William Merritt Chase: The Artist You Never Knew You Loved

Victoria Villamil

I sometimes fraternize with an unusual breed of creatures (my friends) who teasingly like to annoy me with how much they dislike Rothko and Warhol and just about any American artist past 1960. Ah, the joys. They aren’t huge fans of early American periods either (The grandiose portraits by Gilbert Stuart?…crickets) so really the only American genre that holds their attention is early 20th century realism. Is this surprising? Nah. American Realism, like French Impressionism, is a period that is pretty much universal in its appeal to amateurs, buffs, and connoisseurs alike. It is modern, of course, but not too modern. And it is everywhere. Pictures by artists like James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Edward Hopper, and Georgia O’Keefe are prize acquisitions in galleries and museums, like Hoppers’ “Nighthawks” at The Art Institute of Chicago and Whistler’s “Nocturne of Black and Gold” at The Detroit Institute of Arts. Pretty much everyone is obsessed with these pictures (just look at Steve Martin go gaga) and their exhibitions tend to generate wide audience attendance and acclaim.

So therefore I was surprised when one of my amigos recently pointed out a piece by an American realist artist named William Merritt Chase. The name was unfamiliar so I turned my head slightly to read the artist label (I’m pretty sure this all took place on 82nd Street and 5th.) It was an outdated little paragraph which noted that Chase was an artist and teacher during the late 1880's and early 1900's, the basic blah blah blah. I moved on, uninterested. That is until I heard about a vast retrospective titled “William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master” which was touring at The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C, The Fondazione Musei Civici in Venice, and The Terra Foundation for American Art in Chicago.  Seeing as it was the second time this artist stumped me, I thought it fair to read more about this so-called “modern master” and rightfully give him his due. Who was he? What did he create? And, more importantly, was he really modern?

For starters, it’s difficult to study Chase without immediately falling in love with the man. He’s like a buffalo chicken wing in a bowl full of celery sticks (I’m not kidding. This was a person who threw costume parties so he could show off his stuffed flamingo.) Let’s begin with one very superficial and incredibly vital aspect: his appearance. Chase wasn’t the typical bohemian artist who wore something sad and drab; he was a grandee with a walrus mustache and a high French silk hat and who usually paraded around with a borzoi. An idol for us all! And just as he was particular with the clothes on his back, so was he about those by his side. Our boy mingled with only the best. The fabulous Hopper made a point to describe himself as “a student of Chase” on his business cards, and the cool O’Keeffe enjoyed his company so fondly that she stated, “there was something fresh and energetic and fierce and exciting about him that made him fun.” John Singer Sargent, the Leonardo DiCaprio of artists, was Chase’s lifelong buddy and even James Asshole McNarcissist Whistler allowed Chase to paint his portrait once.

Winning.

So, if he was so clever and so popular and so beloved, then why do so few know him today? It’s unfortunate but true that Chase’s work received little attention after his death in 1916. In fact, his retrospective at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts is his first solo exhibition since 1886. Though many institutions own his artworks, few of these pictures are on view. For example, both Chase and Sargent painted striking pictures of the Spanish dancer La Carmencita but only Sargent’s work is on permanent display (my guess is that Chase would have responded to this with the fury of Effie Whiter.) Of course, Chase is neither the first nor the last artist who has suffered from negligence. El Greco experienced a resurgence three centuries after he died, Vincent Van Gogh died penniless, and even our sexy Sargent was largely ignored for a time. In Chase’s case, his abandon was, in part ,due to his lack of enthusiasm for up and coming art movements. He especially criticised the 1913 Amory Show introducing Cubism to American audiences. He also accused Matisse of “charlatanry” admitting that he had, “tried in vain to find out what the aim of it all is.” Elsa Smithgall, curator at The Phillips Collection, admits that he was “eclipsed by the new art of abstraction” and therefore fell “out of favor very quickly.” His remarks drew away many art critics; one in particular disapprovingly described Chase’s views as “typical of the minor academic painters and the critics who view art through the eyes of the past.” And there are still plenty of critics today who are indifferent to William Chase. The Boston Globes’ Sebastian Smee, though admiring, maintains that Chase was, “a sentimentalist, a panderer, and a showoff” and some, like art critic Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post, even argue that Chase’s retrospective title is misleading. Chase, he and others claim, might have been a master but he was not a modern one.

Personally, I disagree. While Chase may have disliked developing 20th century artistic styles, this is not to say that he was neither a modern man nor a modern artist. Didn’t ol’ Blue Eyes Frank Sinatra criticise the later music of rock and roll? As far as I see it, Chase’s reservations about his younger contemporaries did not imply a lack of modernity on his part; it was simply a human response to feeling replaced. The description of the word ‘modern’ on Google reads “a person who advocates or practices a departure from traditional styles or values.” Chase, in fact, embodied modernity. He chose to study art in Munich instead of the oh-so-very-cliché Paris, differentiating him from the beginning. Most surprisingly of all, he prioritised teaching, an endeavor many artists unabashedly admit they hate. Whistler rebuked Chase for this, saying “After all, Colonel, the only real objection I have to you is that you teach…the vulgar crowd.” Um, ok loser. Thankfully, Chase paid no mind to anyone’s opinions and opened his home to both his students and critics alike. He was no solitary soul in a studio but a spirited, sassy singularity.  

But what makes him truly modern is his body of work. Critics say his style is an ode to late masters like Velasquez and Rembrandt but there is something distinctly different. When I observe Chase’s work, it is clear to me that he reveled in depicting professional and powerful women. For a male artist during this time, this was huge. Just look at Chase’s 1892 portrait of Lydia Field Emmet below. Emmet poses in a stance typically reserved for men, her hand rests confidently on her hip as she looks firmly over her shoulder at the audience. She dons her dress as confidently as Batman dons his bat suit, assertively and proud. And she was no regular model. Emmet was one of Chase’s students, and an artist in her own right, as was Marietta Cotton, his subject in Lady in Black, Dora Wheeler, who inspired The Portrait of Dora Wheeler, and countless others. In many of his works, Chase specifically chose to portray women he knew and respected stating, “It is the personality that inspires.” Chase’s modernity is heightened when, as Curator Erica Hirshler of The BFA puts it, he takes the old master pose and gifts it to professional women who look like “they are about to embark on careers on their own." Indeed, to  the right of this picture, Chase adds an elongated, almost abstract stroke of pink paint which takes the form of a ribbon and runs parallel to her figure, giving her portrait a flair of distinction and forever reminding viewers of her femininity.

Lady Field Emmet, Brooklyn Museum, 1892.

Lady Field Emmet, Brooklyn Museum, 1892.

It’s no wonder some refer to him as the Feminist Impressionist. Gosh,the man would have probably marched in the Women’s March on Washington! In Meditation, Chase’s wife, Alice Gerson, looks unabashedly at the viewer and Chase portrays her wearing, not an elegant gown, but a stark outdoor coat, hat, and gloves, letting the audience know that Alice is an alert, active, and vigorous person. Chase, the father of six daughters, chose not to depict his wife in the sexually passive manner Picasso painted his mistress but proudly showed off her grit and her grace.

It is not only through his portraits of women that we find evidence of his modernity. Many critics observe that he was a master at painting large open spaces in his work, such as the beloved Hide and Seek, a work similar to Whistler’s mummy portrait in this regard. These spaces are bold touches that add drama and a sense of mystery to Chase’s everyday scenes. The focus, the very center of the work, is the vacant space and the reflecting shadows which fills the picture with a quiet clandestine aura. We do not know where it takes place and Chase does not provide any clues except for one very blue chair. Two girls appear to be playing a child’s game but even that is not so clear. Are they hiding from each other or are they tiptoeing away from another? Are we, the viewers, also hiding? In framing his picture in such a clever and naturalistic way, Chase puts us smack in the middle of this secretive and developing scene.

Hide and Seek, The Phillips Collection, 1888

Hide and Seek, The Phillips Collection, 1888

One picture that combines both drama and the female essence is Seventeenth Century Lady. The Met website condescendingly describes this picture as little more than the study of a dress. As Joe Biden says, Malarkey! This is a psychological study, an almost voyeuristic peak at a moment when this woman believes she is alone; alone and hesitant to mingle. Just look at her. What in heaven's name is she thinking? Although she is superbly dressed for an elegant evening, her head is hung and she, dejectedly it seems, pauses at the entrance of the well-lit interior (it’s almost cringe worthy how much this reminds me of the moments before an interview or the dread of approaching pesky relatives before Christmas dinner). The Met claims Chase doesn’t care enough to identify her but considering his high opinion of his female subjects, I think this is a lofty assumption. Perhaps in this painting he wanted to call attention not to one woman but to all women of that time period, a sort-of “before” picture that would contrast with the manner in which women were expected to behave in a room full of questioning and boisterous people. We’ll never know for sure but that is, just like in every great work, part of the point.

So there you have it. Chase was it all; an eccentric fashionista, a passionate educator, and an intuitive artist. Ironically, some of the qualities that made him seem old-fashioned in his day are the ones that fashion him into a modern man today.  Perhaps if he had lived longer, he would have embraced cubism and fauvism and the  many “isms” that followed. Or perhaps not. Either way, it doesn’t  matter. Chase was a modern man because he was unabashedly his kind of man. And that, frankly, is fresh.