Thursday, November 1, 2007

Playing the Part

When anyone searched for the center of the art world in late nineteenth century New York City, they didn’t need to look any further than the studio of William Merritt Chase. Born November 1, 1849, Chase’s studio was itself a work of art, as his 1882 painting In the Studio (above) shows. Chase filled his workplace and home with every exotic item he could find—rugs, furniture, clothes, musical instruments—all to help him shape the perception of what an artist’s studio should look like. Chase dressed the part, as well, sometimes even living beyond his means to create the proper impression for patrons and fellow artists. While contemporaries such as Winslow Homer kept lower profiles (Homer was once mistaken for a bank executive), Chase’s flamboyant lifestyle and personality paved the way for later American artists to play the part of the larger than life artist.

Fortunately, Chase’s talents backed up his image. In works such as Idle Hours (above, from 1894), we see Chase bringing his European training back home to America with decidedly Impressionist overtones. Chase studied in several places in Europe, perhaps most notably with Jean-Leon Gerome in Paris. Chase’s work always reminds me of that of John Singer Sargent, if Sargent had gone as consistently Impressionistic in his oils as he did in his watercolors. When John Henry Twachtman dies in 1902, the remaining members of The Ten, the anti-academic band that broke off when the American academies rejected Impressionism, ask Chase to join. Regardless of his sales or social status, Chase always remained a central figure in American art during his lifetime.

When his fortunes as a painter began to fail, Chase turned to teaching, becoming one of the most influential instructors of his time in America, second perhaps only to Robert Henri. Edward Hopper studied under both Henri and Chase, taking the best of both worlds into his unique style that would dominate the first half of the twentieth century. In the Self-Portrait of 1915, Chase seems chastened, no longer the brash showoff of the 1880s with the fancy clothes and showplace studio. The stereotypical artist of the late nineteenth century redefines himself here as the old sage, teaching the next generation how to paint. Posing beside a canvas, Chase seems ready to demonstrate for his students, with the details of his studio in the background painted sketchily for being less important than the task at hand.

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