William Merritt Chase: books and exhibitions to celebrate his centenary

William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), At The Seaside (c 1892), oil on canvas, 50.8 x 86.4 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

William Merritt Chase, an American master painter and Impressionist, died on 25 October 1916: almost a century ago. To mark this centenary, there is an exhibition which is currently in Washington DC, moving to Boston and then over to Venice in 2017. Accompanying that is a new book which stands between the existing short accounts, and his full catalogue raisonné.

In a couple of months, I will start a short series of articles examining his paintings, to mark this centenary. To get you prepared for that, this article gives details of the exhibition, the three books about him currently readily available, and shows some examples of his wonderful paintings, chosen from those included in the exhibition.

I previously wrote about his Impressionist paintings here.

Exhibition: William Merritt Chase, A Modern Master

The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC 4 June – 11 September 2016
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 9 October 2016 – 16 January 2017
Ca’ Pesaro-Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna, Venice 11 February – 28 May 2017


William Merritt Chase, A Modern Master, by Smithgall E et al. (2016), The Phillips Collection and Yale UP. 20+227 pages. ISBN 978 0 300 20626 5.

This is both the catalogue of the exhibition, and a fine monograph which covers Chase’s life, career, and art. Written by five experts, including Erica Hirshler whose smaller book is listed below, it has to be the most complete and authoritative account since his catalogue raisonné (some volumes of which are still in print).

The book consists of five excellent essays, each well illustrated, the catalogue of works exhibited, a chronology, and selected bibliography. There is also (for once, thank you) a good index to make life easier.

After a short prefatory overview by D Frederick Baker, director of the Catalogue Raisonné Project, Elsa Smithgall’s deeply insightful essay sets Chase’s work in the context of his own development, and other major artists including John Singer Sargent, Manet, and James Tissot. This should be obligatory reading for anyone with an interest in late nineteenth century painting.

Erica Hirshler’s essay starts with a lovely quotation from Chase, that he’d “rather go to Europe than go to heaven”, and ends with Gainsborough’s last words and maxim, “We are all going to heaven and Van Dyck is of the company.” Between those she relates how Chase engaged with the old Masters, and establishes that he became an old Master himself.

Katherine Bourguignon analyses Chase as a teacher, which provides even better insight into his approach to painting, as well as establishing his importance as the teacher of so many major artists – George Bellows, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Joseph Stella, to name but a few.

John Davis considers Chase’s ‘international style’, mainly in the 1880s, when he pursued a three year campaign at the Paris Salon, and enjoyed success in New York, Boston, Munich, Brussels, and Paris. The final essay, by Giovanna Ginex, describes Chase’s painting in Venice, and the early years of the Venice Biennal.

The catalogue is presented in chronological order, each period of Chase’s career being described over a couple of pages before the paintings for that period. Although relevant works are cited in the text, there are no individual catalogue notes accompanying each painting, nor does there seem any particular need for them. Paintings are shown at good sizes, all on their own page, except for some shown as two-page spreads.

The choice of Chase’s work ensures appropriate coverage of his entire career and subjects. All too easily neglected, there are some fine pastels, and his wide range of genres is properly represented, with genre, still life, and portraits covered in addition to a rich selection of his landscapes. I particularly enjoyed seeing his paintings of his family life.

The chronology is excellent, amounting to a dozen pages with some valuable illustrations. The bibliography is relatively short, but well-chosen and structured helpfully.

I recommend this book wholeheartedly to anyone interested in Chase, in the history of American painting, and indeed all those interested in painting in the nineteenth century. It is beautiful, enjoyable, and an excellent monograph in its own right.

William Merritt Chase, A Life in Art, by Longwell AG (2014), Parrish Art Museum and D Giles. 96 pages. ISBN 978 1 907804 43 4.

This short and lovely book contains two excellent essays on Chase, and a well-illustrated catalogue of the 31 paintings by him in the Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, NY. These concentrate on his time at Shinnecock, but by no means exclusively. Although now replaced by the monograph above, this is still excellent reading and viewing, and essential for anyone intending to visit the museum. I greatly enjoyed it.

William Merritt Chase, by Hirshler EE (2016), Museum of Fine Arts Boston. 84 pages. ISBN 978 0 87846 839 3.

Aimed at a much broader readership, from the interested ten-year-old, perhaps, right up to us old grumps, this is a highly accessible account of Chase’s times, life, influences, and work. Intended as a complement to the larger catalogue/monograph, it is a superb example of how to write and illustrate an art book for the general public. Its text explores meaningful and important themes such as ‘modern women’ and Japonisme with the pick of Chase’s work and other relevant illustrations. It is a wonderful birthday or Christmas present for almost anyone.


Here is a selection from those included in the exhibition, and in the book William Merritt Chase, A Modern Master. There are of course many more in both.

William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), “Keying Up” – The Court Jester (1875), oil on canvas, 101 × 63.5 cm, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA. Wikimedia Commons.
William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), The Turkish Page (Unexpected Intrusion) (1876), oil on canvas, 104.8 × 94.5 cm, Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, OH. Wikimedia Commons.
William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), Studio Interior (c 1882), oil on canvas, 71.3 x 101.9 cm, Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.
William Merritt Chase, The Coast of Holland (1884), oil on canvas, 150 x 203.2 cm, Frye Art Museum, Seattle, WA. WikiArt.
William Merritt Chase, The Coast of Holland (1884), oil on canvas, 149.5 x 203.2 cm, Frye Art Museum, Seattle, WA. WikiArt.
William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), Mother and Child (The First Portrait) (c 1888), oil on canvas, 178.1 x 101.9 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX. Wikimedia Commons.
William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), A Modern Magdalen (c 1888), oil on canvas, 48.3 x 39.4 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.
William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), The Open Air Breakfast (c 1888), oil on canvas, 95.1 x 144.2 cm, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, OH. Wikimedia Commons.
William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), The Nursery (1890), oil on panel, 35.6 x 40.6 cm, Private collection. By ErgSap – Android apps, via Wikimedia Commons.
William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), Lydia Field Emmet (1892), oil on canvas, 182.8 x 91.8 cm, Brooklyn Museum, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.
William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), Shinnecock Studio Interior (1892), pastel on paper mounted on canvas, 40.6 x 50.8 cm, Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.
William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), At The Seaside (c 1892), oil on canvas, 50.8 x 86.4 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.
William Merritt Chase, The Big Bayberry Bush (c 1895), oil on canvas, 64.77 x 84.14 cm, Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, NY. WikiArt.
William Merritt Chase, The Big Bayberry Bush (c 1895), oil on canvas, 64.8 x 84.1 cm, Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, NY. WikiArt.
William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), The Ring Toss (c 1896), oil on canvas, 102.6 x 89.2 cm, The Halff Collection. Wikimedia Commons.
William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), Morning at Breakwater, Shinnecock (c 1897), oil on canvas, 101.6 × 127 cm, Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, IL. Wikimedia Commons.
William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), The Song (1907), oil on canvas, 71.1 × 71.1 cm, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AZ. Wikimedia Commons.
William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), Florence (1907), oil on panel, 15.9 x 20 cm, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.