DescriptionWILLIAM MERRITT CHASE (American 1849 - 1916)
Portrait of a Lady
Oil on board
15 x 12in.
Private Collection, London, Ontario
Despite its small size, this beautifully preserved head of a woman is a powerful example of the painterly academicism verging on impressionism which made William Merritt Chase the most revered American painter-teacher of his generation. Instead of pursuing his European training in France, where the porcelain finish was especially prized in the academies, Indiana-born Chase studied instead in Munich, where he spent five years at the Royal Academy of Art where several other Americans, including Frank Duveneck and later John Twachtman, also learned their craft. In Munich, Chase mastered the vigorous drafting skills, sweeping paint application, and fresh color placed against velvety backgrounds for which the school's best proponents were justly celebrated. As the present work shows, Chase was also a master at using exactly the right-sized brush to render a shape so that the marks seem utterly fresh and unlabored (in this way Chase was a great deal like another American, John Singer Sargent). In the present work, with a minimal number of strokes, Chase was able to evoke not simply the soft shape and texture of this middle-aged woman's face, neck, and hair but also make her appear to be moving slightly as she tried to hold her pose. Owing to his exceptionally decisive training in Munich, Chase knew how to vary the edges of his strokes, making them breathy and indistinct when a shape needed to round its way into space, or sharp and hard where it was required to give the illusion of something convex. Some of the most exquisite passages in this portrait involve Chase's dragging a brush delicately loaded with dark paint across an area of light pink and tan-to simulate a wisp of hair on the cheek or nape of the neck.
After his stay in Munich, Chase settled in New York in 1878 and began his teaching career. He taught at the Art Students' League of New York and then at his own Chase School of Art, founded in 1896 (later known as the New York School of Art). He devoted much of his time and energy to teaching, not only at the League, but also at the Brooklyn Art Association, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Shinnecock Summer School of Art. As a leader of the insurgent younger painters who challenged the authority of the National Academy of Design, he was a founding member of the Society of American Artists and, in 1880, was elected its president. As one writer noted, "His large, sumptuously decorated studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building, which he took soon after his return to New York, was the most famous artist's studio in America and a virtual manifesto of his and his generation's artistic practices and beliefs, and of the dignity of the artist's calling."
The vigorous handling and fresh color characteristic of much of the best American painting of the early twentieth century owes a good deal to Chase's example. His pupils included Demuth, O'Keefe, and Sheeler. Chase was a highly prolific artist (his output of more than 2000 paintings included still lifes, portraits, interiors, and landscapes), and his work is represented in many American museums. The recipient of numerous awards for his many American exhibitions, Chase also was honored with a knighthood in the Order of Saint Michael by the prince regent of Bavaria in 1908.
The present work is difficult to date precisely, since Chase was known to vacillate between his darker manner and the brighter impressionist palette he began using in the 1880s, both in and out of the classroom. He was celebrated for his speed in rendering still lifes of shiny copper pots, fish, and other kitchen accoutrements in the manner of seventeenth-century Dutch still-life painters within the space of a single class period. Stories also abound about his generosity in presenting such efforts on occasion to surprised and grateful pupils.
Condition report available upon request.
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