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Art & artists

William Merritt Chase, American Impressionist

— November 2014

Article read level: Art lover

Associated media

William Merritt Chase, A Comfortable Corner (The Blue Kimono), c1888 Oil on canvas, 57×44in. Signed lower right: Wm. M. Chase Littlejohn Collection, 1961.5.21

As this book shows, Chase deftly combined art and leisure, placing painting at the heart of his domestic, professional and social life.

William Merritt Chase: A Life in Art by Alicia G. Longwell

Though presented as a biography, this book is essentially a catalogue of the key works by William Merritt Chase at the Parrish Art Museum, in Water Mill, New York.   The Parrish has an unparalleled collection of Chase’s works, from his earliest conventional still lifes and genre scenes, through his pastels and etchings, to the psychologically astute portraits that fuelled his meteoric rise as America’s pre-eminent Impressionist.  As well as detailed notes on the plates and two fascinating articles placing Chase’s work in the context of the times, the book offers intimate family photos, many taken by Chase’s wife, Alice Gerson, a precocious amateur in the early years of photography.

Chase has always suffered in comparison with his two great compatriots, James McNeill Whistler  and John Singer Sargent.   While they both despaired of America’s parochialism and chose to live abroad, Chase decided to educate his countrymen rather than escape them, though he did study in Europe and returned there annually to keep abreast of the newest trends. 

The son of itinerant cobblers from rural Indiana, Chase gained an invaluable apprenticeship when his father established the New York Shoe and Boot Store in the state capital, Indianapolis.  Here the young adolescent had free access to the inner room where female customers examined merchandise away from the prying eyes of men; this gave him an easy intimacy with women, a quality which served him well in later life when America’s society hostesses became his chief patrons. 

In his youth Chase spent so much time sketching on the shoeboxes that his father finally apprenticed him to a local artist.  Moving on to New York City, he enrolled at the National Academy and was soon supporting himself selling still life paintings depicting rustic New World subjects with Old World techniques.  With the support of some enlightened philanthropists Chase took a study tour to Europe where he discovered, at first hand, the rich heritage of Western art.  Copying fashionable Orientalist scenes he perfected his depiction of inanimate objects; from the Dutch painters he learned about narrative mood and poetic tones; the Barbizon school instilled in him a reference for nature, while the modern French painters taught him to appreciate bold, spontaneous scenes of contemporary urban life. 

On his return to America Chase rented a space in New York’s fashionable Tenth Street Studio Building and filled it with dramatic props – from old master paintings and classical antiquities to Persian carpets, polished bronzes, silk tapestries and exotic costumes.  For nearly two decades this served as a work space, class room, show case, stage set, warehouse and social centre for his friends and growing family. 

The artist Kenyon Cox once described Chase as ‘a wonderful human camera’ – indeed Chase replicated nature so accurately that every grass and wildflower can be identified in his landscape paintings.  But Chase was much more interested in the human condition than in photographic realism; while his portraits of men tend to be conventional board-room affairs, his images of women and children – often posed in provocative costumes or set in mysterious domestic settings, convey great sympathy and psychological depth.  It is hardly surprising that Chase became particularly adept at capturing the newly evolving female spheres: decorative interiors, department stores and public parks where women could venture unchaperoned. 

As his reputation grew, Chase became a popular teacher, and soon he was leading study tours to different European cities.  From the French Impressionists he developed an interest in plein-air painting  – an approach that he developed to perfection in the Long Island community of Shinnecock.  Invited to be the first director of the newly founded Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art, Chase became enchanted by the broad expanses of open sky, atmospheric ocean light and scrubby, wind-swept grasslands.  He commissioned his own house and studio, from where he conducted classes, worked on portraits and landscapes, and participated in the summer activities of his family and guests.  Throughout his life as artist, teacher and pater familias, Chase deftly combined art and leisure, placing painting at the heart of his domestic, professional and social life.

Though this book offers little critical analysis of Chase’s work or its ultimate legacy, the magnificent colour plates, detailed notes, intimate archive photos and fascinating essays, provide a wonderful introduction to the life and work of William Merritt Chase.

William Merritt Chase: A Life in Art by Alicia G. Longwell is published by D. Giles Limited, 2014. 96 pp., 49 colour and 40 mono illus, £25.00. IBSN: 978-1-907804-43-4


Katie Campbell
Institute of Humanities, Buckingham University
Garden historian

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