Editor's note: This essay was rekeyed and reprinted in Resource Library on March 16, 2005 with permission and courtesy of the Eastman Memorial Foundation-Lauren Rogers Museum of Art. The essay is contained in a catalogue for an exhibition named Summers of '96 - Shinnecock Revisited: The Inspiration of Kate Freeman Clark by William Merritt Chase, held June 1 - September 2, 1996 at the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue, please contact the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Summers of '96 - Shinnecock Revisited: The Inspiration of Kate Freeman Clark by William Merritt Chase
by Kathleen McClain Jenkins
In the Summer of 1896, a young woman from Mississippi first joined American Impressionist painter and master teacher William Merritt Chase's outdoor painting class at Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, New York. Kate Freeman Clark, one of Mississippi's most prolific but least known painters, returned to the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art for the next five summers along with about one hundred other students each year, mostly female. Chase often painted alongside his. students, teaching both by criticism and by example as they worked at learning his seemingly effortless manner of producing soft landscapes under the brilliantly azure skies of the Atlantic coast. Located at the west end of Great Peconic Bay, which divides eastern Long Island into the north and south forks, Shinnecock Hills provided an excellent setting for an open-air art school, or "plein-air" as the concept of painting directly from nature was called in France where it was developed around the village of Barbizon earlier in the nineteenth century. There artists could respond immediately to the light and air and space of their surroundings without the intermediate step of pencil drawings or compositional studies.
William Merritt Chase and other American artists traveling in Europe during the 1880s had encountered the work of French painters called "Impressionists" who further developed and refined the concept of "plein-air" painting and created a number of art colonies at resort sites throughout France where the leisure class gathered. The American painters then returned home with these ideas to sow the seeds of a native Impressionist movement about the same time that the extension of railroads onto Long Island created a new summer resort area for New Yorkers seeking to abandon the oppressive heat of the city for the cool Atlantic breezes of the surrounding countryside. This annual seaside gathering of New York elites where sun-dappled women wore white dresses shadowed with soft summer blues provided artists like Chase with an ample body of both subject matter and potential pupils. The Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art quickly became the largest and most famous of the American art schools teaching painting in the open air. Its fame spread through reputation and through traveling exhibitions of the landscapes produced by Chase and his students during the summer months. Many of Chase's students returned home after the summer session to spread this "plein-air" style of painting to other parts of the country.
One of the earliest summer residents at Southampton, slightly to the southeast of Shinnecock Hills, was Mrs. William Hoyt, the daughter of Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase. Mrs. Hoyt had first envisioned the creation of an American art school on Long Island like the art colonies she had seen in France. Based on the reputation that William Merritt Chase had built during the 1880s for his teaching at the Art Students League in New York and for his "plein-air" landscapes set in the spacious urban parks of Manhattan and Brooklyn, she invited him in 1890 to establish a summer art school at Shinnecock Hills. Other Southampton residents provided land for the Art Village, a large studio building surrounded by residential cottages. In 1891 Chase conducted the first sessions of the Summer Art School, and a year later his growing family moved into the spacious house built by the prestigious McKim, Mead, and White architectural firm of New York, and remodeled to add a studio for Chase.
William Merritt Chase had begun teaching at the Art Students League after his 1878 return from studying at the Munich Academy and traveling around Europe with fellow American painters Frank Duveneck and John Henry Twachtman. Chase's subsequent studio-executed portraits and still lifes maintained the trademark Munich style of flashy brush strokes and a somewhat darkened palette of boldly applied colors. The reproduction of Frans Hals's "Malle Babbe" that hung in Chase's New York studio and the lingering compositional influence in Chase's painting of Diego Velazquez's "Las Meninas" which he had studied in Madrid serve as examples of the importance placed by the traditional art academy system on student training by examining and emulating the work of the old masters. In the 1880s and 1890s, teaching techniques at the Art Students League were divided between those instructors who had studied in Parisian academies adhering to classical methods of carefully drawing a subject before beginning a painting, and the group of Chase and his associates trained in Munich, who -- like "plein-air" landscapists -- followed a more romantic approach of launching directly into a painting for a more immediate response to the subject. Chase's friend John H. Twachtman also had returned from Europe to teach at the League. He had first left Munich, though, to study at the Academie Julien in Paris during the 1880s, and his mature painting style reflected the brighter palette of French Impressionism.
Other instructors at the League included Irving Ramsey Wiles, who had previously studied at the League himself under Chase, Thomas Dewing, and J. Carroll Beckwith. Chase often recommended the financial security of a teaching career to his students so that they might never have to compromise the quality of their work at the whims of clients. Afterward, Wiles had gone on to study drawing at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and painting with Emile Auguste Carolus-Duran at the Academie Julien. Wiles' work, however, lacked the bold spontaneity found in Chase's paintings, and he was best known as an illustrator and watercolorist who found recognition for his canvases as a portraitist rather than a landscape painter.
After Chase's subsequent summer trips to Europe in the early 1880s, which included visits to Paris, he served an extensive term as president of the Society of American Artists. The Society, which had been formed to protest conservative forces at the National Academy of Design, often met in his Tenth Street Studio, where Chase used his salary from the League to rent and furnish the prestigeously large two-story space previously occupied by landscapist Albert Bierstadt. The growing collections of Chase's Tenth Street Studio paralleled his expanding family, who provided a ready source of models during winters in the City and summers at Shinnecock. One of Chase's daughters even became known as "little red note" because of her frequent placement as an accent in his landscape paintings. Chase's many quiet figure paintings set in various corners of the Tenth Street Studio documented his growing collection of stained glass, paintings, furniture, sculpture, brasses, textiles, plants, and Oriental artifacts assembled and layered in a manner typical of late-nineteenth century eclecticism. Pupils and patrons alike gathered there for his regular Sunday afternoon open house, and also for an occasional lavish gathering featuring one of the premier entertainers of the day such as Polish pianist Paderewski or the Spanish dancer Carmencita.
It was Kate Freeman Clark's connection with New York society, and specifically her studies at the Art Students League in the early 1890s under Twachtman, Wiles, and Chase, that brought her to the Shinnecock Hills School of Art in 1896 for the first of six consecutive summers. Professional artists or serious art students comprised only about one third of the students who attended the school each summer; most of Chase's students were young, well-to-do women -- like Kate Freeman Clark -- who attended daytime art classes in New York City during the winter social season. Called "little" Kate by her extended family to distinguish her from her matriarchal grandmother, "Mama" Kate Walthall Freeman, Katherine Freeman Clark had been born in Mississippi in 1875, ten years after the end of the Civil War. Her mother, Cary Freeman Clark, was descended from the socially and politically prominent Walthall family of Holly Springs, near Memphis. Her father, Edward Donaldson Clark, had practiced law in north Mississippi with Cary's uncle -- the former Confederate general Edward Cary Walthall who was distinguished locally for his valor at the Battle of Chickamauga -- and his partner, Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar. Lamar went on to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, and then the U.S. Senate. In 1869 Clark moved to Vicksburg, where his daughter Kate lived until she was ten. She returned to her grandmother's home in Holly Springs with her mother each summer though, to avoid the deadly annual epidemics of yellow fever and cholera that plagued the lower Mississippi Delta.
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