William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), who is interred at Green-Wood with his favorite model and wife, Alice Gerson Chase, was one of the giants of American painting. Chase was one of America’s, and the world’s, great painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He painted prolifically in a remarkable range of styles–from Old Master to Impressionist, and a broad range of everyday subject matter–from portraits to public parks to beaches to interiors–over a 40-year career. As D. Frederick Baker has written, “Chase was, and remains, the archetypal cosmopolitan artist, painting contemporary American life as lived by the growing leisure class in America in the late nineteenth century–and certainly the most New York City-centric artist of his day.” Chase also was an extraordinary teacher–he has been called the most important instructor America has ever produced–training and mentoring leading American artists including Edward Hopper, Joseph Stella, Georgia O’Keefe, Charles Sheeler, and Marsden Hartley. Here’s O’Keefe on Chase: “there was something fresh and energetic and fierce and exacting about him that made him fun.”

Portrait of an Artist William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916) about 1883 Pastel on paper *An MFA Honorary Trustee and Her Spouse *Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Portrait of an Artist
William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916)
about 1883
Pastel on paper
An MFA Honorary Trustee and Her Spouse
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Chase had a big personality; he was flamboyant, ever a showman, but also a very gifted artist. Typically, he wore a top hat, white spats, and a three-piece suit with a carnation in the buttonhole; a black ribbon dangled from his pince-nez and his dramatic beard and upturned mustache were neatly-trimmed.

William Merritt Chase is currently on exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), and continues there through January 16, 2017. It is the first retrospective of Chase’s remarkable career in three decades and features 80 of his finest paintings: landscapes, urban parks, portraits of modern women, and still lifes. The exhibition was organized by the The Phillips Collections in Washington, D.C. (where it already has been exhibited), Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Terra Foundation for American Art, and the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia in Venice, Italy. After it closes in Boston, it will be off to Venice for exhibition, opening there in February.

Chase was born in Indiana. As a young man, he showed artistic promise, and was off to Europe in 1872 to study at the Royal Munich Academy. After training there, he made New York his base–renting space at the famous Tenth Street Studio in Manhattan, painting his family and public spaces in Brooklyn, teaching in New York City, and spending his summers in the Hamptons, where he taught and painted. He adapted Impressionism to modern America and lifted world-wide appreciation of American art. He brought budding artists to Europe to expose them to its influence. He founded the Chase School of Art, which since has become the Parsons School of Design. As Erica Hirshler, senior curator of American paintings at the MFA, has said of Chase: “Inspired by the old masters and excited by the beauty he found in the world around him, Chase created bold compositions of everyday subjects, family and friends.”

Matthew Teitelbaum, director of the MFA, writes of Chase: “The expressive range and depth of William Merritt Chase’s work is extraordinary–from his dynamic and varied use of oil paint to his mastery of pastel on paper and canvas–even in the context of the rich chapter of American art from which he emerged.”

Chase painted independent women.

The Young Orphan William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916) 1884 NA diploma presentation, November 24, 1890 Oil on canvas *National Academy Museum, New York *Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Young Orphan
William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916)
1884
National Academy of Design diploma presentation, November 24, 1890
Oil on canvas
National Academy Museum, New York
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. What is remarkable here is the engagement of the sitter; she looks, unabashed, directly at the viewer. Soon after this painting was completed, Chase sent it off for display in Belgium. Of the 20 avant-garde painters who displayed there, only three were Americans–and they all were giants: Chase, John Singer Sargent, and James McNeill Whistler. Whistler’s influence is apparent here in the limited range of colors and the choice of similar colors for adjoining surfaces:  the chair and wall.

Portrait of Dora Wheeler William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916) 1882‑1883 Oil on canvas *The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Boudinot Keith in memory of Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Wade *Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Portrait of Dora Wheeler
William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916)
1882‑1883
Oil on canvas
The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Boudinot Keith in memory of Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Wade
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Dora Wheeler, the subject, was Chase’s first student, a painter and illustrator. Her blue dress contrasts with the yellow Chinese fabric that frames her. This painting was shown at the prestigious Paris Salon in 1883.

Spring Flowers (Peonies) William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916) by 1889 Pastel on paper, prepared with a tan ground, and wrapped with canvas around a wooden strainer *Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection *Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Spring Flowers (Peonies)
William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916)
by 1889
Pastel on paper, prepared with a tan ground, and wrapped with canvas around a wooden strainer
Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This painting is a tour de force of color, shape, and the exotic East. Chase was fascinated, as were many of his contemporaries, with Japan; his studio was filled with kimonos, umbrellas, dolls, and more from there. Note that here the female subject, of a non-modern culture, does not look directly at the viewer.

Chase painted still lifes. For much of his career, he feared that his legacy would be nothing but his paintings of fish.

Still Life—Fish William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916) about 1900 Oil on canvas * The Hayden Collection—Charles Henry Hayden

Still Life—Fish
William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916)
about 1900
Oil on canvas
The Hayden Collection—Charles Henry Hayden. Here Chase explores sheen, texture, and the arrangement of forms. He was considered as without peer for fish still lifes.

He painted interiors–his own studio was a favorite subject. At the famous Tenth Street Studio Building in Manhattan (built by James Boorman Johnston, who is interred at Green-Wood, and occupied by many other artists who are Green-Wood permanent residents, including John La Farge, Lockwood de Forest, William Holbrook Beard, John Frederick Kensett, John Casilear, and John George Brown). Chase rented the largest studio there–and often used his eclectic collection that filled his studio as a backdrop for his paintings.

Studio Interior William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916) about 1882 Oil on canvas *Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mrs. Carll H. de Silver in memory of her husband *Brooklyn Museum photograph *Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Studio Interior
William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916)
about 1882
Oil on canvas
Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mrs. Carll H. de Silver in memory of her husband
Brooklyn Museum photograph
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. From 1878 to 1895, Chase rented the two largest rooms in New York’s famous Tenth Street Studio Building. He filled the space with eclectic paintings and objects he had collected from around the world. It became his stage for invention, for inspiration–serving as the backdrop for more than a dozen of his paintings, as his sales room, and as his place of entertainment. Dogs, monkeys and parrots roamed the space; a serving man’s costume was topped by a fez. By 1895, Chase had decided to move on, closing his studio there and auctioning its contents.

Chase painted Brooklyn–both his family living there and its parks.

The Open Air Breakfast William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916) about 1888 Oil on canvas *Lent by the Toledo Museum of Art; Purchased with funds from the Florence Scott Libbey Bequest in Memory of her Father, Maurice A. Scott *Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Open Air Breakfast
William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916)
about 1888
Oil on canvas
Lent by the Toledo Museum of Art; Purchased with funds from the Florence Scott Libbey Bequest in Memory of her Father,
Maurice A. Scott
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Chase married his favorite model, Alice Gerson, in 1887, and the couple moved in with her parents in Brooklyn. Here Chase captures his family at leisure in their Brooklyn backyard: from left to right, their pet greyhound Fly rests, Alice’s sister lies in the hammock, their daughter Cosy sits in the high chair, Alice sits with the baby, and Chase’s sister, Hattie, holds a racquet, a young woman with physical activity in her plans. The painting, with a bright palette, shows a suburban, modern family with leisure time.

In addition to teaching at the Brooklyn Art School and the Art Students League in New York City, as well as the Pennsylvania Academy of Design in Philadelphia, Chase ran a summer painting school out in the Hamptons. There he captured on canvas scenes of Long Island’s east end, often featuring his wife and daughters.

At the Seaside William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916) about 1892 Oil on canvas *Lent The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876–1967), 1967 *Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

At the Seaside
William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916)
about 1892
Oil on canvas
Lent The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Miss Adelaide Milton de Groot (1876–1967), 1967
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. From 1891 to 1902, Chase was the director and star attraction at the Shinnecock Summer School of Art. This was the first American art school devoted to plein air painting–painting out of doors. He spent two days a week teaching hundreds of students; the rest of his time was spent with his family or painting, often painting his family in various Hampton locales.

Hall at Shinnecock William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916) 1892 Pastel on canvas *Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection *©Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago *Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Hall at Shinnecock
William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916)
1892
Pastel on canvas
Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection
©Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Here Chase’s wife, Alice, and two of his daughters, enjoy a quiet moment, surrounded by Chase’s elaborate decorations. Chase’s own image joins the family portrait: it appears as a reflection in the armoire doors in the distance.

The Ring Toss William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916) about 1896 Oil on canvas *The Halff Collection *Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Ring Toss
William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916)
about 1896
Oil on canvas
The Halff Collection
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Here his daughter, Cosy, is about to toss a ring as her younger sisters, Koto and Dorothy, await their turns. The setting is the Chase home in Shinnecock; for Chase, home and studio were one and the same.

Hide and Seek William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916) 1888 Oil on canvas *The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1923 *Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Hide and Seek
William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916)
1888
Oil on canvas
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1923
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Here Chase experiments with a large dark space in the middle of the painting.

Chase’s favorite model was Alice Gerson. She became his wife.

Meditation William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916) 1886 Pastel on canvas *Willard and Elizabeth Clark *Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Meditation
William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916)
1886
Pastel on canvas
Willard and Elizabeth Clark
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Alice Gerson was Chase’s favorite model; they married a year after she posed for this painting. She grew up in a family focused on art; her father, Julius, who is interred at Green-Wood in the same lot as her and Chase, was the manager of the New York City art department for lithographer Louis Prang. Here she looks directly at the viewer and at the world–as was common for Chase’s depiction of the modern, engaged woman.

An Artist's Wife William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916) 1892 Oil on canvas *Private Collection *Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

An Artist’s Wife
William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916)
1892
Oil on canvas
Private Collection
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Again, the model here is Alice Gerson Chase. This is not just “An Artist’s Wife”–this is THE artist’s wife. To leave no doubt as to her identity, the painting in front of her is one of Chase’s works–it shows Alice and their daughter, Koto, on Shinnecock’s dunes. Alice’s pose is derived from a 17th-century painting by Frans Hals–though Hals typically used that pose for portraits of men, not for that of a modern woman.

Self‑Portrait in the 4th Avenue Studio William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916) 1915‑16 Oil on canvas *Purchase by Richmond Art Museum and gift of Warner M. Leeds *Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Self‑Portrait in the 4th Avenue Studio
William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916)
1915‑16
Oil on canvas
Purchase by Richmond Art Museum and gift of Warner M. Leeds
Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This is one of Chase’s last paintings, completed shortly before his death. He holds palette and brush, still a productive artist. The painting on the easel is in its early stages, holding out hope that much more is to come from the painter. But that was not to be. Chase, in a lecture to his students early in the year of his death, said of this painting, “I have just made a portrait of myself standing with a blank canvas in front of me. This is to be my masterpiece. The ideal and the aim of it all I believe is that you can remain young all the time to the end; always be a fresh fighter, ambitious to the end.”

William Merritt Chase, known to his contemporaries as “The Dean of American Painters,” and his wife, Alice, are interred in section 68, lot 1739, at Green-Wood. The lot was owned by Chase’s aunt at the time of his death. Chase was interred there in 1916, just days short of his 67th birthday. Here is their lot:

The lot where William Merritt Chase and Alice Gerson Chase are interred. Their gravestone is third from the left in the front row.

The lot where William Merritt Chase and Alice Gerson Chase are interred. Their gravestone is third from the left in the front row.

The lot holds 29 bodies. Included are 6 Chases and 6 Gersons–members of William’s and Alice’s families, including several of their children. Chase died in 1916. Alice died in 1927, 11 years later. Her last residence was at 234 East 15th Street in Manhattan–on Stuyvesant Square–the same address listed for Chase in 1916, when he died; her death, at the age of 61, was due to carcinoma. Her family asked that Chase’s grave be opened for Alice’s interment; that wish was carried out, and they have lain together for a century. A modest gravestone, carved with their names and life dates, marks their final resting place.

This gravestone in lot 1739 memorializes William Merritt Chase and Alice Gerson Chase.

This gravestone in lot 1739 memorializes William Merritt Chase (at the top of the stone) and Alice Gerson Chase (in the middle of the upright marker).

Just days after Chase’s death, The New York Times wrote in tribute:

His gayety of manner was the idiom he used to make us aware of the multitudinous charm of the visible world. Things that would have been lost he saved for us–unconscious momentary attitudes of children, swift changes of color under angles of light that became different angles in the twinkling of an eye, the rhythms of draperies swung by flickering gust of wind . . . . The death of William Merritt Chase removes from the ranks of American artists one whose contributions probably will receive a richer measure of applause in the next century.

Part of that measure of applause, in the next century, is this landmark exhibition of his work.

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Thanks to volunteer Jim Lambert for retrieving the relevant burial orders for lot 1739.

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A profusely-illustrated catalogue of the exhibition, William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master, is available in book stores and online. It, also, is a rich measure of applause for William Merritt Chase’s work.

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