William Merritt Chase
New York, New York
Summary of William Merritt Chase
Chase was a multitalented artist; a man prepared (and able) to explore modern and traditional stylistic ideas via city landscapes, studio interiors, society portraiture and still lifes. He proves to be an intuitive observer of his time and place, taking up his palette to capture impressions of New York leisure pursuits at the turn of the nineteenth century. His city park scenes were rendered through loose brushwork and a light palette that brought the influence of French Impressionism to the New York art scene. He gained recognition, too, for exploring Impressionistic techniques through a revival in pastel compositions. Meanwhile, his portraiture, and especially a series of remarkable late-career still lifes, saw him draw much more on the sombre tonalities he took from his academic training in Munich. In addition to his own artistic output, Chase carved out a career as one of America's most esteemed art teachers that would see him tutor several future American greats including Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe, Charles Sheeler, and Rockwell Kent.
- Chase was a key figure in introducing French Impressionism to the American public on two fronts. Firstly, he used Impressionist techniques to paint the leisure activities of middle-class families who congregated in the newly designed parks of Brooklyn and Manhattan. Secondly, he was instrumental in bringing the Impressionist paintings of Claude Manet to New York galleries for the first time.
- Inspired by the great studios he had visited on his tours of Europe, Chase transformed his New York atelier into a magnificent artist's retreat that allowed New York to rival Paris and other European locations as a world centre for artistic sophistication. An obsessive collector, his studio was a veritable Aladdin's Cave of objet d'art and bric-a-brac that doubled as a social space where New York's artistic community came to socialize and to be "seen". His studio confirmed Chase's own standing as a well-travelled, urbane, society figure and it became the subject of a number of his early works.
- Chase was an accomplished portraitist, producing paintings of family members, society figures, and professional acquaintances such as James McNeill Whistler, whose sparse aesthetic Aesthetic style often informed his own treatments. But Chase has drawn special praise for his portraits of women whom he presented in a variety - active and meditative; familial and professional - of roles. He also painted several female students whom he welcomed and supported at a time when it was seen as improper for male artists to encourage women to pursue careers as artists.
- His vital contribution to the birth of American Impressionism has sometimes overshadowed Chase's commitment to realism. His exhaustive collection of objects and ornaments provided a good deal of still life source material for Chase and his students, but it was his late-career fish paintings that are considered modern American masterpieces. His fish series abandoned his impressionistic palette in favor of a rich academy technique that took the best from the likes of Rembrandt, Velázquez, and Leibl.
- Chase was a member of the so-called Ten American Painters group. The group was invested in the international phenomenon of Eclecticism (sometimes referred to as Cosmopolitan Eclecticism); that being the belief that innovation in art was achieved through an openness to experimentation through the blending of existing styles and genres. Such was the influence of Chase's painted studio interiors, that revelled in his vast and eclectic displays of European and Asian objects and artifacts, Chase has also been singled out as the founder of one of the most significant aspects of turn of the century American art, namely the artful interior.
Biography of William Merritt Chase
"Take the best from everything", Chase instructed his students, "I have been a thief, I have stolen all my life", but I have "never been so foolish and foolhardy to as to restrain for fear I should be considered not 'original'".
Important Art by William Merritt Chase
A plush studio is the setting for Chase's painting. It is filled with many golden framed pictures and luxurious objects including imported porcelains, a lamp (hanging from the ceiling), a large gold vase (on a shelf), and a large Oriental carpet. Just right of center, a female model in an elegant white dress sits in a vibrantly blue colored chair while the artist sits to the sitter's left sketching and his large black dog sleeps on the carpet.
When Chase arrived back in America after completing his first European tour, he settled in New York City and quickly set about finding a studio that would fulfil his wish of occupying "the finest studio in New York." He settled on a space in the Tenth Street Studio Building and went about decorating it with the collectibles he had amassed while in Europe.
Chase's studio was his haven but it was also a place for friends to gather and to "mingle". Chase was so inspired by his studio that he painted it several times during the 1880s. According to curator, Erica Hirshler, "Chase's rooms, which echoed the great studios he had seen and admired in Europe, enhanced his reputation as a well-traveled, dapper, creative practitioner of the arts. Often wearing a fez and accompanied by one of his pet wolfhounds, Chase presented himself against a backdrop of hundreds of objects from around the world: old master paintings, Japanese parasols, Renaissance furniture, Islamic lamps, fabrics, rustling chimes, great copper pots, and dozens of exotic shoes". The idea that artist and patron were sophisticated enough to appreciate such tasteful surroundings was a significant marker of social standing in late nineteenth century New York.
Dora Wheeler adopts a reflective look as she reclines into a tall backed chair with red seat and arm rest cushions. Wearing a blue dress, trimmed in fur, she rests her chin in her left hand while next to her is a table on which rests a large blue and white vase filled with yellow flowers. According to Hirshler, the artist, "made his name by picturing women [captured] in a variety of roles, both active and meditative, in public and at home, and in professional and domestic guises".
Some of his female sitters were his students who went on to become established names on their own terms. As The Cleveland Museum of Art explains on its website, a young "Wheeler became Chase's first student when he returned from overseas study in Munich and set up a teaching studio in New York. At the time, few American artists accepted women as private pupils. After her course of study, Wheeler joined her mother in launching a successful decorating firm, one of the first businesses in the country to be operated entirely by women. For the firm, she designed luxurious textiles, and the embroidered silk tapestry that fills the background in her portrait references her occupational interest".
It is the gaze of the young woman resting in a red velvet chair that first grabs the attention in Chase's painting. Wearing a long black dress, she rests her head against the back of the chair and looks out absently at the viewer. Set against a red wall, in the same shade as the chair, the only other burst of color comes from the white tissue the young orphan clutches in her right hand.
While Chase was known for his portraits of society women, this is one in which the sitter is steeped in some mystery. As Hirshler points out, "if she is identified as an orphan, she seems plainly in mourning, her black dress and clutched handkerchief indicative of her grief". However, Chase first debuted the work with the title At Her Ease and if we consider the work under that heading then, as Hirshler argues, "her heavy burden is lifted, allowing a more positive interpretation of her daydreams". Given that the theme of women in contemplation was a topic Chase often explored, it is not clear why he chose to change the title, but when he did so, it allowed for a wholly different interpretation of the subject.
James McNeill Whistler's influence is in strong evidence in this painting. The over the shoulder gaze of the woman is very Whistleresque while Hirshler picked up especially on "the famous example that inspired the costume, composition, and thinly applied pigment" that marked Whistler's most famous 1871 portrait of his mother (Arrangement in Black and Grey, No. 1).
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on William Merritt Chase
- The Life and Art of William Merritt ChaseOur Pickby Katharine Metcalf Roof
- William Merritt Chase: A Genteel Bohemianby Keith Bryant
- American Impressionism: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art MuseumOur Pickby Emery Battis
- William Merritt ChaseOur PickErica Hirshler
- William Merritt Chase: A Modern Masterby Elsa Smithgall, Erica Hirshler, Katherine Bourguignon
- William Merritt Chase's Cosmopolitan Eclecticismby Isabel L. Taube
- William Merritt Chase: A Modern MasterOur PickIn this video, Elsa Smithgall, curator at the Phillips Collection discusses the life and art of William Merritt Chase. It was produced in association with the exhibition William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master which was on view from June 4 through September 11, 2016.
- William Merritt Chase and the CommonplaceOur PickThis video contains a lecture given at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston on the art of William Merritt Chase by Carol Clark, Professor of the History of Art, Emerita at Amherst College.
- William Merritt Chase: Master of PastelOur PickThis video contains a lecture given at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston on the pastel works of William Merritt Chase by Marjorie Shelley, Conservator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.