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P R EV I EW I N G U P C O M I N G E X H I B I T I O N S , EV E N TS , S A L E S A N D AU C T I O N S O F H I S TO R I C F I N E A RT

ISSUE 27

May/June 2016

William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), Portrait of Dora Wheeler, 1882–83. Oil on canvas, 625⁄8 x 651⁄8 in. The Cleveland Museum of Art,
gift of Mrs. Boudinot Keith in memory of Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Wade.

IN THE

SERVICE BEAUTY
OF

William Merritt Chase: A Retrospective, at the Phillips Collection
by James D. Balestrieri

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William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), Spring Flowers (Peonies), by 1889. Pastel on paper, prepared with a tan ground and wrapped with canvas around
a wooden strainer, 48 x 48 in. Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.32.

H

ow William Merritt Chase
became, well, William Merritt
Chase, isn’t much of a story.
His path mirrors the path of dozens of
American artists on either side of the
midpoint of the 19th century. He was
the son of a businessman, showed early
talent as an artist, studied with a couple

of local, largely self-taught painters, found
patrons who funded his way to Europe—
Munich, in Chase’s case—met and
befriended other prominent American
expatriate artists, won an important
award, and a career was born.
As ordinary—and as meteoric—as
Chase’s rise reads, his career was nothing

short of extraordinary. Chase was
everywhere and knew everyone, leaving
a legacy that is perhaps unmatched in
American art. He founded his own
school (which became Parsons) and
taught many of the important artists of
the early 20th century—from Stella to
O’Keeffe, Marin to Demuth, Hartley to
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Hopper. Despite—or perhaps because
of—his ubiquity, Chase never adhered
to any style or school, often saying that,
in a very broad way, he was interested
in realism. But in fact he extolled and
excelled at academic portraiture, at the
still life, at plein air landscapes, and was
a master in oils, watercolor, pastels and
etching. When works by Monet, Renoir,
and the rest of the new French painters
made their way across the pond, rather
than rejecting them, Chase became an
advocate of impressionism. Then, if you
really look closely at some of his major
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canvases, you can see William Merritt
Chase standing there in all his ostensible
Victorian formality, holding the door
open for modernism.
For all these reasons, William Merritt
Chase: A Retrospective, the first major
exhibition of the artist’s works since
1983, now at the Phillips Collection in
Washington, D.C., is an ambitious—and
successful—undertaking.
Chase’s career flows into and out of
the Tenth Street Studio in New York,
where he worked from 1878 to 1895.
The Tenth Street Studio building, the

first of its kind in the United States,
was constructed for the sole purpose of
providing artists with properly lighted
spaces in which they could not only
work, but also display their paintings
and sculptures. Albert Bierstadt—
among many others—had made Tenth
Street the center of his early career.
After his return from Europe, Chase,
wisely, took Bierstadt’s studio.
This was an announcement and
an invitation. Chase filled his studio
with every manner of exotic items—
porcelain, textiles, statues, paintings—

William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), At the Seaside, ca. 1892. Oil on canvas, 20 x 34 in. The Metropolitan
Museum of Art, bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876–1967), 1967.

William Merritt Chase
(1849-1916), A City
Park, ca. 1887. Oil on
canvas, 135⁄8 x 195⁄8 in.
Art Institute of
Chicago. Bequest of
Dr. John J. Ireland.

William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), Hall at Shinnecock, 1892. Pastel on canvas, 321⁄8 x 41 in.
Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection.

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William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), The Tenth Street Studio, 1880. Oil on canvas, 361⁄4 x 481⁄4 in. St. Louis Art Museum, bequest of Albert Blair.

and he arranged them artfully to make
his space attractive to visitors.
It’s an old idea dating back to
Rubens,Van Dyck, and Velázquez, the
artist making his or her studio into a
destination, a place to see and be seen,
and to meet like-minded people and
engage in witty conversation. Why, you
might meet Winslow Homer at Chase’s
studio.
The studio as salon. The studio
as website. The studio as artwork, as
interactive installation art, with the
artist’s props, models and the artist
him or herself as elements in an everchanging composition. In an era when
dealers were few and far between,
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this was how artists made their way.
They would give you an experience.
You would want to take a piece of the
experience home with you.You would
want to buy something. Something
small at first, an etching perhaps, or
a sketch. And then? Commission a
portrait? Perhaps purchase a still life or
a landscape?
Fortunately, Chase chose his studio as
a subject for a painting on more than one
occasion. An artful, warm, comfortable
eclecticism characterizes The Tenth Street
Studio. The red carpet and curtains, the
paintings in gilt frames, the glow from the
brass lamps and censers, the arrangement
of objects on the table: drawings, small

sculptures of animals, even the celadon
jar of paintbrushes seem to invite us to
appreciate and explore them. The pink
bas-relief roundel high on the wall at left
draws the eye and ties the composition
together. The shadows that fall away
at left and right inspire curiosity. And
then there’s the girl in the white dress,
sitting in the electric blue chair, a dog
at her feet, holding a piece of paper and
looking—where? At Chase, sitting on a
daybed at right, in the shadows, sketching
her. Chase, the painting says, brings all
this into being, all of it; he’s the magician
in the shadow of his own creation.
Somewhere, we acquired a romantic,
completely false notion of the solitary

William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), Idle Hours, ca. 1894. Oil on canvas, 25½ x 35½ in. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas.

William Merritt Chase (18491916), Hide and Seek, 1888.
Oil on canvas, 275/8 x 357/8 in.,
Acquired in 1923. The Phillips
Collection, Washington, D.C.

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artist in a garret, sacrificing the
comforts of convention for capital “A”
Art. The truth is that art was, and is,
much noisier; much more social than
we know. It’s a rare artist, generally a
folk artist working in isolation, who
doesn’t bounce ideas off of fellow
artists, respected dealers, collectors
and friends. For a professional artist

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in the 19th century, there were social
conventions to be observed and a
public persona to be maintained. It was
hard work. Expensive work. Theater
as well as art. Chase was a master at it,
known for his courtesy and generosity
with models, students and collectors.
In the marketplace of American art,
Chase waxes and wanes. When other

“-isms” are in fashion—early 20th
century modernism and illustration, at
present—Chase and other artists of the
period (such as Childe Hassam, Mary
Cassatt, and the members of The Ten)
seem to fall out of favor.Yet, in Chase’s
case at any rate, it might be said that
American modernism flows directly out
of Chase’s example and instruction.

Take a second look at Tenth Street
Studio. Flatten the perspective in your
mind. Let your eyes diminish the details
and harden the outlines. What remains
is an arrangement of rectangles layered
over with contrasting shapes. How far
is this, your new composition, from
Maurer or Mondrian?
A wonderful painting like Hide

and Seek is all dark rectangles in a
deliberately shallow, slightly flattened
perspective that seems simultaneously
to shorten and lengthen the distance
between the two girls. Chase, a
master at capturing light and its
essence reflected on surfaces, creates
counterpoint with a few strokes and
squiggles of paint. The thin, broken line

of brilliant sunlight peeking round the
edge of the heavy brocade curtain that
falls on the polished floor reminds us
that this is a game, though the moment
is filled with the tension of a horror
movie. It is a short leap forward to the
surreal paintings of Marvin Cone.
Even what would seem to be a
straightforward work, like Portrait of
Dora Wheeler, has its veiled treasures.
Take Dora Wheeler away and you
have the makings of a fine Rothko.
Consider the painting as it is and you
find a very modern visual pun: the
cat eyeing up the fish in the tapestry
behind Dora Wheeler has as much life
in it as Dora herself. Representation,
Chase tells us, doesn’t discriminate:
everything in a painting is real or
unreal to the same degree.
But what comes first to mind when
we think of William Merritt Chase is
beauty, whether it is the beauty of a
day on the beach, of women and girls
in flowing white dreaming away a
moment, of parks in dappled sunlight,
of flowers in vases, or the sheen of silver
scales on fish. Chase’s lines, brushstrokes
and palette all always served beauty.
Can beauty ever be unpopular? Can
the world, which seems so rapt and
wrapped up in the face of power, make
us forget about beauty? Can Chase’s art,
or anyone’s art, for that matter, make us
remember? Strange thought.

June 4-September 11
William Merritt Chase:
A Retrospective
The Phillips Collection
1600 21st Street Northwest
Washington, DC 20009
t: (202) 387-2151
www.phillipscollection.org

William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), The Open
Air Breakfast, ca. 1888. Oil on canvas, 373⁄8 x 56¾
in. Toledo Museum of Art. Purchased with funds
from the Florence Scott Libbey Bequest in
Memory of her father, Maurice A. Scott.

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