Editor's note: The following article was published in Resource Library on August 9, 2011 with permission of the author and the The Paine Art Center & Gardens. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the Paine Art Center & Gardens directly through either this phone number or web address:
William Merritt Chase: Family Portraits
June 11 - October 9, 2011
William Merritt Chase: Family Portraits is the first exhibition to gather the acclaimed artist's exquisite paintings of his wife and children. Organized and presented exclusively by the Paine Art Center and Gardens in Oshkosh, the exhibition brings together twenty of Chase's finest family portraits from museums and private collections spanning the country.
The exhibition offers a fascinating look at the private life and career of one of the most celebrated artists working in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A gifted artist and influential teacher, William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) was an extraordinarily versatile painter of light-filled Impressionist landscapes, decorative interiors, realistic still lifes, and dynamic figurative works. Perhaps best known as one of the most accomplished portraitists of his day, Chase's favorite models and subjects were his beloved wife, Alice Gerson Chase (1866-1927), and their eight children.
Will Chase, a debonair bachelor and promising artist, met the young Alice Gerson in New York in 1880. Alice soon became Chase's muse and favorite model. The two married in 1886, beginning a rich artistic and domestic partnership that thrived until Chase's death in 1916. Chase painted his beautiful wife on numerous occasions, in portrayals ranging from innocent, youthful model to loving wife and mother, supportive critic, and sophisticated society matron.
The couple raised eight children, and Chase delighted in capturing their likenesses on canvas. Their eldest child, Alice Dieudonnée, was born in 1887 and inspired many of Chase's most sensitive, innovative works. Third daughter Dorothy Brémond was also a frequent sitter, while portraits of Koto Robertine, Helen Velázquez, Robert Stewart, and Roland Dana are less common, albeit equally compelling. Two of the Chase children -- fourth daughter, Hazel Neamaug, and youngest, Mary Content -- were rarely painted, yet appear in vintage photographs taken by Mrs. Chase during the family's summers at Shinnecock Hills, Long Island.
The exhibition is inspired by a rare and ravishing portrait from the Paine's permanent collection of Chase's second daughter, Koto Robertine, depicted as a mature, married woman in her twenties. This engaging, distinguished likeness is joined by a variety of other formal portrayals of Chase's wife and children, several of which were intended as exhibition pieces to demonstrate his virtuoso skills for potential portrait commissions. Intimate interiors, charming sketches, and expressive renderings created purely for the family's enjoyment contrast the formal portraits by capturing more casual, everyday moments.
Early in his career, Chase turned to portraiture as an effective way to earn a living. While he painted numerous high-profile sitters, such as presidents and celebrities, his most outstanding and best-known portraits depict his family. These sensitive, profoundly personal images convey the artist's love for his family and the immense pride he felt as husband and father. In contrast to his commissioned portraits, these renderings reveal the tenderness Chase felt for his subjects and a depth of personality resulting from the artist's special relationship with the sitters and his first-hand observation of intimate, everyday moments.
In 1881 a critic for American Art Review recognized Chase's unique talents for portraiture, stating, "The most prominent characteristic of his style in portraiture is force. Vividness of conception, strength and rapidity of hand -- these are its most striking qualities." Even at this early stage in his career, Chase was moving beyond creating mere realistic likenesses to capture his subjects' vitality, charm, and character. This sense of force, enhanced by the close bond with his subjects, is what makes Chase's family portraits so exceptional. Moreover, the family portraits represent the subjects Chase chose to paint, uninhibited by a client's wishes.
Among the most impressive works in the exhibition are a series of dramatic full-length portraits dating from the early 1900s. A particularly famous, iconic example is The Open Japanese Book, an extraordinary life-size portrait of Alice Dieudonnée dressed in an elegant kimono and holding a book of vibrantly colored Japanese prints. Executed on a large scale for exhibition purposes, this particularly intriguing portrait reflects the important influence of James Abbott McNeill Whistler on Chase's work in the simplicity of its composition, delicate palette, subtle technique, and Asian theme. Another astonishing example is the Indianapolis Museum of Art's portrait Dorothy, featuring the artist's third daughter in a fashionable white dress and delightful straw hat. With her confident pose and riveting gaze, Dorothy was aptly described by one historian in 1917 as "simply bewitching."
The exhibition also reveals the artist's dynamic personality through two remarkable self-portraits, including Self-Portrait in the Studio, completed in 1916, the final year of Chase's life. Offering an intriguing glimpse of the artist at work, this tour-de-force self-portrait is the culminating masterpiece of Chase's career and reaffirms his status as a leading American Impressionist through the composition's bold, vigorous brushwork and adept handling of light. While Chase painted several self-portraits, Self-Portrait in the Studio is by far the most elaborate. The work was commissioned by the Art Association of Richmond, Indiana, in 1912. The association had requested a simple three-quarter view, yet Chase was unable to fulfill the commission for a few years. After many excuses and much teasing about enhancing the composition with still life elements to make up for the delay, Chase completed the work in 1916 and presented his clients with this astounding portrait of the artist in his studio. The empty canvas in the center represents, as Chase stated, " ... my masterpiece, the alluring, tantalizing great picture which I always hoped to paint and have never quite succeeded in creating."
The fascinating story behind Richmond's commission touches on an important aspect of Chase's personality: a generosity of spirit that filtered through all aspects of his life and career, from his tireless championing of American art to his position as a revered teacher to his most cherished role as devoted husband and father. For the first time, the Paine's exhibition gathers Chase's deeply personal portrayals of his family members, which embody the artist's most magnificent and compelling work. Praised for their brilliant technique, sophistication, and charm, these portrayals were among Chase's most critically acclaimed works during his lifetime. William Merritt Chase: Family Portraits sheds new light on one of America's greatest portraitists and the touching and powerful inspiration he found within his own family.
A fully illustrated catalogue with essays by D. Frederick Baker and Laura B. Fiser accompanies the exhibition. An article about the exhibition is featured in the August 2011 issue of American Art Review.
This is the first exhibition to be based on the late Ronald G. Pisano's The Complete Catalogue of Known and Documented Work by William Merritt Chase, a four-volume catalogue raisonné completed in 2010 by D. Frederick Baker and Carolyn K. Lane.
To view the checklist for the exhibition please click here.
(above: William Merritt Chase, Koto Chase, 1899, Oil on canvas, 30 x 25 1/2 inches. Courtesy of Babcock Galleries, New York)
(above: William Merritt Chase, Koto Robertine Chase Carr Sullivan, ca. 1914, Oil on canvas, 43 x 34 inches. Collection of the Paine Art Center and Gardens, Gift of Morris I. Kaplan, 1964.2
(above: William Merritt Chase, My Daughter Alice, ca. 1897, Oil on canvas, 22 1/2 x 18 1/4 inches. Collection of the Columbus Museum, Columbus, Georgia; Museum purchase made possible by Friends of the Museum )
To view additional images from the exhibition please
Resource Library editor's note
The above article was published in Resource Library on August 9, 2011, with permission of the author and the Paine Art Center & Gardens, which permission were granted to TFAO on August 1, 2011.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Jessica Palm of the Paine Art Center and Gardens for her help concerning the above text and images.
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