Published: February 6, 2007
William Merritt Chase (1849–1916) and Robert Henri (1865–1929), significant painters and influential teachers, are two of the most important and admired figures in American art history. Their substantial contributions as artists pale in comparison to their roles as generous, charismatic mentors to such painting stars as George Bellows, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Rockwell Kent and Charles Sheeler.
Chase and Henri shared many interests, attributes and values. They admired and often emulated Old Master painters, they were revered by their students and they believed deeply in a distinctly American art.
Their early collaboration and friendship, however, eventually ended in controversies about styles and subject matter. The resulting rivalry, disputes and even antagonism affected the course of American art.
The little-known, contentious relationship between these two titans is the subject of a fascinating exhibition, “Painterly Controversy: William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri,” on view at the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science through April 29. Organized by Kimberly Orcutt, associate curator of American art at the New-York Historical Society, it sheds new light on an important dispute.
The exhibition features some 34 paintings by Chase, Henri and their followers. By juxtaposing Chase and Henri works, along with examples of canvases by their pupils, the show illuminates the impact of their disagreements on the future course of American art.
The two towering artistic figures began their lives in humble circumstances far from New York City. Born in rural Indiana, Chase adopted a dark palette, heavy impasto and fluid brushwork while studying in Munich. Returning to New York in 1878 to teach, he increased his visibility by establishing a huge, elegantly appointed studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building that became a showcase for his sophisticated taste, a frequent subject for paintings and gathering place for admiring artists and patrons. “Studio Interior,” circa 1882, hints at the exotic bric-a-brac, paintings and carpets in this ornate space.
An energetic self-promoter, Chase promenaded on Fifth Avenue in top hat, cutaway and spats, sporting a black ribbon on his pince-nez and a bristling mustache and beard, with a Russian wolfhound on a leash. In his “Self Portrait” of around 1914 Chase employed quick, confident brushwork to present himself as a “genteel bohemian” in all his bewhiskered, bespectacled glory.
Energetic, ambitious and personable, Chase taught at the Art Students League and Chase (later New York) School of Art, as well as the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He was a leader in numerous art organizations.
Following his immersion in the New York City art world, Chase adjusted to American tastes by replacing the dark tonalities of Munich with more colorful, cheerful Impressionist canvases of people in genteel urban and country settings and bravura portraits. His technical virtuosity is documented in his elegant likeness of the equally high-styled “Content Aline Johnson,” circa 1919.
Henri, born Robert Henry Cozad in Cincinnati, changed his name as a teenager after his father killed a man, apparently in self-defense, and the family moved east. After training at the Pennsylvania Academy and the Academie Julian in Paris, he dropped Impressionism for the dark manner of Frans Hals and Edouard Manet. He greatly influenced a group of newspaper artist-reporters — William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn and John Sloan — who gathered around him in Philadelphia; they later formed the nucleus of The Eight.
Rough-hewn, down-to-earth and highly charismatic, Henri encouraged his acolytes to record the vitality and immediacy of the world around them by utilizing slashing, quick brushstrokes in tonal rather than coloristic styles. He emphasized that art grew from life, not from theories.
According to Orcutt, Henri “crafted a personal mythology that was as widely celebrated as Chase’s,” although it related more to the air of danger and mystery about his prior life and his “general aura of personal enthusiasm” than his appearance. Henri’s informal, mustachioed looks are reflected in his deeply shadowed “Self Portrait” of 1903.
Chase and Henri’s shared admiration for Old Masters influenced their art. The impact of Diego Velazquez is manifest in Chase’s portrait of his young daughter, “An Infanta, A Souvenir of Velazquez,” 1899, and in Henri’s likeness of Sloan of 1904. Their debt to Hals is apparent in Chase’s “Self-Portrait of Colonel John Claezoon Loo (Detail after Frans Hals, 1663),” 1903, and Henri’s “Celestina,” 1908.
Settling along with his Philadelphia followers in New York City in 1900, Henri was soon invited by Chase to teach at his New York School of Art. At the outset, the two men praised each other’s work and Chase recommended Henri to William Macbeth, who began to show the younger man’s paintings in his New York City gallery. The two artists also shared a passion for teaching, guiding thousands of pupils over the course of many years.
In the classroom, Chase emphasized periodic, rigorous criticisms of student work and gave painting demonstrations, which included “An English Cod,” 1904, and other boldly stroked still lifes of dead fish. His talent for quickly executed, remarkably accomplished classroom demonstration portraits is exemplified by “Girl with a Book,” 1902, which measures 70 by 40 inches, and recalls Chase’s affinity for Velazquez and James McNeill Whistler.
Chase placed great emphasis on technical facility, refinement and style, with little attention to subject matter. His pupils recalled Chase as a dignified, forceful, cheery personality, who offered warm support, but also harsh criticism when he believed it was necessary.
In contrast to Chase’s refined approach, Henri encouraged roughhousing, joking and heated debates in his classroom. Henri downplayed technique and encouraged individuality. Most importantly, he urged his students to depict what he called “life in the raw.”
Henri’s skill at swift classroom demonstrations is suggested by “Girl in Red Hair,” 1903, depicting a professional model with broad, slashing brushstrokes. Henri utilized muted tones and vigorous brushwork in his insightful portrait of his student, Hopper’s future wife, Josephine Nivison, in 1906.
Soon after Henri began teaching at Chase’s school, it became apparent that their similar predilections were outweighed by differing views on how to train modern painters. By this time Chase was a much-honored, well-paid establishment painter, supporting a large family and lavish lifestyle. His portraits of well-to-do patrons, often painted in one session, commanded high prices.
Chase also painted spirited likenesses of exotic subjects, such as “Carmencita,” 1890, the Spanish dancer who captivated New York. Twenty years later, Henri created an unusually demure portrait of a young Spanish performer, “La Madrilenita,” 1910, and more characteristically depicted everyday folks, such as a ruddy-faced Dutch engine stoker in “Head of a Man (Stoker),” also 1910.
Some of Chase’s most moving likenesses were of family members. “Mrs Chase and Cosy,” circa 1895, depicted his first wife, Alice, and her young namesake daughter. “Portrait of Master Robert Chase,” circa 1902, is a somber image of the sixth of the artist’s eight children, dressed in period costume.
Although Henri, aged 37 when he began teaching at the New York School of Art, was critically acclaimed and had won various honors, his paintings did not bring substantial financial rewards. Unwilling to court potential sitters as Chase did, he garnered fewer commissions and was paid less. He lived on his teaching income. This disparity must have irked the younger man and added to tensions with Chase.
Lacking commissions, Henri created monumental likenesses of his wives, starting with “Lady in Black (Portrait of Mrs Robert Henri),” circa 1904, a dark and foreboding image of his first wife, Linda, who died a year later. His vivid, bright portrait of his second wife, the much younger Marjorie, “The Masquerade Dress,” 1911, was painted three years after their marriage.
The Chase-Henri conflict centered on differing ideas about the role of technique and subject matter in art. “Henri held that technique was subservient to a painting’s subject,” observes Orcutt, “and Chase insisted that the subject was merely an object to be beautified by the use of technique.” Adds Orcutt, “For Chase, the artist’s challenge was to conjure beauty from whatever subject he chose,” as witness his still lifes of dead fish. He took little interest in the urban themes championed by his younger colleague.
Henri, on the other hand, urged his pupils to focus on subjects and specifically to observe and participate in all aspects of modern life — theaters, burlesque shows, saloons, public markets, riverfront commercial activity and ordinary people.
“The strong personalities of these two men, and their strongly held views on the roles of technique and subject, put them on a collision course,” writes curator Orcutt in the catalog.
When he began teaching at the New York School in 1902, Henri anticipated a “big fight” with the artistic establishment about the future course of American art. In collegial fashion, he and Chase initially exchanged classes so students would be exposed to the ideas of both. Before long, students split into two camps, with Henri’s down-to-earth, lively classes making him the more popular.
By 1906, Chase began to distance himself from the school, focusing on his own art and leading student tours to Europe. The tensions between the fastidious establishment painter and his earthy colleague escalated to such an extent that in 1907 Chase left the school he had founded to teach at the Art Students League.
Since both men, towering figures in the art world, were vocal in their views, active in art organizations and shrewd manipulators of the media, their split was widely publicized. Chase and Henri traded barbs in newspapers and through articles and speeches. Their students took up the battle, exchanging insults and brawling on occasion. The disagreement was broadly characterized as “conservatives” (Chase) versus “progressives” (Henri).
Until his death in 1916, Chase continued to tout Impressionists over Ashcan School painters, attacking Henri’s predilection “to paint the gruesome… [going] to the wretched part of the city…[to] paint the worst people.” Henri responded with thinly veiled assaults on Chase’s affinity for technique over subject matter, and accusing him of a “tendency…to guard and protect the public from sights which he imagines would be unsafe for the public. It is [a] sort of mistaken paternalism” that stunts artistic progress.
As the most influential American art teachers of their time, Chase and Henri helped fill a void in the nation’s training opportunities, which previously had impelled ambitious young artists to study in Europe. Their instruction helped hone the talents of a generation of accomplished artists.
Chase clearly influenced such students as Howard Chandler Christy, Charles W. Hawthorne and Kenneth Hayes Miller. Irving Wiles’s “The Studio,” depicting his own opulent space, echoes Chase’s views of his elegant Tenth Street studio. O’Keeffe, who gained fame for a more radical modernism, retained her mentor’s interest in still life work, as reflected in her “Shell and Old Shingle No. II,” 1926.
Among Henri’s pupils, the art of Bellows, Davis, Guy Pene du Bois, Hopper and Kent owed a strong debt to their teacher. Bellows created compelling views of New York City at work and leisure, including the greatest boxing paintings of all time. Davis captured bleak aspects of city life in “Consumer Coal Co.,” 1912.
Kent, who called Henri “possibly the most important figure in our cultural history,” utilized the slashing brushwork and interest in the immediacy of surroundings that his mentor preached in depicting “Blackhead, Monhegan,” circa 1909. Henri also introduced this picturesque Maine island to Bellows, Randall Davey and Hopper, all of whom painted the dramatic headland.
Some artists departed significantly from the example of Chase and Henri, taking up avant-garde versions of modernism. In addition to O’Keeffe, Chase students Sheeler and Joseph Stella adopted a more advanced modernism. Such Henri students as Patrick Henry Bruce, Morgan Russell and Davis eventually moved to abstraction.
The Chase-Henri debate about the course of American modern art continued to be invoked after Chase’s death in 1916 and Henri’s in 1929. To some extent, their ideas were supplanted by the wave of avant-garde art launched by the Armory Show of 1913. In recent years, scholars reexamining the nature and evolution of modern art in this country have shown renewed interest in the Chase-Henri rivalry.
The exhibition provides a revelatory reminder of the legacy of these two admirable figures, both in terms of their art and the new paths their teaching inspired. Looking at their work today, Chase’s bravura technical brilliance still compels admiration, while Henri’s earthy subjects are of enduring appeal.
The 132-page exhibition catalog, with text by Orcutt and illustrated entries on all works in the show, is published by the Bruce Museum.
The museum has scheduled lectures at 10 am, February 12 and 26. Afternoon teas and lectures at 1:30 pm on March 6, March 20 and April 10, will focus on the rise of popular culture around 1900.
The Bruce Museum is at 1 Museum Drive. For information, www.brucemuseum.org or 203-869-0376.
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