The Art of William Merritt Chase

Modern master, Influential Teacher, Dog Lover
By Cameron Woo, September 2016
The Tenth Street Studio 1880 Oil on canvas, 36.25 x 48.25 in.

The Tenth Street Studio 1880 Oil on canvas, 36.25 x 48.25 in.

The Open Air Breakfast ca. 1888 Oil on canvas, 37.38 x 56.25 in.

The Open Air Breakfast ca. 1888 Oil on canvas, 37.38 x 56.25 in.

The Gerson sisters, Virginia, Alice and Minnie, with William Merritt Chase, ca. 1880. Tintype, 5 x 6.75 inches. The William Merritt Chase Archives, Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, N.Y., Gift of Jackson Chase Storm, 83.stm.4.

The Gerson sisters, Virginia, Alice and Minnie, with William Merritt Chase, ca. 1880. Tintype, 5 x 6.75 inches. The William Merritt Chase Archives, Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, N.Y., Gift of Jackson Chase Storm, 83.stm.4.

The dog lies on a rug in the center of the room, head on the floor, one leg stretched across the train of an elegant white dress worn by the painting’s subject, a young woman comfortably settled in a blue chair. The woman’s head is turned in conversation with the artist, who, from his seat nearby, leans forward, palette in hand. The 1880 painting by William Merritt Chase is entitled The Tenth Street Studio, and is one of the artist’s most celebrated works.

For Chase (1849–1916), this New York studio was the center of his artistic life. In addition to painting there, it was where he held court, welcoming collectors, journalists, students and fellow artists to his ornately decorated and lavishly furnished space. His much-loved dogs were frequent observers of the rarefied mix of theater and ideas that characterized Chase’s gatherings.

The Gerson sisters, Virginia, Alice and Minnie, with
William Merritt Chase
, ca. 1880. Tintype, 5 x 6.75 inches.
The William Merritt Chase Archives, Parrish Art Museum,
Water Mill, N.Y., Gift of Jackson Chase Storm, 83.stm.4.

A dog at rest also appears in The Open Air Breakfast (above) (c. 1888), another well-known piece. The garden dog is fast asleep on her side, as though exhausted after a morning of socializing and play. The scene’s casual air is arresting, and provides a snapshot of life in turn-of-the-century American society.

Chase, a prominent member of the international avantgarde, was an inf luential artist and teacher who counted painters John Singer Sergeant, James McNeill Whistler and Winslow Homer among his circle of friends. As a young man, he had studied in Europe, reveling in the rigor of a classical art education. During his six years in Munich, he focused on the masters of European art, and developed a deep appreciation for Spanish, Dutch and French painting. He also became acquainted with a new style of painting that came to be labeled Impressionism.

Upon his return to America, he accepted a teaching position at the Art Students League in New York City, which he embraced with vigor. During his 36-year tenure, he instructed thousands of students—including Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe and Joseph Stella, who would go on to break new artistic ground themselves—as well as championed American art and contributed to internationalizing its stature. Through his art, his teaching and his advocacy, Chase helped usher in a generation of American modernism.

By all accounts, he was an exuberant and generous teacher who introduced a fresh approach to his subject matter and a vibrant use of color and brushstroke. His own landscapes depicting city parks and Long Island beaches are considered to be among the finest examples of American Impressionism.

Photographs of Chase show him as a dapper bon vivant with a well-coiffed beard and an upturned mustache, often dressed in a dark three-piece suit complete with a carnation in the buttonhole. In her book, The Life and Art of William Merritt Chase (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1917), Katherine Metcalf Roof described Chase “in his famous hat, accompanied by his almost equally famous Russian Greyhound, which, if not the first Russian Greyhound to be seen in New York, was at least the first one to become a marked character of the boulevards. Indeed, in those days of his bachelorhood there seems always to have been a dog in Chase’s life, usually an English or Russian hound.”

“Before returning to America Chase purchased the beautiful white Russian hound Katti which he used in several pictures, notably the pastel of one of his sisters shown in the sale exhibition in May, 1917. The dog, a fastidious and aristocratic person, spent the following summer with Chase’s parents, where he was the most considered member of the family. They found him rather a trying guest as he refused to eat anything but beefsteak, and they were in constant fear of losing him. He survived, however, to be painted by Chase and caricatured by Church and Blum for several summers.”

—The Life and Art of William Merritt Chase by Katherine Metcalf Roof, 1917

No poor, starving artist, Chase lived well; portrait commissions and teaching provided him with opportunities for travel as well as a comfortable life in New York and summers in the Hamptons. The natural light and rural vistas of eastern Long Island were popular draws for artists of the region, including Chase. In 1891, he helped establish the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art, the first school in America devoted to plein-air (outdoor) painting, near the western edge of Southampton Village.

His life and work during this period are well documented in the holdings of the Parrish Art Museum, on Long Island’s East End. The museum holds the largest public collection of William Merritt Chase art (more than 40 paintings and works on paper) and an extensive archive, including a thousand- plus photographs relating to his life and work, in particular, family photographs of summers spent on the island. Tintypes and blue collotypes (the photographic prints of the day) show the artist in his studio and relaxing at his summer residence. His beloved dogs are ever present; a large, white Borzoi and a dark-colored Greyhound are shown lounging with family members and wandering the countryside and seashore. A white, longhaired Wolfhound named Katti appears in several of Chase’s portraits, often with children. Katti can be seen in commissioned works, such as Portrait of James Rapelje Howell (1886), and in his paintings of family members—Good Friends (1888) and Alice with Russian Wolfhound: Friends (1903).

From the Chase family album:

Virginia Gerson, sister of Mrs. William Merritt
Chase, with Chase’s pet dog,
ca. 1880.
Tintype, 6.25 x 3.5 inches.
The William Merritt Chase Archives,
Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, N.Y.,
Gift of Jackson Chase Storm, 89.stm.4.
(above left)

William Merritt Chase with pet dog, Florence,
ca. 1911.
Gelatin silver print, 2.25 x 3.25 inches.
The William Merritt Chase Archives,
Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, N.Y.,
Gift of Jackson
(above right)

This fall, a major exhibition of Chase’s work opens at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, after a much-lauded showing at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. In early 2017, the show will travel abroad to the Ca’ Pesaro International Gallery of Modern Art in Venice.

In the catalog that accompanies the exhibition, Erica E. Hirshler, Croll Senior Curator of American Paintings at MFA Boston, sums up the artist’s impact on American art: “Chase is a major figure in late 19th-century American art both for his own work and the attention he brought to the potential of American art during that period.” The breadth of his painting, from striking portraits to evocative still lifes and glorious landscapes, is on full display in the retrospective, which commemorates the centennial of the artist’s death, and is evidence of his important place in the history of American art.