Biography of William Merritt Chase
Childhood and Education
The eldest of six children, William Merritt Chase was born to Sarah Swaim and David Hester Chase. He demonstrated an aptitude for art from an early age by copying images from his favorite books. According to author Katharine Metcalf Roof, Chase's "interest in art made him different from his classmates, many of whom teased him and of which he later stated, 'I am not sure that it is a bad thing to go to school, as I did, where the boys threw things at me, and asked if there was nothing else I could do'". She added that William did impress his younger brother George who remembered that "'he had only to make a few marks and the thing was done'".
Having relocated from Williamsburg to Indianapolis when he was still just twelve years old, William was exposed to other artistic activities including the theater. As Roof explains, "the moral code of the Chase family forbade cards, dancing, and the theatre; but in wicked Indianapolis William permitted himself to be led astray". Indeed, on prompting from a friend, he took a minor role in a local play. Roof notes that he enjoyed the experience so much that "for a time he was held by the lure of the footlights, then the fear of discovery conquered, and he gave up his double life".
Chase's father was a strict man who initially struggled to come to terms with his son's artistic ambitions and when he was fifteen he forced his son to work in the shoe store he managed. His father quickly learned that his teenage son had no interest in a career in sales. As Roof describes it, William spent the bulk of his time "drawing on the wrapping paper [and he] was likely to slip out of the shop at the most crowded hour to look at works of art displayed in a neighboring shop-window".
At the age of nineteen, Chase succumbed to youthful wanderlust and, on a whim, decided he wanted to become a sailor. With his father's blessing, he and a friend traveled to Annapolis where he was commissioned to a merchant ship. Not long into his a three-month voyage, Chase realized that the nautical life was not for him; a realization aided by the cruel teasing he suffered at the hands of fellow sailors. When he learned of William's woes, David Chase arranged for his son to be returned home where he once more took up employment in his father's shoe business. Unable to deter him from his interest in pursuing a career in art, his father enrolled him with a local art teacher, Benjamin Hayes. It was Hayes who eventually convinced Chase's parents of their son's talents and they duly agreed to send him to New York City where he commenced his studies in earnest.
A twenty-year-old Chase arrived in New York in 1869 where he studied at the J.O. Eaton studios and the National Academy of Design. He exhibited works in New York before re-joining his family in St. Louis, Missouri (the Chase's having recently relocated there from Indianapolis) in 1871. After about a year in St. Louis, four of the city's leading businessmen provided Chase with the funds to travel and study in Europe in exchange for a pledge that he paint their individual portraits in the future.
Most Europe-bound American artists were drawn to Paris but Chase opted instead for Germany where he enrolled at the Munich Royal Academy. According to curator Erica Hirshler, the Academy was "a rigorous art school [where Chase] developed a rich, dark, sculptural painting style and a lifelong love for the works of the old masters". His tastes were eclectic, but he was drawn to the works Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, Frans Hals, and Diego Velázquez, and especially the more flamboyant chiaroscuro styling of the German, Wilhelm Leibl. In Munich Chase made lifelong friendships with fellow students Frank Duveneck and Walter Shirlaw and, though he was a serious, studious, individual, he was not above high spirited pranks. Roof retells an anecdote in which a fellow student bet Chase he could not paint an object so convincingly it might be mistaken for the real thing. Chase won the challenge when his professor attempted to hang his hat on his painted wall peg.
On completion of his studies, Chase settled for a period in Italy. It was in Venice that he began his lifelong passion for collecting miscellaneous objects ranging from knick-knacks, to picture frames, to old items of furniture, and paintings. He developed a particular fondness for clocks and rings; often wearing the latter himself. Once established as a painter and teacher, his studios would be filled with collectibles, many of which would serve him and his students with objects for still lifes. While in Venice, Chase saved a monkey named Jocko from being abused by some sailors and adopted him as a pet. It was the beginnings of a lifelong love of animals, and he bought a second monkey, Jim, and had both primates live with him at his Venice studio. He was grief-stricken at the passing of Jocko, and when he decided to return to America, he arranged for Jim to be taken in by an Italian friend.
By the time Chase returned home in 1878, he had already begun, in the words of Hirshler, to "build his American reputation by sending paintings from Munich to New York City for display". Once settled again in New York, he took his first teaching positions at the newly formed Art Student League.
Chase felt it vitally important to his reputation that he work in superlative surroundings and thus rented a space in the Tenth Street Studio Building. Designed by Richard Morris Hunt, and opened in 1856, Tenth Street (a site previously occupied by members of the Hudson River School) was the first building in New York to be (re)designed specifically for artists' use and its presence in the city signified a growing professionalism in American art (and New York as the American art world's epicentre). Having taken over a large gallery space intended originally for exhibitions, Chase, according to Kirshler, "created a studio environment that reflected his eclectic tastes and his belief in the transformational power of art. Modeled on European precedents, his rooms became a temple to art and a destination for aesthetic pilgrims". The artist's biographer Emery Battis added, "Brimming with self-confidence [...] Chase acquired the vast salon space in which Albert Bierstadt had executed his monumental western landscapes. At great expense, Chase converted the studio into an exotic showplace, which became a social center for the local artistic fraternity; the gesture enhanced his reputation as a genteel Bohemian and also attracted numerous prestigious and remunerative portrait commissions".
Adding to the attraction of Chase's studio was his extravagant display of collectibles, his English and Russian hound dogs, his two macaws and a cockatoo. In fact there was an aura about Chase which was enhanced by his Dandyish dress code. As Roof explains, he stood out from the crowd through his "[neatly groomed] hair and beard, immaculate linen, white spats, black-ribboned glasses, rings, garments of the latest fashion [and his] custom of wearing a scarf-ring [and] a large carved emerald set with small diamonds [which] was his favorite".
Already an established artist, Chase made a reputation for himself as a teacher too. With his unusual still lifes (based on many of his collectibles) and his habit of bringing his dogs into the classroom, he was extremely popular with his students. Of his teaching career he recalled fondly, "I believe I am the father of more art children than any other teacher [while my close] association with my pupils has kept me young in my work. Criticism of their work has kept my own point of view clear". In the course of his teaching career, Chase would tutor some of America's greatest modern artists including George Bellows, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, and Georgia O'Keeffe (who, according to director Dorothy Kosinski, "called her teacher fierce"). Sadly, Chase's name is seldom linked with these artists because, as author Christina Michelon explains, many of his finest students, "would ultimately overshadow their mentor's career and legacy".
In 1881, Chase made many excursions to Europe where he would hold summer art classes. The continent held great appeal for Chase who famously stated, "I'd rather go to Europe than go to heaven". On these trips he would become so bored on the long ocean journey he and his friends, including the artist Robert Blum, painted murals on the walls of ladies' and captain's cabin, and the smoking room. The 1881 jaunt to Europe also had a profound impact on the direction of his art. As Roof explains, during a stay in Paris he met Belgian artist Alfred Stevens who was impressed by Chase's portrait of his friend Duveneck, but asked "'why do you try to make your canvases look as if they had been painted by the old masters?' From that hour, Chase says, he sought to express his own individuality in his art". Henceforward, Chase's art displayed more of his own hand and laid the foundation for a style which helped to launch Impressionism in America. Evidence of this can be seen almost immediately in the paintings he began creating of New York's public parks.
A second upshot of his 1881 trip was that it led to him bringing the paintings of Édouard Manet to the attention of the American public. While in Paris, Chase met the artist Alden Weir who had been charged with purchasing paintings for the New York collector Erwin Davis who himself had close connections with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Chase introduced Weir to the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel and persuaded him to purchase two Manet works, Boy with the Sword (1861) and Girl with Parrot (1866). The paintings were duly accessioned and displayed at the famous museum.
In 1883 Chase was involved in the organization of an exhibition to help raise funds for a pedestal for the Statute of Liberty. The exhibition featured loans of three works by Manet and urban scenes by the Italian Impressionist Giuseppe de Nittis. Both artists influenced Chase's Impressionistic style that gave rise to a series of New York park scenes. It is also thought that he was influenced by John Singer Sargent's In the Luxembourg Gardens (1879) which was exhibited in New York at this time. Indeed, Chase had met Sargent in Europe in 1881, the two men becoming lifelong friends with Sargent painting Chase's portrait in 1902.
On another European trip in 1885, Chase met James McNeill Whistler in London. While Whistler had a reputation for being difficult, the two artists got along famously and agreed to paint one another's portrait. Eventually, however, Whistler's moods began to grate with Chase who wrote home stating "I really begin to feel that I never will get away from here". For his part, Whistler criticized Chase's finished portrait and, according to Hirshler, "complained about Chase for the rest of his life". While no record exists of Whistler's portrait of Chase; Chase's portrait of Whistler remains a well-known piece in his oeuvre.
In 1887 Chase married Alice Gerson, the daughter of the manager of a lithography company. Though some fifteen years his junior (Chase was 37), he had known Alice for some time through her family's devotion to the arts. The pair, who would enjoy a happy marriage with Alice in full support of her husband's career, settled initially in Brooklyn where their first child was born. The couple would parent six daughters and two sons and it was only his family that could rival his devotion to his art. Indeed, Chase often combined his two loves by painting several portraits of his wife and children in Brooklyn parks before the couple relocated to Manhattan.
Between 1891 and 1902, Chase and his family spent their summers at a purpose-built home and studio in Shinnecock Hills, a close suburb of the upmarket town of Southampton on the south shore of Long Island (roughly 100 miles east of New York). Chase set up, and taught two days a week, at the nearby Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art which benefitted from the financial backing of local art collectors. It was at Shinnecock that Chase, taken in by the region's striking natural surroundings, painted several Impressionistic landscapes. As Bettis put it, "There, among the dunes, in the bright sunlight and sea air his painterly impulse was given free sway, and he produced some of his freest and loveliest work". His passion for the area was so felt he even gave his daughter Hazel the middle name of Neamaug, in honor of the rich Native American history of Shinnecock. Chase was equally focused on the students that came to the School and who he encouraged to paint in the modern plein air style favored by the French Impressionists.
Although Chase was making a name for himself as an Impressionist, he never abandoned his commitment to the sombre tones and academic tropes he had learned in Munich, though these he reserved for his portraits, and for his series of striking still lifes featuring dead fish. Chase was in fact a successful society portraitist - he painted fashionable women for a fee of $2,000 - and would paint his students as "samples" which he then donated to leading art institutions (such as Lady in Black (1888) which he donated to the Metropolitan Museum in 1891).
In 1896, facing financial difficulties, Chase flirted with the idea of giving up his teaching in New York and traveled with his family to Madrid where he developed a passion for bullfighting. Chase returned however to Shinnecock in June to teach his yearly summer art class, and in the fall of that year, established his own art school in Manhattan: the Chase School which was modelled on the Académie Julian in Paris. Chase lacked business savvy, however, and the Chase School lasted only two years before it was placed under new management. It continued as the New York School of Art (changed to Parsons School of Design starting 1941) with Chase as head the School for eleven more years. Chase also taught during this period at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
In 1902, following the premature death of his friend John Twachtman, Chase was invited to join the Ten American Painters group (who included amongst its members, Frank Weston Benson, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Robert Reid and Julien Alden Weir) with whom he continued to exhibit for the remainder of his career. Like Chase, the other group members were committed to the philosophy of Eclecticism. As the art historian Isabel L. Taube described it, Eclecticism amounted to more than just a "jumble of sources" and depended rather on "clear intention and reason instead of chance and intuition". She adds that by the late nineteenth century "discussions of eclecticism in popular magazines and trade publications emphasized the difficult and serious study required to achieve a harmony of diverse elements in architecture as well as the fine and decorative arts".
Though he painted and exhibited until his death in 1916, in this later years Chase devoted more and more time to teaching, dividing his time between Europe and America. Between 1902 and 1913 he spent his summers travelling to Europe where he taught classes in Belgium, England, Italy, Holland and Spain. His last European class was held in Venice in the summer of 1913. Chase had also taken great pride in the studio set up he established at Fourth Avenue in 1908. Here he taught private classes while continuing to work enthusiastically on his own paintings. He maintained his association with the Art Students League of New York until 1912 and, in 1914, he experienced a new teaching environment by conducting summer classes on the West Coast in Carmel, California. During the winter of 1916, Chase began to feel unwell. Though he continued to paint, he grew increasingly ill from what was diagnosed as cirrhosis of the liver. Forced to cut short a visit to Atlantic City, Chase returned to New York where he died two days later aged just sixty-six.
The Legacy of William Merritt Chase
Chase had a profound impact on shaping the development of modern art in the United States. As curator Erica Hirshler explains, "Chase developed an American version of Impressionism to depict modern subjects" and started incorporating other modern artmaking techniques in the way he "often employed daringly abstract compositions, devising interlocking patterns of vertical and horizontal lines or dramatic diagonal sweeps that provided a firm geometric foundation for his loose strokes of color". She adds that he "also experimented with different media and was an innovator in the revival of painting in pastel". Indeed, according to the Phillips Collection website, as "co-founder of the progressive Society of American Painters in Pastel, Chase was a leader in the late 19th-century revival of pastel painting and one of its most innovative practitioners".
Chase also created an impressively important legacy as an art teacher. While the notion of plein air painting had been embraced by the French Impressionists, Chase led the way in importing that approach to America; both through the example of his own works but also by encouraging his students to engage in the practice as well. Unlike some instructors who required students to mimic their own methods, Chase chose simply to encourage his students to explore their own artistic paths. As Hirshler explains, "perhaps Chase's success as a teacher is marked by the fact that only some of his students followed his stylistic example; others - among them Lydia Field Emmet, Rockwell Kent, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, and Georgia O'Keeffe - used what they learned in his classes as a springboard for their own artistic innovations". He was also considered a trailblazer in his appreciation of women artists. As author Christina Michelon explains, "Chase's modern thinking extended to [...] his mentoring of female students [...] Proclaiming that 'Genius has no sex,' Chase advised male and female students equally and actively collected art by women at a time when this was not the norm".
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
First published on 11 Oct 2020. Updated and modified regularly