IN the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, is a portrait of William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), by John Singer Sargent, presented as a gift from Mr. Chase’s pupils “on account of his unceasing devotion to American students and American art.” This tribute to Mr. Chase finds a response in the hearts of artists and art lovers alike, for his influence as an instructor is universal in its appeal. His schools in New York City and Shinnecock, Long Island, and his travelling classes abroad have been most potent features in the progress of American art for nearly a half century. To have been a member of one of these never-to-be-forgotten classes is of itself a guarantee that the foundation is true even if the super-structure falls. How many of his students have been taught to see beauty in the forlorn, wind-swept, undulating country of Shinnecock! It is the recognising of beauty in just such barren wastes that marks Mr. Chase as the true artist. The spontaneity of his pictures is one of their greatest charms. His inspiration, like the sparkle on champagne, must be caught at the moment, and his work is that of a trained master, with every faculty under perfect control.
Now look well at the “Portrait of William M. Chase” (Fig. 74), John Herron Institute, Indianapolis, by J. Carroll Beckwith (1852), for it is a loving appreciation of a friend for a friend. Both men are westerners the West of forty years ago. Mr. Beckwith is a native of Missouri and Mr. Chase of Franklin, Indiana. Both men went to study in Europe at an early age, Mr. Chase to Munich and Mr. Beckwith to Carolus Durand, in Paris. Mr. Beckwith has painted the portraits of many notable persons in Europe, particularly several cardinals of Italy. He has exhibited in the Paris exhibitions and our own Academies. This portrait of Mr. Chase has much of the same direct personal element that Mr. Chase himself gives to the likenesses of his sitters.
Naturally Mr. Chase’s “Alice” (Fig. 75), Art Institute, Chicago, attracts us. She is so girlish and wholesome. Like a beautiful cultivated flower, she is the product of the guiding and pruning of a wise parent a beautiful cultivated child of nature. She moves with the ease and grace of a young fawn in his native home, perfectly unconscious of self, which is the height of perfected art. Mr. Chase commands our admiration and respect whatever his subject. It is his dignified reserve and moderation and his insistent originality that give him the place of honour to-day.
When Mr. Chase combines portraiture and genre painting as in “Alice” and “Dorothy” (Fig. 76), Art Institute, Indianapolis, he makes pictures that are simply bewitching. Alice has a charm all her own as she skips away, laughing at her own power to please us; but “Dorothy” has more of the challenge of the young miss who feels her power, but wants you to know that she feels it. Both have the unconscious grace of childhood, with the awakened conscience of young girlhood just making itself felt. Individually “Alice” and “Dorothy” are as distinct in character as the two girls must have been in real life. And why not? They are Mr. Chase’s daughters. Mr. Chase never leaves any uncertainty as to the personality of his subjects. They demand our attention by the force of their presence. We could no more ignore “Dorothy,” or succeed in forgetting her, than we could evade the influence of any strong character that has entered the room where we are.
Let us look again at “Dorothy and Her Sister” (Fig. 77), this time in a picture that the Luxembourg, Paris, has recently acquired. Mr. Chase’s idea of technique is wonderfully verified in this picture. He says: “To my mind, one of the simplest explanations of this matter of technique is to say that it is eloquence of art.” And then, amplifying, he pictures a great orator holding his audience spell-bound.
Yes, it is the eloquence of his art that is holding us before his pictures. Was anything ever more ideal than this young girl sitting at ease as she listens to the older sister who leans over her shoulder? How perfectly they both fit into the setting and how exactly the setting fits them ! “But,” you may ask, “where is the setting? I see nothing but a chair.” That is just the point. Mr. Chase makes us feel the room, the yard, the place, the common every-day surroundings in the aliveness of his figures and the quivering air that envelopes them.
It matters not one whit who is this “Lady with the White Shawl” (Fig. 78), Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia; she is every inch a woman and a woman gently born. Possibly it is the shawl that designates the woman’s character, for only one to the manner born can wear a shawl characteristically. Let our friend of the round-shouldered type try wearing a shawl and see how it bunches around her. It is not surprising that, in the Paris Exhibition of 1900, the place of honour was given to the “Lady with the White Shawl.” Mr. Chase’s portraits give the ensemble of the person. It is pose, natural not artificial, that the artist seeks. An amusing story is told of his little daughter’s understanding of her father’s quickness to catch a subject at the right moment. One day as she stood by the window looking at the sky, she called, “Papa, come quickly! here’s a cloud posing for you.” The aliveness of his figures testify to his keenness in grasping individual characteristics.
She is certainly a dainty miss sitting “In the Studio” (Fig. 79), Institute of Arts and Sciences, Brooklyn, turning the leaves of the pattern book. Mr. Chase never gave a more personal note to a young woman than he has to this one. She simply dominates the studio. There are many interesting objects around the room that might claim our attention were it not for her presence. And what a picture it is painted with all the abandon of the painter-artist! The inspiration came suddenly, no doubt ; the girl and the book, perhaps, unexpectedly fell into position and the picture immediately shaped itself in the artist’s mind. Mr. Chase’s alert artistic sense has made him particularly sensitive to the pictorial qualities of bits of still life, of dainty interiors, of busy back-yards, and monotonous stretches of low bushes and sand dunes; he has made them all sing under his magic brush.
Now look at these “Fish” (Fig. 8o), Metropolitan Museum of Art. They may slip out of the picture before we have time to examine them, for no real fish are more slippery. Fish are not usually chosen for drawing room ornaments, excepting goldfish, but we should consider it a rare privilege to possess Mr. Chase’s fish. One wonders if the cook, knowing her master’s propensities to see art in her supplies, does not often use subterfuge to hurry her fish into the oven and her vegetables into the pot before the discerning eyes shall see them. Otherwise her meal might be spoiled for lack of sufficient cooking. It is laughingly said that Mr. Chase’s household is ever in a state of preparedness that no sudden inspiration may be lost or his mood lack a subject.
Mr. Chase himself says of the elements of a great picture : “I maintain that they are three in number namely, truth, interesting treatment and quality.” And then he amplifies : “By truth I mean that the picture shall give the impression of a thing well seen. . . . We must add to it (truth) the interest of the artist, and an interest which shall express itself in his manner of treatment. . . . Quality comes as a result of a perfect balance of all the parts and may be manifested in colour or line or composition. In the greatest pictures it is found in all three, and then you may be sure that you are before the most consummate of human works.”
Mr. Chase’s success as an artist has been phenomenal. Even as early as 1869 (he was then thirty) a St. Louis gentleman said to a friend, “Come with me; I have a young man who paints so well that I dare not tell him how good his work is.” The St. Louis people were so impressed with his genius that they gave him a purse for a long stay in Munich. That his early promise has been more than fulfilled it is needless to add.
The last “Portrait of William Merritt Chase” (Fig. 81) by himself, is one of the cherished treasures of the Detroit Museum of Art. In 1915, when Mr. Chase was having an exhibition of his pictures in the museum, the director discussed with him the plan of starting a gallery of self-portraits of our American artists. Mr. Chase was enthusiastic over the idea and before leaving Detroit presented his own self-portrait that was in his exhibition, saying, “I would like to start the gallery of self-portraits if you will accept this one of me.” The museum is doubly proud of owning the last likeness made of Mr. Chase and that it is a gift from the artist himself.
Again we see Mr. Chase in the “Portrait of Saint Gaudens” (the American sculptor, 1848-1907) (Fig. 82), Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Kenyon Cox (1856). The figure in the bas-relief, that Saint Gaudens is represented as working on, is William M. Chase, his friend and companion. These two artists were about the same age. This painting has quite an interesting history. The original picture, painted in 1887, was burned in Saint Gaudens’ studio at Windsor, Vt., in 1904. Mr. Cox painted this replica in 1908, a year after the sculptor’s death, from the studio studies he still had.
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