Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

William Merritt Chase (1849–1916)

William Merritt Chase was born in Indiana in 1849, the oldest of six children of a modestly successful shoe merchant and his wife. In 1872, after studies in Indianapolis and at New York’s National Academy of Design, Chase was asked by a group of St. Louis businessmen if he would like to study in Europe with their support. He is said to have replied: “My God, I’d rather go to Europe than go to heaven.” Chase decided to work in Munich rather than Paris—the magnet for most aspiring late nineteenth-century American artists—because he thought the German city would be less distracting. Although he enrolled in the Munich Academy, he was more interested in the flashy brushwork and dramatic chiaroscuro espoused by Wilhelm Leibl, Gustave Courbet‘s German friend and stylistic alter ego. Chase was also attracted to the painterly realism of old masters such as Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Hals.

Like most of his American contemporaries, Chase was eclectic, borrowing with pride and pleasure from many international styles, past and present. He was also an inveterate collector, purchasing bric-a-brac, paintings, and props even during his student years. He told a friend: “I intend to have the finest studio in New York.” In 1878, Chase returned to New York to a job teaching at the recently founded Art Students League. This was the first of many positions that established him as one of his era’s most esteemed art teachers. He rented a small studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building in Greenwich Village. Designed by Richard Morris Hunt and opened in 1856, this was the first building in New York—and possibly the first in the world—erected specifically for artists’ use. Its very existence signaled American artists’ growing professionalism and the centralization of American art in New York. Chase soon took over the large gallery originally intended as exhibition space for all the building’s tenants. He created there a beautiful studio that was the perfect setting for the elegant, debonair image he contrived for himself.

During the early 1880s, Chase made several trips to Europe to view exhibitions and collections and engage in artistic networking. In 1881, he met the Belgian painter Alfred Stevens, whose works he already admired and who espoused a stylish blend of genre painting and portraiture. Stevens counseled Chase: “Don’t try to make your pictures look as if they were done by the Old Masters.” In response, Chase began to adopt a more modern look, especially in paintings of his New York studio, which resemble some of Stevens’ studio interiors.

Other contemporary artists inspired Chase to update his subjects and style. Of particular importance was Édouard Manet. In 1881, Chase (along with J. Alden Weir) helped the New York collector Erwin Davis to purchase Manet’s Boy with a Sword (1861; 89.21.2) and Young Lady in 1866 (1866; 89.21.3). In 1883, Chase helped to organize an exhibition to raise funds to construct a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty; the loans included three works by Manet. City scenes by Giuseppe de Nittis may also have influenced Chase in the mid-1880s.

Chase’s pursuit of a modern look infuses a series of New York park scenes that he painted between 1886 and about 1890 (63.138.2). New York’s public parks, like those elsewhere, responded to urban growth and were emblematic of the modern era. Personal factors apparently prompted Chase to paint city parks. In February 1887 (when he was thirty-seven), he married Alice Gerson (then about twenty), the daughter of the manager of a large lithography firm. The Chases moved to his parents’ house in Brooklyn, where their first child was born. It was about this time that Chase first painted nearby Prospect Park and Tompkins Park; he would paint Central Park when he and his family moved back to Manhattan.

Park images by artists whom Chase admired may also have influenced his choice of this subject. For example, in Europe in 1881, Chase had met John Singer Sargent, who would become a lifelong friend (see 05.33). Chase may have noticed Sargent’s In the Luxembourg Gardens (1879; Philadelphia Museum of Art) when it was exhibited and sold in New York in the mid-1880s. During his student years in Munich, Chase had become aware of James McNeill Whistler and saw his works in the early 1880s. Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother (1871; Musée d’Orsay, Paris), for example, appeared at the 1881 exhibition of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and the 1882 display of the Society of American Artists in New York. In 1885, stopping in London on his way to Spain, Chase introduced himself to Whistler, who proposed that they paint portraits of one another. To depict Whistler (18.22.2), Chase adopted the monochrome that Whistler had used for Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 and his recent portrait of the Parisian critic Théodore Duret (13.20). Although Chase’s portrait of Whistler was undoubtedly intended to compliment his compatriot, Whistler called it a “monstrous lampoon” and may have expressed his displeasure by destroying his portrait of Chase. Before the rift, Whistler may have discussed urban scenes with his visitor. After all, Whistler had made etchings of London and Paris in the 1850s and painted London park scenes between 1872 and 1877 (see 12.32). Chase may have echoed Whistler’s interest in urban subjects in his park views when he returned from Europe.

Chase could have seen modern urban subjects painted in modern styles in New York in April 1886, when the Parisian art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel opened a huge exhibition of about 300 paintings by the leading French Impressionists. There, Chase could have refreshed his acquaintance with works by Manet, and seen others by Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro, Gustave Caillebotte, Claude Monet, and their circle.

Park subjects allowed Chase—a master eclectic—to respond to the example of painters he admired. They also allowed him to depict what were essentially artistic phenomena. Like his aesthetically attired self and his aesthetically furnished studio, the parks were artful arrangements of eye-pleasing elements, beautiful composites of carefully selected natural bric-a-brac and architectural features. And in his paintings of the parks, Chase featured the inventions of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, not the wilderness that these great park designers had implied here and there. Prospect Park and Central Park were associated with genteel, feminine activities, which Chase stressed in his choice of vignettes. And although the parks were democratic in principle, they were not associated with the working class until the 1890s, and could thereby appeal to a fastidious, stylish artist such as Chase.

Between 1891 and 1902, Chase spent summers at Shinnecock, a section of the elegant town of Southampton, on the south shore of Long Island about 100 miles east of New York City. He directed the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art, founded by collectors who had nearby summer homes, and taught two days every week. Southampton’s socially elevated, luxurious tone, grand houses, and chic residents—evident then as now—must have appealed to the socially striving Chase. Provided with a house and studio about three miles from the school, Chase spent time enjoying the company of his large family and working on his own paintings when he wasn’t teaching. As in New York’s parks, Chase found at Shinnecock opportunities to carry out dialogues with artists whose works he would have admired, including Monet (51.30.4) and the other French Impressionists.

Although Chase was a successful Impressionist, he never abandoned references to tradition, especially in his portraits and still lifes. Positioning himself as a society portraitist, he often painted images of his students as “samples,” showed them widely, and gave them to leading institutions, as in the case of Lady in Black (1888; 91.11), which he donated to the Metropolitan Museum in 1891. Portraits of fashionable women became his stock-in-trade and he commanded $2,000 for a full-length portrait during the 1890s. His large-scale paintings of fish (08.139.2), executed with his somber Munich-inspired palette, sold for $1,000 or $2,000 each. These helped pay the bills, but Chase worried that he would be known to future generations only as “a painter of fish, a painter of fish.”

Chase, who died in New York in 1916, was a gifted witness to his era, gathering impressions of late nineteenth-century city life and country leisure abroad and at home, and weaving together many modern and old master impulses to create a distinctive account of his time and place.