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.”
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.
Chase painted still lifes. For much of his career, he feared that his legacy would be nothing but his paintings of fish.
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.
Chase painted Brooklyn–both his family living there and its parks.
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.
Chase’s favorite model was Alice Gerson. She became his wife.
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 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.
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.