced "some of the most splendidly beautiful and most perfect landscapes ever painted in America." As a location associated with wonderful landscape painting, Shinnecock became as well known as Barbizon or Giverny in France.

Chase was one of the most renowned art teachers of his day. In addition to Shinnecock and the Art Students League, he taught at the Brooklyn Art Association, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Art Institute of Chicago. "William Merritt Chase's teaching, like the British drumbeat," said the Chicago Post, "is heard round the world." He also founded the Chase School of Art (now the Parsons School of Design) in New York and taught there for 11 years. He was so well liked by his students that in 1902 a group of them commissioned Sargent to paint a portrait of Chase that they donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The roster of his students who would mature into distinguished artists was long and included such luminaries as Georgia O'Keeffe, Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent. "It seems to me that half the people I studied in my American art history courses," recalls Judith Barter, curator of American art at the Art Institute of Chicago, "had studied with Chase, at least for a while." O'Keeffe, describing Chase's teaching methods, said, "There was something fresh and energetic and fierce and exacting about him that made him fun." Hopper used to note on his business cards that he had been a student of Chase's.

Chase's teaching duties did not slow down his artistic production or exploration. He became fascinated with the sheen of the skin of dead fish, and he started depicting them in his still lifes. While working in London, he passed a fishmonger's stall and noticed a large cod lying on a clean slab of white marble. "Whatever my mood for color that morning," he recalled, "that fish completely fitted and filled it." Chase persuaded the fishmonger to rent him the cod for a short spell. It took him only five hours to paint An English Cod, his best-known still-life painting. The shopkeeper was so impressed with the work that he charged Chase only a shilling for the rental.

Tastes and reputations in art swing over time like a pendulum, and Chase no longer has the same adulation that he did when he died in 1916 at the age of 66. "I'm amazed," says Barter, "at the number of people who say they've never heard of him." In art history classes these days, there is not much room for him alongside giants like Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Whistler and Sargent in the canon of 19th-century American art.

His reputation suffered partly because he was regarded as a defender of old-fashioned ways. He could not fathom what the modernists of the 20th century were up to. He derided Henri Matisse as a charlatan, and the sale of his paintings as a "gold brick swindle." He proposed that Cubist paintings hang upside down--if anyone could figure out which way was up and which down.


Some detractors believed, as one put it, that Chase was simply a "wonderful human camera," putting down what lay before him, without adding insight or imagination. The daring use of space in a painting like Hide and Seek, defends Chase against such criticism. But the Brooklyn Museum's Gallati acknowledges that other great American painters "have a certain gravitas that you don't find in Chase - it is there sometimes, but it's not there consistently."

Nevertheless, Gallati acclaims Chase's power to create beauty in an astonishing number of landscapes, portraits and still-life paintings. "While he is not in the American canon," she says, "he deserves to be."


In A City Park (1887), Chase employed the light palette, angled lines and focus on contemporary urban life that characterized the work of the French Impressionists.
Art Institute of Chicago

Chase pictured here c. 1878, cultivated a public image of artful sophistication that won him both publicity and patrons.
Parrish Art Museum, William Merritt Chase Archives, Southampton, NY

Chase captured a sense of immediacy and movement in his spirited 1890 portrait of the Spanish dancer "La Carmencita."
Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Sir William Van Horne

Chase's elaborately furnished Tenth Street studio was described by one writer as "a fitting frame" for the clever and refined artist.
Parrish Art Museum, William Merritt Chase Archives, Southampton, NY

The bright colors, broken brushstrokes and plein-air technique of Chase's Boat House, Prospect Park (c. 1888) give the work a distinct Impressionist look.
Private Collection

Wash Day - A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn (1886) is distinguished by its dramatic perspective and vibrant patterns of light and shadow.
Anonymous Collection

In Hide and Seek (1888), Chase adopted the asymmetrical composition and dynamic use of empty space and foreshortening that was the hallmark of such avant-garde artists as Whistler and Degas.
Phillips Collection, Washington DC


William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes, 1886-1890
Barbara Dayer Gallati
Brooklyn Museum of Art in association with Harry N. Abrams, 2000

William Merritt Chase
Barbara Gallati
Harry N. Abrams, 1995

William Merritt Chase: A Genteel Bohemian
Keith L. Bryant, Jr.
University of Missouri Press, 1991

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