William Merritt Chase


New York, NY

About the Artist

A native Midwesterner, William Merritt Chase became one of the more revered figures in American art because of his painting abilities and skills at conveying them to other artists. Described as the "single most important teacher of his generation, perhaps in all of American art education" (Gerdts 135), he was not committed to any one style of painting and basically considered himself a realist. He utilized elements of various styles including Tonalism, Impressionism, and Realism, and his willingness to grow and change with an evolving art world, he aligned himself...

A native Midwesterner, William Merritt Chase became one of the more revered figures in American art because of his painting abilities and skills at conveying them to other artists. Described as the “single most important teacher of his generation, perhaps in all of American art education” (Gerdts 135), he was not committed to any one style of painting and basically considered himself a realist. He utilized elements of various styles including Tonalism, Impressionism, and Realism, and his willingness to grow and change with an evolving art world, he aligned himself with progressive groups including the Society of American Artists in New York.

William Chase was very much a dedicated plein-air painter, described by art historian Prudence Pfeiffer as the most influential American artist working at the end of the 19th century who painted “en plein aire”. Chase said: “I don’t believe in making pencil sketches and then painting your landscape in your studio. You must be right under the sky.” (Pfeiffer)

Chase was born in Franklin, Indiana to Sarah Swaim and David Hester Chase, and in 1861, the family moved to Indianapolis where he took private lessons from a local teacher, Benjamin Hayes. He then studied art at the National Academy in New York with Lemuel Wilmarth and privately with Joseph Oriel Eaton. He also spent a brief time in St. Louis, Missouri where his teacher was Munich-trained John Mulvaney.

Observing his talent, four St. Louis men sponsored a trip for Chase to Munich to learn the then popular bravura style of painting at the Royal Academy. He was there from 1872 to 1878, and distinguished himself with honors and was even offered a position at the Academy, which he declined. His good friends were Frank Duveneck and John Twachtman, a threesome that traveled and painted together in Venice.

Chase returned to New York where he had a teaching position at the Art Students League from 1878 to 1894. He set up his studio at 51 West 10th Street, known as the Tenth Street Studio Building, a place that became a model for artists’ studio designs of the time–strong north light, ornate, luxurious, and crowded.

A description of that studio is provided by Hammer Galleries: “The 10th Street Studio building housed numerous artists’ studio spaces. William Merritt Chase’s studio, which he inhabited from 1878 to 1895, was especially well known its extensive collection of antique and exotic objects. Indeed, Chase modeled his studio’s grand scale and lavish decoration after the great European masters, such as Peter Paul Rubens. He used it as a marketing tool for the benefit of his business as a painter, attracting clients first to the studio and then to his skills as an artist.

Chase’s studio attracted considerable attention for its unique and extensive collection of objects. As early as 1879, an article by John Moran in The Art Journal featured a description of the many wonders contained in Chase’s studio. These included, among other things: paintings, musical instruments, Venetian guns, swords, pistols, bugles, Renaissance period furniture, a bronze bust of Voltaire and a large collection of photographs of Old Master paintings. Over time, Chase also formed a significant collection of contemporary American and European paintings which he acquired mostly from artists’ studios, dealers and auctions. This collection, along with his copies after Old Masters, proved to be a source of inspiration for Chase and his students and colleagues.

Indeed, Chase’s lavish and treasure filled space left a significant impression on those who saw it. Visitors to the studio related how they were most impressed by the overall harmony of effects, which amazingly managed to come across despite the eclectic mix of decorative elements and paintings. The artist carefully orchestrated and arranged his studio to create a total aesthetic effect. ”

In 1881, he returned to Europe where he spent time with Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent in Paris and went to Spain to copy works at the Prado of Velasquez whom he greatly admired and whose influence was lastingly apparent in much of his painting.

Chase married in 1886, and the couple lived in Brooklyn near Prospect Park, which became a popular subject for his painting and lent itself to his increasing interest in Impressionism. It was “a bit of nature that Chase could record vividly and fleetingly–an urbanized nature with sparkling figures”. . .(Gerdts 134). He also did much painting of life in Central Park, using plein-air methods. Although he incorporated Impressionism into much of his work, as stated above, he regarded himself as independent without total commitment to any formula.

Chase conducted many summer workshops throughout the East Coast and in Europe, with the best known being his school at Shinnecock, an area of beaches and dunes on the eastern end of Long Island. He and his family spent their summers there in a home designed by the architects McKim, Meade and White, and in addition to giving classes in oil and pastel painting, he completed numerous plein-air landscapes of the area. The popular school lasted for twelve seasons beginning 1891, and during this time he reflected his increasing admiration of French Impressionist/Post Impressionist painter Edouard Manet. This influence led to his abandoning dark tonal influences of the Munich School for more colorful plein-air painting and to the increasing use of pastel, which allowed more spontaneity and ease when working outdoors.

Chase also painted on the West Coast in Carmel, Monterey, and San Francisco, California. He made his first trip in 1914 and taught summer classes at Carmel. The next year he returned, this time to San Francisco where he was on the Jury of Awards for art entries in the Panama-Pacific Exposition.

William Merritt Chase died in 1916. That year in a speech at an arts dinner in Washington DC, he said: “Life is very short . . . but I would like to live four times, and if I could, I would set out to do no other things that I am seeking now to do.” (Pfeiffer/Pisano).

Sources:
William Gerdts, American Impressionism
Prudence Pfeiffer, ‘William Merritt Chase Under the Sky’, Plein-Air Magazine, July 2005. pp. 38-43
Ronald Pisano, Summer Afternoons: Landscape Paintings of William Merritt Chase
Edan Hughes, Artists in California, 1786-1940
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Hammer Galleries, New York, (Studio Description)

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