The Pursuit of Style in 'William Merritt Chase'

In the major exhibition of the works of William Merritt Chase that opens at the Museum of Fine Arts on Oct. 9, a different artist seems on display in each room: a Baroque master, an American Impressionist, a Japanese-inspired painter. Yet all 80 of the pieces in the exhibit were painted by the versatile but relatively little-known Chase (1849-1916). Chase’s style blended realism and Impressionism and influenced many later artists through his work as a teacher. Organized by the MFA’s senior curator of American paintings, Erica E. Hirshler; curator Elsa Smithgall from The Phillips Collection; and curator Katherine M. Bourguignon from the Terra Foundation for American Art, the exhibition displays Chase’s work in rooms devoted to particular phases of his artistic style and distinct periods of his working life.

The exhibition opens with some of Chase’s most accomplished and intriguing work, painted in his studio on Tenth Street in New York. Rich colors and an air of mystery characterize many of the works on view. The first painting that viewers see when they walk in is “The Young Orphan (An Idle Moment),” a portrait of a black-clad, reclining young woman against a rusty red background. Many of the works in this gallery suggest the presence of a narrative but ultimately remain unresolved and ambiguous. The painting “The Tenth Street Studio” shows a woman and Chase himself in the studio, for example, but leaves their conversation and the circumstances of their meeting to the viewer’s imagination.

The following gallery emphasizes Chase’s ability to draw on the Old Masters to represent modern subjects. “Ready for the Ride,” painted during Chase’s time at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, shows a woman with a riding crop gripped securely in her hand, a pose often featured in portraits by 17th-century artist Anthony van Dyck. Yet Chase’s work introduces a very modern narrative: A confident woman replaces the aristocratic gentleman who was the typical subject of the Old Masters’ canvases.

In her talk with the press, exhibition curator Bourguignon discussed this synthesis of old and new. “[Chase] really found his own style but was willing to keep changing it…. So I think you can see the influences from Whistler, from Sargent, from the Old Masters, but Chase at least was confident in himself enough to be able to blend those into his own style,” she said.

Exhibition curator Smithgall also commented in an interview on Chase’s versatility. “What is so exciting about Chase is that he will continue to be very fluid in moving back and forth across subject and style,” she said.

Other galleries demonstrate Chase’s sheer ability to capture light and texture. The paintings “Lydia Field Emmet” and “Portrait of Dora Wheeler” stand side by side next to “Still Life—Fish,” a seemingly incongruous juxtaposition. Hirshler explained that this choice reflects Chase’s conception of his own practice. “For Chase, it’s really the act of painting that is critical, and for Chase, it was a similar exercise in a way to show the papery skin of an onion or the tulle of a woman’s dress, the sheen of a fresh fish or the sheen of a satin ribbon,” she said.

According to the exhibition’s curators, Chase’s work has received relatively little attention since his death in 1916. Hirschler said that the current show at the MFA is the first solo exhibition of his work in Boston since 1886. She added that she believes Chase merits recognition as a major figure in 19th-century American painting. “He is such an artistic sponge that he’s pulling things that he thinks are beautiful or that he admires from different corners of the world and from different time periods, and somehow he was able to bring them all together to create a work that could be by nobody but Chase,” she said.

“William Merritt Chase” is on view at the MFA from Oct. 9, 2016, to Jan. 16, 2017.

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