Georgia O'Keeffe, Edward Hopper and George Bellows were very different artists, but they did have at least one thing in common: They all studied with painter William Merritt Chase. Now, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., is marking the centennial of the artist's death with a retrospective.
"You walk around these galleries and the paintings are gutsy and bold and scintillating and brilliant," says Dorothy Kosinski, director of the Phillips.
On display are his portraits, landscapes, domestic scenes, and still life paintings. Chase made everyday objects — like onions and fish — gorgeous. The dead, silver fish spread out on platters look as if they could leap off the plate in a second. Chase often painted fish during class demonstrations at his New York School of Art, says curator Katherine Bourguignon of the Terra Foundation for American Art.
"The students write about this: He went to the fish market, bought the fish, he painted it, and returned the fish before it went bad," she explains says.
That's how fast he was! Loaded with charisma, confidence and brushes thickly caked with paint, his strokes were sure and stunning.
"People who write about it they say that you were just glued to watching him move," says Bourguignon. "You were watching every stroke, and that there were even gasps in the audience as he made the picture come to life."
Chase invited students, dealers, collectors and other artists to watch him work. He showed them how to paint — lessons he'd learned in Munich, where he'd gone to study. Why Munich? Phillips curator Elsa Smithgall says it had fewer distractions than Paris. In Munich, Chase examined the Old Masters and copied them.
"You can look at a picture a million times, but as an artist he wants to know how did they absolutely create that?" Smithgall says. "And the only way to really understand the process of the brush was to copy it."
His work has an Old Master quality to it. But his macho brushwork, sharp angles, vast empty spaces, and choice of subjects were modern for the day. In one full-length portrait, Chase depicts his former student Lydia Field Emmet. By 1892, when he painted her, she was earning a living painting (her work is now in the White House, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Chase shows her in three-quarter view, hand on hip, looking over her shoulder at us.
"It's a pose that, in the old masters' [paintings, was] mostly given to men," explains curator Erica Hirshler, of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. "And Chase takes that old master pose and he gives it to a new woman, a professional."
Emmet wears a long velvet gown, trimmed with opulent white lace around the sleeve and neckline. A big, pink, satin bow in the back spills long streamers down to the floor.
"It's a glorious piece of painting," Hirshler says. "It's just a big stroke of wet, pink paint."
Emmet is feminine and authoritative, with a splash of come hither, too. (Hirshler says those ribbons in the back were called "Follow me, lad" streamers.)
By contrast, Chase's Portrait of Mrs. C (Lady with a White Shawl) is quiet, against a brown background. Mrs. C stands in a dark blouse and long skirt, and a big white shawl enshrouding her shoulders. (You can see it here.) She's beautiful — strong, serene, dignified.
"She looks straight at us," says Hirshler. She's connecting and engaging with the world. It's not clear who she is — some think it's Mrs. Chase, others say it's the woman who modeled for American artist Charles Dana Gibson, famous for his illustrations of "the Gibson Girl", who became the ideal of beauty at the turn of the century.
"She's cosmopolitan and sophisticated, but seems distinctly American in her forthrightness," Hirshler says. "And that combination gets to the heart of one of the things Chase was all about, which is this desire to create a distinctly American art that was equally sophisticated and part of a cosmopolitan environment."
At a time when America looked to the Old World for definitions of culture, the young William Merritt Chase said, "I'd rather go to Europe than go to heaven." He did that. And then came home, to create a new, American art, and encourage this country's future artists — the thousands who passed through his classes.