Brooklyn Museum of Art

Brooklyn, NY



William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes, 1886-1890


"William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes, 1886-1890" explores for the first time a group of Brooklyn and Manhattan outdoor scenes by one of the most important American artists of the nineteenth century. New research into Chase's personal life and the locations of his urban landscapes has revealed the significance of these paintings. The exhibition will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art from May 26 through August 13, 2000. it will travel to The Art Institute of Chicago (September 7-November 26, 2000) and to The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (December 13, 2000-March 11, 2001). (left: In the Studio, BMA)

The thirty-five paintings and pastels in the exhibition mark a pivotal period in Chase's career and in American art history. The works are the first significant studies of American landscape executed in the Impressionist technique. These landscapes led Chase to a breakthrough in his painting career and the renewed acclaim of American art critics. The works feature scenes of Brooklyn's Prospect and Tompkins Parks, Central Park, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Gowanus Bay, Bath Beach, and the painter's family backyard in Brooklyn. (left: In Brooklyn Navy Yard, c. 1887)

In his early career, Chase was hailed as a genius bound to transform American art upon his return from his training in Munich in the 1870s. But by 1885, critics were assailing Chase's work as too closely aligned with Munich style and lacking truly American subjects. The artist was also working at a time of heightened attention to declining morals among city dwellers. His audience demanded art that reinforced its nationalist sentiments and desire to preserve social order.

Chase answered his critics by appropriating the French avant-garde concept of the flâneur, or the detached observer of modern life, and applying this method to American urban landscapes. He chose as his subjects the parks and harbors of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Chase deliberately focused on this subject matter with the aim of underscoring the civility of modern American culture. Armed with new discoveries about the artist's life and work, the exhibition and accompanying book challenge the standard assumptions concerning Chase's reputation as a realist. For example, the exhibition questions whether Chase's park subjects were artistic fictions that either conformed or conflicted with the aims of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the parks' creators. Newly discovered facts about Chase's private life explain the artist's decision to concentrate on Brooklyn's Tompkins Park during the summer of 1887. (right: The Nursery, Manoogian Collection)

"William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes, 1886-1890" was organized by Barbara Dayer Gallati, Curator of American Painting and Sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Dr. Gallati has recently identified many of the landscapes once thought to be Prospect Park as Brooklyn's Tompkins Park, now called Von King's Park. Dr. Gallati's research further concludes that Chase conveyed conservative subject matter in an avant-garde formal language. This is illustrated by the paintings of Brooklyn's Navy Yard (also previously thought to be Prospect Park), which emphasize the nature and purpose of institutionalized public spaces set aside for the general improvement of the city's residents. Chase applied the same treatment to the suburban Brooklyn resorts of Bath Beach and Gravesend by omitting references to the increasing intermingling of social classes and sexes and adopting "civilizing" ploys. By transforming Brooklyn's docks into high-art subjects, he challenged his viewers to explore the cultural connotations of these ordinarily rough, commercial spaces. (right: Afternoon in the Park, Shein Collection)

The Brooklyn Museum of Art holds one of the largest public, collections of Chase's art. The exhibition, including works from the Museum and collections throughout the United States, will be installed in the Robert E. Blum Gallery on the first floor of the Museum. Accompanying the exhibition is a fully illustrated book written by Dr. Gallati and published by the BMA in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (left: A City Park, Art Institute of Chicago)

"William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes, 1886-1890" is made possible by The Henry Luce Foundation, Inc. Generous support has also been provided by The Ronald H. Cordover Family Foundation and The David Schwartz Foundation. The BMA is also grateful to Mr. and Mrs. Richard A. Debs, Mr. and Mrs. John S. Tamagni, Mrs. Avery Fisher, Constance and Henry Christensen Ill, Mr. and Mrs. Paul Bernbach, Mr. and Mrs. Edgar M. Cullman, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. Joseph T. McLaughlin, Sol Schreiber, and Mr. and Mrs. William D. Watt. (right: The Open Air Breakfast, c. 1887)


A Brief Biography of William Merritt Chase (1849-1916)

William Merritt Chase was born in rural Williamsburg, Indiana, in 1849. He grew up with a thirst for travel and a passion for art. The Chase family later moved to Saint Louis, where the young painter gained support from local patrons for European study. He entered the Royal Academy in Munich in 1872.

Chase lived in Europe for almost seven years yet remained involved with the American art world. He exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1875 and was honored at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia the following year. In 1877 Chase won critical acclaim for Ready for the Ride, which was on view at the inaugural exhibition of the Society of American Artists, of which he later became president. Chase returned to New York in 1878 to teach at the Art Students League.

Chase was a founder of the American Society of Painters in Pastel and a principal force at the Shinnecock Summer School of Art on Long Island. Shinnecock is considered the first important summer art school in America, and Chase taught there until 1902. He also taught at the Brooklyn Art Association, at the Chase School of Art (later the New York School of Art), and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Among his students were Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley and Georgia O'Keeffe. Chase died in 1916 in New York.

Rev. 3/30/00

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William Merritt Chase at Shinnecock is a 26 minute 1987 DVD from the National Gallery of Art. A survey of the life and work of American painter William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) The narration is by Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., curator at the National Gallery of Art. This DVD is lent free of charge through the National Gallery of Art's Division of Education (go to NGA Loan Materials Finder) This video is alternately named An American Impressionist: William Merritt Chase at Shinnecock. This program is also available in the DVD collection: American Art, 1785­1926: Seven Artist Profiles.
"The film highlights W. M. Chase's years at Shinnecock, on Long Island, NY, where in 1891 the artist established the first important outdoor summer school of art in America. Images of Chase's paintings and archival photographs--many of the artist's studios--are combined with footage of the hills and beaches at Shinnecock and of Chase's house and studio as they are today." (text courtesy Georgia Museum of Art)
"Surveys the life and work of American painter William Merritt Chase (1849--1916), beginning with his student days in Munich and early career in New York City. "

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For further biographical information please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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