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Monday, January 30, 2017

William Merritt Chase

End of the Season, 1884, William Merritt Chase
A few days ago, it came to my realization that I'd never written a comprehensive item on the American painter, William Merritt Chase. I've written on American Impressionism (which is almost the same thing) as well as numerous biographical pieces on several of Chase's students, such as Julian Onderdonk, Lydia Field Emmet, Jenny Eakin Delony (Rice), and most recently Alson Clark. I've also written about a number of Chase's many painting colleagues, including Edmund C. Tarbell, Childe Hassam,  Willard Metcalf, J. Alden Weir, and Frank Weston Benson, to name only a few. But never have I written anything definitive on William Merritt Chase himself, although with a cast of such outstanding students, friends, and colleagues like those above, anything more might be considered superfluous.

Ring Toss, 1896, William Merritt Chase
At some point in the time-consuming effort at choosing to highlight which of the hundreds of paintings Chase did over the course of his lifetime, I began to wonder how he ever found time to do anything besides paint. Judging by the fact that he and his wife also raised eight children, it would seem he was nothing if not prolific. Chase cultivated multiple personae. He was a sophisticated cosmopolitan, a devoted family man, and a highly esteemed teacher. The years in which his family was young and growing, were Chase's most energetic and productive. He frequently painted his wife Alice and their children, in individual portraits, and other times in scenes of domestic tranquility: playing (above), or relaxing at their summer home on Long Island, among the sand dunes of Shinnecock.
Chase's self-portraits cover nearly fifty years of his life.
James McNeill Whistler,
1885, William Merritt Chase
William Merritt Chase was born in Williamsburg (now Nineveh), Indiana, into the family of a local merchant. Born in 1849, his family moved to Indianapolis when he was twelve. As a young boy, Chase worked as a sales clerk in the family business. During this time, he showed an early interest in art, and studied under several local, artists. After a brief enlistment in the Navy, Chase's teachers urged him to go to New York and further his artistic training. He arrived in New York in 1869, where he enrolled in the National Academy of Design under Lemuel Wilmarth, a student of the famous French artist, Jean-Leon Gerome. However, with the family business failing, Chase was forced to leave New York for St. Louis, Missouri, in 1870. where his family resided. While working to help support his family, Chase became active in the St. Louis art community, where he won prizes for his paintings. He also exhibited his first painting at the National Academy in 1871. Chase's talent aroused the interest of wealthy St. Louis collectors who arranged for him to spend two years in Europe in exchange for paintings and Chase's help in securing European art for their collections. Chase settled at the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich, a long-standing center of art training for American art students. He studied under Alexander Von Wagner and Karl von Piloty, who taught him to paint in a loose-brush style popular at the time. One of his paintings, a portrait titled Keying Up--the Court Jester (below) won a medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, gaining Chase his first taste of fame.

Keying Up, the Court Jester, 1874, William Merritt Chase.
IN 1877, Chase traveled to Venice, along with friends, Frank Duveneck and John Henry Twachtman. They returned to the United States in the summer of 1878, as highly skilled artists representing the new wave of European-educated American talent. Back in New York, Chase with the newly-formed Society of American Artists. Chase opened a studio in New York in the Tenth Street Studio Building, home to many of the important painters of the day. In New York City, Chase became known for a flamboyance that he flaunted in his dress, his manners, and most of all in his Tenth Street studio (below). Chase had moved into Albert Bierstadt's old studio, which he had redecorated as an extension of his own art persona. Chase filled the studio with lavish furniture, decorative objects, stuffed birds, oriental carpets, and exotic musical instruments. The studio served as a focal point for the sophisticated and fashionable members of the New York City art world of the late 19th century. However, by 1895, the cost of maintaining the studio, in addition to his other residences, forced Chase to close it and auction the contents.

Chase's lavish Tenth Street Studio...a bit too lavish.
William Merritt Chase was primarily a highly versatile painter. However, in addition to his painting, he actively developed an interest in teaching. Later, somewhat against his will, he was persuaded to take charge of an art school at Shinnecock Hills, on Long Island. Chase opened the Shinnecock Hills Summer School in 1891. He taught there until 1902. Chase adopted the plein air method of painting just gaining popularity at the time, teaching his students in outdoor classes. He also opened the Chase School of Art in 1896, which became the New York School of Art two years later (now the Parsons School of Design). Chase stayed on as instructor until 1907. He also taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1896 to 1909; the Art Students League from 1878 to 1896 and again from 1907 to 1911; and the Brooklyn Art Association in 1887 and from 1891 to 1896. When the hell did the man find time to paint? Chase was the most important teacher of American artists around the turn of the 20th century.

Reflections: Canal Scene, 1885, watercolor, William Merritt Chase
Chase is best remembered for his summer landscapes at Shinnecock. Chase usually featured people prominently in his landscapes. Often he depicted woman and children in leisurely poses (top), relaxing on a park bench, on the beach, or lying in the summer grass at Shinnecock. His Reflections (above) from 1885 is unique for it's lack of any human presence. The Shinnecock works in particular have come to be thought of by art historians as among the best examples of American Impressionism. In addition to landscapes, Chase continued to paint still-lifes throughout his career as he had done since his student days. Decorative objects filled his studios and homes, and his interior figurative scenes frequently included still life images. He was particularly adept at capturing the effect of light on metallic surfaces such as copper bowls and pitchers as seen in his pastel work, Still-Life Brass and Glass (below), from 1888.

Still-Life Brass and Glass, 1888, Pastels, William Merritt Chase

Chase's creativity declined in his latter years, especially as modern art took hold in America, but he continued to paint and teach into the first decade of the 20th-century. During the summer of 1914, Chase taught his last summer class at Carmel-by-the-Sea along the rugged coast of California. He had over a hundred students. Suffering from declining health (cirrhosis of the liver), Chase died on October 25, 1916, at his home in New York City. He was sixty-seven years of age.

Unexpected Intrusion, 1876,
William Merritt Chase


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