Friday, December 25, 2015

William Merritt Chase: "Girl With a Book" (1902)

William Merritt Chase

William Merritt Chase was born in Indiana in 1849, the oldest of six children of a modestly successful shoe merchant and his wife. In 1872, after studies in Indianapolis and at New York's National Academy of Design, Chase was asked by a group of Saint Louis businessmen if he would like to study in Europe with their support. He is said to have replied: "My God, I'd rather go to Europe than go to heaven." Chase decided to work in Munich rather than Paris—the magnet for most aspiring late nineteenth-century American artists—because he thought the German city would be less distracting. Although he enrolled in the Munich Academy, he was more interested in the flashy brushwork and dramatic chiaroscuro espoused by Wilhelm Leibl, Gustave Courbet's German friend and stylistic alter ego. Chase was also attracted to the painterly realism of old masters such as Peter Paul Rubens and Frans Hals.

Other contemporary artists inspired Chase to update his subjects and style. Of particular importance was Édouard Manet. In 1881, Chase (along with J. Alden Weir) helped the New York collector Erwin Davis to purchase Manet's Boy with a Sword (1862) and Young Lady (1866). In 1883, Chase helped to organize an exhibition to raise funds to construct a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty -- the loans included three works by Manet. City scenes by Giuseppe de Nittis may also have influenced Chase in the mid-1880s.

Although Chase was a successful Impressionist, he never abandoned references to tradition, especially in his portraits and still lifes. Positioning himself as a society portraitist, he often painted images of his students as "samples," showed them widely, and gave them to leading institutions, as in the case of Lady in Black (1888), which he donated to the Metropolitan Museum in 1891. Portraits of fashionable women became his stock-in-trade and he commanded $2,000 for a full-length portrait during the 1890s. His large-scale paintings of fish, executed with his somber Munich-inspired palette, sold for $1,000 or $2,000 each. These helped pay the bills, but Chase worried that he would be known to future generations only as "a painter of fish, a painter of fish."

Chase, who died in New York in 1916, was a gifted witness to his era, gathering impressions of late nineteenth-century city life and country leisure abroad and at home, and weaving together many modern and old master impulses to create a distinctive account of his time and place.

Excerpted from a bio by H. Barbara Weinberg, Department of American Paintings and Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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