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Painterly Controversy: William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri

January 27 - April 29, 2007


The Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, presents its major winter exhibition Painterly Controversy: William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri from January 27, 2007, to April 29, 2007. The show features thirty-four paintings from private lenders and museums across the country including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Detroit Institute of Arts, and Art Institute of Chicago. (left: William Merritt Chase, Carmencita, 1890, Oil on canvas, 69 7/8 x 40 7/8 inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Sir William Van Horne, 1906 (06.969). Photograph © 1978 The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri are two of the most admired American artists of the popular turn-of-the-century period, yet few know that the two had a tempestuous relationship in the early years of the twentieth century. Their regard went from mutual admiration to mutual animosity, and their arguments over the nature and future of American art affected an entire generation of young artists. This exhibition not only breaks new scholarly ground, but is also a fascinating visual exercise, allowing viewers to explore the decisive differences and the startling similarities in the two artists' work.

Pairings of the artists' arresting full-size portraits show the stylistic parallels in their formats and palettes, and highlight the very different ways that the artists treated such themes as fashionable women, friends and family members, their own students, and exotic subjects. A selection of their classroom demonstration pieces illuminates their teaching styles, and examples of their students' early work show both artists' far-reaching influence.

In 1902, the renowned William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) hired young Robert Henri (1865-1929) to teach at the New York School of Art, which was originally known as the Chase School. Henri seemed to be a natural choice; the older and younger artists were charismatic teachers and prolific portraitists, and their current styles were heavily influenced by the dash and dark palette of their shared idols, Manet, Velázquez, and Hals. However, their paths quickly diverged.

That year Henri wrote to his parents, "I really do believe that the big fight is on and I look for a great change in the attitude toward the kind of art I have been doing in the coming year." Henri had begun to advocate the gritty, urban themes that would characterize the movement known as the Ashcan School, but Chase found these subjects highly objectionable. In his teaching, Henri minimized the importance of draftsmanship and technique, the very values for which Chase was famous. Finally, Henri's earthy, intense personality clashed with Chase's elegant refinement. The tensions between them escalated until 1907, when Chase left the school that he had founded in disgust.

As Chase and Henri were considered the country's most influential art teachers, their break caused a public controversy that continued for years. The two had many hundreds of students, so their opinions and their methods shaped American art for decades to come, including the work of George Bellows, Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Charles Sheeler.

Painterly Controversy: William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri is organized by Assistant Curator of Art Kimberly Orcutt. Dr. Orcutt has worked in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's American Wing and was Assistant Curator of American Art at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum. She has published work on various aspects of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American art. A catalogue for the exhibition with an essay written by Dr. Orcutt and illustrated entries on each object is available.


(above: Robert Henri, La Madrileñita, 1910, Oil on canvas, 73 x 37 inches. Private collection)


Painterly Controversy: William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri is generously underwritten by First Republic Bank, Thomson Corporation, the Charles M. and Deborah G. Royce Exhibition Fund, the Seiden-Luke Fund for Exhibitions and Publications and a Committee of Honor under the chairmanship of Susan Larkin and Lucy Ricciardi. Additional support comes from the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism.


(above: William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), Portrait of a Lady in Black (Anna Traquair Lang), 1911. Courtesy of the Philadelphia Museum of Art )


(above: William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), Young Girl, c. 1900. Bruce Museum, Greenwich, CT )


(above: Robert Henri (1865-1929), The Art Student (Miss Josephine Nivison), 1906. Milwaukee Art Museum)

Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy:


Other resources for William Merritt Chase:

and for Robert Henri:

and from the San Diego Historical Society:

and from Magazine Antiques Portraits by Henri, Nov, 2005 by Allison Eckardt Ledes

and from the Archives of American Art

and these videos:

William Merritt Chase at Shinnecock is a 26 minute 1987 video 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.

"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. "


Robert Henri and the Art Spirit, is a 1990 28-minute video from EPN.

and images of dozens of Robert Henri paintings including La Reina Mora courtesy of The Athenaeum by clicking here.

Robert Henri's last name is pronounced as "HEN-rye."


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