West Bend Art Museum
West Bend, WI
The following essay segment appeared in pages 22-24 of the catalogue titled Women's Work, Early Wisconsin Women Artists, published in 2001 by the West Bend Art Museum. Essay segment reprinted with permission of the West Bend Art Museum.
Jessie Kalmbach Chase
essay segment by Deborah Rosenthal
Painting the Wisconsin Landscape
When asked how she approached her work, Jessie stated, "It is best not to do the actual canvas in the field, for the artist is thus tempted to merely copy nature. It is better to make many sketches out of doors and then to paint the finished study in the studio. The greatest difficulty in outdoor painting comes from mosquitoes. Almost every landscape seems to be cluttered up with them. I paint whenever the light seems best. Afternoons are longer than mornings, therefore more of my work is done then." The time of year of her landscape paintings is usually spring and summer. When asked why she did not paint many fall scenes, she said she normally had left Door County by that time.
There are no known statements by the artist that discuss her choice of style or the impact of her experiences as a designer on her painting. She said, "The problem of composing pictures in which landscape is used as the element of design proves more interesting every day." When Charlie Lyons asked her why she did not immediately sign her work she told him that she knew who had painted the work. She did sign paintings that left her studio for exhibition or if they were purchased.
Whatever the exact inspiration for her career, Jessie pursued it actively. For some years she must have been working in Madison, however, the dates are unclear. We assume the move was at the time of her marriage, but that exact date is not known. There is a 1903 watercolor titled "Camping" of a scene in Potawatomi State Park that is signed with her maiden name. The Milwaukee Art Museum archivist reports that Jessie Kalmbach Chase is listed in annual exhibition catalogs for the Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors as early as 1915, so she may have been married and living in Madison by that date. In that year her age would have been 36. The archivist traced her membership in that organization until 1954, citing exhibition records up to 1941 in Milwaukee. Jessie's entry in Who Was Who in American Art lists her as a member of Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors from 1914-1936. The Madison Art Center records show Jessie K. Chase as a board member of the Madison Art Association from 1925-1927, when she served as the board secretary, as well as a second term in 1928-1929.
Door County native and artist Gerhard Miller recalls taking paintings to Jessie to critique when he was a teenager of 16 or 17 in the year 1919 or 1920. Miller goes on to say, "She came up (to Door County) in summer from Madison after her marriage. She always came up in summer when school was out. She rented the old quarry dorm and used the top floor of the building." Gerhard explained that in the midst of the blistering summer heat she talked to him at that studio. They discussed the use of shadow and light in his work to model the forms and change them from flat to three-dimensional. Gerhard also remembers his visits to Jessie in Madison when he attended the University of Wisconsin. At that time he visited her studio at her Madison home.
We do know that along with some Madison subjects she persisted in painting the Door County landscapes she loved throughout her life. "Since I was a child I have loved the Door County region where I grew up," Mrs. Chase said, "and I have spent most of my summers painting there." She is also described in various places as being recognized and for exhibiting nationally, but no specific sites or dates for national exhibitions are listed. She is listed as a member of the American Artists Professional League as well. However, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago has no listing for her in their alumni exhibitions.
Her exhibition records in the state of Wisconsin are more clearly documented. A 1930 Wisconsin State Journal article describes more than thirty of her paintings exhibited at various locations, "Some are in a tri-artist exhibition which is going around the state, and is now in Oshkosh. She also has pictures in the art gallery of the Milwaukee Journal, in Michigan, in the Art Guild Exhibition now showing at the Union and in the Rotary Exhibit which is going about the state." In addition to such formal exhibitions, Jessie participated in a series of short exhibits in private homes in the 1930's. This was done with the assistance and contacts of a childhood friend, Mrs. Henry A. Foeller, of Green Bay. Publicity for such exhibits describes one held at Mrs. Foeller's home in Green Bay and others that took place in Kewaunee, Shawano, Manitowoc and Milwaukee. The article about Mrs. Foeller's event describes Jessie as, "one of Wisconsin's foremost and best loved artists."
In addition to exhibitions, Jessie undertook several commissions for large-scale paintings or murals in public places. A full page spread in the October 5, 1930, Wisconsin State Journal Home Magazine reproduces the new mural she painted in the arch above the entrance to the school office of the Madison West High School. The medium was described as, "an unusual cement-like substance, called cement-fresco. Several of Mrs. Chase's paintings in cement-fresco are privately owned. This medium was developed by Olaf Oleson, a New York artist. The usual oil pigments are combined with cement, the effect being especially desirable for mural painting in texture durability and the absence of shiny or reflecting surfaces." A second public mural was also described as, " A cement fresco mural which she created for the council chamber of the recently built municipal building at Fort Atkinson in the form of a map of the original settlement of that locality." In May, 1942, a Milwaukee Journal article reports on the completion of the two mural panels for the auditorium of the Sturgeon Bay High School. Other accomplishments include, W.P.A. murals for the Madison Wis.) Public Library, (Pettys' Dictionary of Women Artists) and work in the Bank of Sturgeon Bay (Who Was Who in American Art).
In 1955, Jessie exhibited several serigraphs, also known as silk screen prints, at the Neville Museum in Green Bay. The scenes included the rugged Door County peninsula. She also showed in the Peninsula Art Association exhibits in Door County from 1956-1961, and at Gibraltar High School in Door County during the Peninsula Music Festival and the annual Antique, Arts & Crafts Show. Door County Advocate ads in the early 1960's explain, "Her work may be seen in Door County gift shops, at the Pioneer School House in Ephraim, and at her home and studio at 54 N. 8th Avenue in Sturgeon Bay". By this time Jessie was in her 80's.
Large numbers of Jessie's screen prints and oils along with a few watercolor paintings have survived. The majority are of the sun filled Door County landscape. Her work has continued to emerge from private collections over time. While her subjects are primarily Door County land and water scenes, a number of Madison scenes are known as well, particularly as print subjects. A small number include people, buildings and ships. She simplified the landscape to flat patterns reflecting the style she adopted from Japanese woodblock prints. At other times, her work is filled with confident, Impressionist style brush strokes which convey the sun-dappled surface of the land.
Her influence upon the world of Wisconsin art and artists seems to have been subtle. While not actively a teacher, she did influence artists who came directly to her for her opinion. She was a role model for women, a successful artist at a time when that was not usual. She quietly went about her business as a productive artist, leaving behind a legacy of more than fifty years of work. Several of her works are now in the permanent collection of the Miller Art Museum in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.
R. Charles Lyons, Lorraine Mengert, James A. Rogers, Steve Harvey, Gerhard C.F. Miller
Note: Other information was gathered from the Miller Art Museum files, the Milwaukee Public Library, and personal files of the author.
7. Wisconsin State Journal, March 16, 1930, also Milwaukee Journal, April 25, 1925.
8. undated clipping in Foeller materials at Miller Art Museum.
9. Wisconsin State Journal, March 16, 1930
10. See note 9.
11. From undated, [but likely from 1930's], clipping in Foeller scrapbook,"Paintings
of Jessie Chase on Display at Foeller Home"
About the author:
Deborah Rosenthal has been curator of exhibits and collections at the Miller Art Museum in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, since 1993. She holds a BFA in printmaking and drawing from Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington and an MA in art history with museum studies from the University of Arizona at Tucson. She currently resides in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin.
This reprinted text is Copyright © 2001 West Bend Art Museum and is reprinted with permission of the Museum.
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