Some of the best paintings of the Masters are those of intimate family moments, such as Rubens’ Two Sleeping Children (c 1612-13). William Merritt Chase (1849–1916) made many informal sketches of his family and other children, which are among his most candid and insightful works – and the subject of this article.
Long before he had his own, Chase demonstrated his skill in depicting young children in his wonderful pastel Child with Prints (c 1880-1884). Caught rummaging through a folder of prints in his Tenth Street Studio is the young child of a friend or model: the sort of amusing incident that happens to many of us. The toddler’s studious face, as they sit holding papers in front of them, immediately dispels any upset at the chaos that surrounds them.
Chase first met his wife, Alice Bremond Gerson (1866-1927), in 1879 when she was only thirteen, and still known as Posey. He married her on 8 February 1886, although some sources claim it was 1887, when she was nineteen and he was thirty-six. His very loose Portrait of Mrs. Chase (c 1886) is an early sketch which probably dates from their first summer together. Initially, the couple lived with William’s parents in Brooklyn before moving to their own place in Greenwich Village.
Between the years 1887 and 1904, Alice bore a total of eleven children, of whom seven are believed to have survived childhood. They include:
- Alice Dieudonnée (1887-1971), nicknamed Cosy, who was, after his wife, his favourite model
- Koto Robertine (1889-1956)
- William Merritt, Jr (1890-1891)
- Dorothy Bremond (1891-1953), another favourite model
- Hazel Neamaug (1893-?)
- John Rudolph (died 1895)
- Helen Velazquez (1897-1965)
- Robert Stewart (1898-1987)
- Roland Dana
- Mary Content (1904-1943).
Chase’s pastel My Baby Cosy (1888) expresses the particular joy that every parent feels in their first baby, reflected in Alice’s second name of Dieudonnée (‘given by God’), when she was just a year old. She wears a kimono-like gown, which makes her appear quite Japanese.
Hide and Seek (1888) does not show the Chase children (Alice was but a year old at the time, and the older girls were dark-haired too), but two visitors. It is both a familiar representation of a childhood game, in which the seeker has crept up behind the girl in the distance whose attempt to hide has failed, and one of his most unusual studies in space and its representation.
Its stark, sparse, and almost flat image with simple geometry – reminiscent of Whistler’s work – only gains depth through the echoed figures of the girls, in similar postures, their backs turned and looking into the picture.
Children Playing Parlor Croquet (c 1888) must also show the daughters of others, if it is correctly dated, as they take over a room to play the indoor version of this game, which was popular at the time.
Alice the mother and Alice the daughter are the subjects of his fine pastel I’m Going to See Grandma (Mrs. Chase and Child), dated to about 1889 when the girl was just two years old, and being dressed in her best for the visit.
In 1892, Chase, his wife and three daughters found fresh freedom when they moved into their new summer home in Shinnecock, Long Island. Away from the seemingly endless buildings and streets of New York City, just a few steps outside their front door they were surrounded by countryside. Unlike in the city, Chase’s studio was here integrated into the family home, and the children seem to have enjoyed frequent and unlimited access to it.
Many of Chase’s most candid paintings were made here in Shinnecock. His pastel Shinnecock Studio Interior (1892) shows one of the girls looking through pictures, perhaps a reminder of his earlier Child with Prints (above).
Those pictures have moved out into the Hall At Shinnecock (1892), another fine pastel, this time showing his wife, Alice and Koto, in the rich summer light.
Caring for their growing family must have kept Mrs Chase hard at work for most of her waking hours. By the time that she is seen sewing in For the Little One (also sometimes confusingly known as Hall at Shinnecock) in about 1896, they had four daughters ranging from three to nine years of age.
While mother was busy making and mending, and caring for little Hazel, the older girls might play with father. The Ring Toss (c 1896) shows those older girls – Alice in yellow, with Koto and Dorothy – playing most probably in the Shinnecock studio.
Did You Speak to Me? (c 1897) shows Alice, then aged ten, in the studio at Shinnecock, perhaps while she was waiting for her father.
In my previous use of Chase’s Alice in the Shinnecock Studio (c 1900), I had presumed that his painting showed his wife Alice, when it is almost certain that it shows daughter Alice, at the age of thirteen. By this time, his wife’s support to their six or seven children severely limited her availability as a model, and Chase was only too happy to use his oldest daughter instead.
But Chase was still not done with superb celebrations of childhood: with several young children in the family, and Mary Content still to come, The Birthday Party (Helen Velasquez Chase) (c 1902) captures what it is like to become five.
Having seen Chase’s family in their normal life, and at play, I will next select some of the many portraits which he painted of them.
Hirshler EE (2016) William Merritt Chase, Museum of Fine Arts Boston. ISBN 978 0 87846 839 3.
Longwell AG (2014) William Merritt Chase, A Life in Art, Parrish Art Museum and D Giles. ISBN 978 1 907804 43 4.
Smithgall E et al. (2016) William Merritt Chase, A Modern Master, The Phillips Collection and Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 20626 5.