Published: August 1, 2000
‘Exquisite’ Traveling Exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art
BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Maestro of technique, brilliant painter, eminent teacher, generous supporter of colleagues, and artists’ role model, William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) is such a major figure in American art history that one forgets how he temporarily fell out of favor toward the start of his distinguished career. Hailed before he was 30 as a genius who would lead American painting to new heights, his dark, Munich-oriented works lost their appeal in the 1880s and he was castigated by critics calling for American artists to create an authentic national art.
“William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes, 1886-1890” documents how the painter, responding to this challenge, revitalized and renovated his reputation by applying a form of French Impressionism to distinctly American subjects – the parks and harbors of Brooklyn and Manhattan. These bright and sunny images, recording the leisure-time refreshment these green enclaves and waterfront places offered from their increasingly urbanized surroundings, emphasized dramatic promenades, glistening lakes with rowboats and swans, and harbors with sailboats and ships, clusters of trees, expansive lawns, patches of flowers, and colorful accents in the clothing of well-dressed women and children.
Seeking a balance between foreign and national ideals, Chase’s tranquil views of American urban and suburban spaces underscored their attractiveness to all residents and reflected their civilizing impact on contemporary American life. A hit with critics, patrons, and fellow artists, Chase’s optimistic, genteel images – the first significant examples of Impressionist painting in this country – profoundly influenced the course of our art in the 1890s and beyond.
Curated by Barbara Dayer Gallati, curator of American painting and sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the show comprises 32 paintings and five pastels, almost all of which can be labeled “exquisite.” On view at the Brooklyn Museum through August 13, the exhibition travels to the Art Institute of Chicago (September 7 to November 26) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (December 13 to March 11, 2001). The accompanying, fully illustrated book, written by Gallati, is filled with fascinating new insights into Chase’s life and art.
Stung by criticism that his Munich-inspired style and subjects were too foreign and not what Americans wanted to see, Gallati explains that Chase “embraced a variant Impressionist mode” and focused on unusual but discernible American scenes, in his campaign to resurrect his standing. “[He] reestablished his reputation as an innovative artist while creating demonstrably American art,” she says. Moreover, she observes, “Chase, unlike his American contemporaries, deliberately focused on American urban and suburban spaces with the aim of underscoring the civility of modern American culture.”
Although he was to become the epitome of the cultivated eastern establishment gentleman, Chase’s origins were decidedly Midwestern and rather humble. Born in rural Indiana and raised in Indianapolis, he was in St. Louis when his artistic talent attracted the support of local patrons who sponsored his studies in Europe. (“My God,” the excited young artist reportedly exclaimed, “I’d rather go to Europe than to heaven.”)
Attending classes at the Royal Academy in Munich, starting in 1872, Chase rapidly mastered the dark tonalities, heavy impasto, and bold brushwork associated with that city. He also studied masterworks in various art centers around Europe. Works that he sent home were exhibited to critical acclaim.
After seven years in Europe, he returned to America loaded with talent – and expectations. “[He] left the United States a painter and returned an artist,” says Gallati.
Energetic, ambitious, and personable, he started teaching at the Art Students League in New York and eventually also taught classes at the Chase (later New York) School of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Among those who benefited from his tutelage were Charles Demuth, Guy Pène du Bois, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Sheeler, and Joseph Stella. In the 1890s he headed the famed Shinnecock Summer School of Art on Long Island.
Chase joined the Society of American Artists (becoming its president in 1880) and the Tile Club and was active in the National Academy of Design and watercolor and pastel organizations. Serving on art juries and organizing exhibitions, he made contacts with important figures in the art establishment and potential patrons. For a time, the somber, Old Master-like still life, figure, and portrait paintings he created in his studio continued to be well received.
Influenced by what he had observed in Europe, Chase adopted an urbane public persona fitting what the French called a “flaneur” – a male dandy who was a detached, aristocratic observer of modern urban life. Writer Charles Beaudelaire and artists like Gustave Caillebotte, Edgar Degas, and Edouard Manet served as role models.
Promenading on Fifth Avenue with a white Russian wolfhound on a leash, he cut a dashing figure in a cutaway coat, top hat, spats, lapel carnation, a black ribbon on his glasses, and bristling mustache and beard. He wore white suits while painting outdoors and dinner jackets at home.
Needless to say, this very short, dapper man, who seemed to be the embodiment of cosmopolitan sophistication, attracted a lot of notice. Chase knew that an aura of public celebrity was good for business.
At the same time, he established a huge, ornate studio in the famous Tenth Street Studio Building, filled with paintings, antique furniture, and European artifacts, as a place both to entertain and create art. This celebrated space was painted by a number of artists, led by Chase himself.
“In the Studio” (circa 1882) shows a stylishly garbed woman examining a book of artwork, surrounded by paintings, massive furnishings, a handsome carpet, and an array of colorful bric-a-brac. It reflects the ostentation of the young modern artist’s show-and-work place.
Just as his career appeared to be taking off, however, in the early 1880s critics started to find fault with his associations with Munich, the lack of narrative content, and the paucity of American themes in his paintings. His active involvement in organizing shows and in arts groups was termed unseemly self-promotion by some.
Attacked on both aesthetic and personal grounds and keenly aware of his public image and the need to attract art buyers, Chase determined to change his style and the public’s perception of himself.
For some years Chase made annual summer excursions to Europe to paint, soak up ideas, and fraternize with artists. During the summer of 1885, his last in Europe until 1896, he met and portrayed James McNeill Whistler, whose art influenced his work for decades. Then it was back to New York, a new life and new art.
New information developed by Gallati documents how both domestic and aesthetic considerations altered Chase’s artwork around 1886. She has unearthed that Chase’s wife, Alice Gerson, who was from a respectable New York family, was pregnant when they married. Indeed, their first child, Alice, was born the day after their wedding in February 1887. Chase was 38, his bride little more than half his age. The artist promptly abandoned his bohemian, man-about-town status for domesticity, and intensified efforts to shore up his weak financial situation.
Meanwhile, the popularity of the 1886 groundbreaking New York show of 289 French Impressionist works, organized by Paris dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, especially the high-keyed, light-filled landscapes of Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, encouraged Chase to develop his own version of their style.
Chase was too cheerful and comfortable in his life to challenge prevailing tastes, so he accommodated them. As art historian Oliver W. Larkin once observed, “He had an enormous appetite for pigment and fed his stylistic appetite on a variety of foods.”
In the process of transforming himself into an avant-garde interpreter of the sunny side of modern American life, Chase renounced his somber, vigorous Munich style in favor of a brighter palette, broken brushwork, and plein-air techniques. Like other Americans, Chase did not fully embrace the French approach to Impressionism – his renderings of light, atmosphere, and air effects were much less disciplined and analytical, for example. Writes Gallati, “In his hands light remained a means of defining form rather than a means of dissolving it; and color was put in service of describing objects as they were, rather than approximating the shimmering spectrum of colored shadows and reflections that altered visual perception.” Chase’s new style was greatly admired and emulated by fellow American painters.
While based in Manhattan, Chase became familiar with the then-separate City of Brooklyn as a result of frequent visits to his parents’ home on Marcy Avenue in what is now the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of today’s borough. The third largest city in America, Brooklyn had a population of 800,000 in 1890, and its own cultural, economic, political, and social life, removed from that of its omnipotent neighbor, Manhattan.
For a time, at the outset of his marriage, Chase and his family lived with his parents in Brooklyn, where his father was an aging and rather unsuccessful businessman. Their house and environs were the site of several of Chase’s earliest Impressionist works, notably “The Open Air Breakfast” (1887), set in the back yard of the Marcy Avenue home.
A scene of bourgeois gentility, this canvas features Chase’s infant daughter and wife at the center, flanked by one of his sisters-in-law and his young sister Hattie. This alfresco repast on a warm, sunny morning suggests the secure refuge his parents’ place offered soon after the birth of his nearly out-of-wedlock child. An accomplished blend of figure and landscape painting, “Breakfast” set the stage for more detailed park and harbor images he was about to undertake.
With his family place as his home base, Chase set out to explore painting possibilities that would resonate with those calling for American themes and his search for an artistic identity with subject matters of his own. Several small, brightly hued Impressionist-influenced paintings of what became one of his favorite sites, such as “Prospect Park” (1886), presaged the work he would do around the city over the remainder of the decade.
After Manhattan’s celebrated Central Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, opened in 1859, Brooklyn responded by hiring the same duo to lay out their own version, Prospect Park. Olmsted and Vaux sought to turn a hilly, heavily wooded area into a sylvan retreat for harried Brooklynites, “public places for exercise and recreation,” as city fathers put it. Portions of the rustic landscape opened, in an unfinished state, in 1867.
While other artists recorded views of the park in watercolors and prints, Chase was the first to record its attractions in oil. He started in 1886 with a dark-toned view of his wife Alice looking pensively over the side of a rowboat in the park’s lake. Following several enticing views of the green expanse of the park’s Long Meadow, Chase pulled out all the stops in a stunning Impressionist canvas, “Boat House, Prospect Park” (1888). Showing boats bobbing in shimmering waters, it is a real beauty.
Chase also rendered views of much smaller Tompkins Park (now Von King’s Park), located a short distance from his parents’ home and thus a place he, his wife and small child undoubtedly visited with some frequency. Designed by Olmsted and Vaux, this landscaped residential square, surrounded by buildings, has been identified by Gallati as the subject of at least five Chase paintings. In sunny, serene canvases he depicted straight, tree-lined gravel pathways, perimeter gardens, statuary, and well-dressed men and women, along with nursemaids and children, strolling and sitting on benches in this inviting urban space.
Perhaps the best known Tompkins Park work is “A City Park” (1887), which emphasizes both a myriad of activities within the green enclave and the proximity of structures around the park. This small, freely brushed paean to outdoor living in Brooklyn was exhibited at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle as part of a group Chase called his “civilized urban landscapes.” It is among those previously thought to be of Prospect Park.
Another unexpected Brooklyn landscape Chase singled out was that of the Navy Yard, where he depicted not only busy docks and ships in the harbor, but the base’s quiet, manicured inner grounds. In Chase’s hands the peacetime naval base precincts come across as “established institutional spaces set aside for the general improvement of the populace,” observes Gallati.
In “Brooklyn Navy Yard” (circa 1887), a woman in white with a pink parasol strolls along a tree-rimmed path amidst well-tended lawns with a plain stone wall in the background. Her elegant figure adds a touch of refinement to the inner reaches of the military facility.
The verdant Navy Yard grounds were also the setting for a major pastel, “Afternoon in the Park” (circa 1887), showing his wife seated on a lawn chair, perhaps listening to a band concert. Dressed in salmon pink, a color recommended for dark-haired women, with her clothing and accessories appropriate for an afternoon public outing, Mrs Chase is a model of gentility and social grace. Posed in profile, she decorously avoids eye contact, presumably pretending not to notice that she is being watched.
Chase also explored the Navy Yard section called “Rotten Row,” which had become a place for visitors to view warships retired from active service. “Woman on a Dock” (1886) is a clearly modern, albeit dark-toned, view of a well-dressed woman amidst the grimy docks and vessels. In these and other works Chase transformed Brooklyn docks into “aestheticized high art objects,” opines Gallati, challenging “viewers to explore the cultural connotations attached to those ordinarily rough and chaotic commercial spheres.”
Chase also toured various waterfront resort areas in Brooklyn, creating a series of Whistlerian views in which he looked seaward toward ships riding at anchor and sailboats off Bath Beach and other tourist destinations. Rather than depicting the lively crowds around the burgeoning resort of Coney Island, he capitalized on its name recognition with a painting of young women amid grassy dunes, with a hint of resort buildings on the horizon. “Landscape, Near Coney Island” (circa 1886) seems a harbinger of his lyrical depictions of sea grass and dunes in Shinnecock. “These paintings,” says Gallati, “demonstrate Chase’s persistence in seeking the unconventional or least-known characteristics of popular and/or historic sites.”
As early as 1887 and increasingly over the next several years, when he moved back to Manhattan, Chase portrayed Central Park in his maturing, idiosyncratic Impressionist manner. Focusing on figures at leisure around the terraces, paths, and lakes of the park, he emphasized its attractiveness for people living the modern life in Manhattan. He was, in fact, among the first painters to trumpet the beauty and leisure-time potential of the completed park.
In works such as “The Lake for Miniature Yachts” (circa 1888) and “A Bit of Terrace” (circa 1890), Chase conveyed genteel sun-filled images of idyllic activity for young and old alike. Several of his loveliest Central Park canvases were sited in the area around the Bethesda Fountain. In one particularly bright, evocative image, “An Early Stroll in the Park” (circa 1890), Chase’s characteristic pristine woman in white walks by Emma Stebbins’s familiar “Angel of the Waters” statue. In “On the Lake, Central Park” (circa 1890), a solitary woman in blue engages in the very modern activity of rowing a boat among swans, with the Bethesda Fountain faintly visible in the distance across a watery expanse.
Painted at a time of Gilded Age excesses, concern about the morals of city dwellers, and fears about deterioration of Central Park, Chase’s art responded to the public’s desire for work that reflected nationalist sentiment, encouraged preservation of social order, and showed that modernization of American society was a good thing. The wholesome serenity of his park scenes, showcasing women and children engaged in leisurely recreational pursuits, suggested the safe, civilizing aspects of this great public space. All this was in keeping with Olmsted and Vaux’s mission to prove a restful oasis for residents of America’s largest city.
In a particularly charming painting, “In the Park – A By-Path” (1890), Chase depicted a small, stylishly-attired toddler maneuvering along a Central Park pathway under the watchful eye of a nearby nursemaid, framed by a stone wall on one side and the park’s verdant greenery on the other. Critic Clarence De Kay saw this delightful vignette as vindication of the ideals behind the park’s creation, observing that “the ever-present nurse and child recall the purposes for which Central Park… [was] established.” De Kay went on to argue for proper upkeep of the “beautiful” park, contending that “exquisite scenes” of it should attract buyers as readily as “pictures of Niagara.”
As usual, Chase relished discovering out-of-the-way locations to immortalize. In “The Nursery” (1890) a seated young woman in white, holding bright, freshly-picked flowers, confronts the viewer at the nursery at the northern end of Central Park where blooms were raised for transplanting around the grounds. In the background another woman in white bends over beds while a gardener works away in a scene that is sunny, colorful, and somewhat enigmatic. This lovely snapshot of a park area rarely seen by the public, beautifully painted, is one of Chase’s most recognizable park images.
In the summer of 1890, five years after he first painted Prospect Park, Chase ended his focus on city public spaces. Once more at the top of the American art world, armed with refined technical means and new confidence in native subject matter, he was ready to move on to new challenges.
Admiration for Chase’s parks-and-harbors canvases among other painters had great influence on end-of-the-century American art. “Just as they represent a critical transitional phase in Chase’s career, these paintings may also be looked to as the primary harbinger of the stylistic and thematic shifts that finally took firm hold in the American visual arts in the 1890s,” Gallati observes.
This beautiful show, with its multitude of astutely composed, vivaciously painted pictures, demonstrates why Chase was able to regain critical approval in his day and why his art has retained its appeal and importance to this day. In addition to its ample visual delights, the exhibition offers historical insights into a turning point in the career of one of the most significant and admirable figures in our art history. Congratulations are in order to curator Gallati for her prodigious research that has unearthed so many new facets of Chase’s life – and for mounting this memorable show of his achievements.
The attractive exhibition catalogue, written by Gallati, explores in great detail how Chase transformed familiar public spaces in a new modern vision and resurrected his reputation. Reflecting impressive detective work, the text offers much new information about individual works and fascinating insights into this pivotal period in the career of one of our finest painters.
Lavishly illustrated, the 192-page book is published by the Brooklyn Museum in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., and sells for $24.95 (softcover) and $39.95 (hardcover). It is a “must” for Chase fans and all those with a serious interest in the evolution of American art.
The Brooklyn Museum of Art is located at 200 Eastern Parkway. For information, 718/638-5000.
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