Art Institute of Chicago

Chicago, IL



William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes


An exhibition of the extraordinary landscape paintings of one of America's most celebrated Impressionist artists can be seen in Gallery 171 of The Art Institute of Chicago's Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Building through November 26, 2000.

William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes brings together more than 30 major paintings that span a brief but formative period (1886-1893) in Chase's career and represent the artist's first serious foray into an intense exploration of the American urban landscape. Painted mainly in the New York City boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, these airy, light-filled canvases also helped establish Chase's reputation as the foremost Impressionist in the United States as well as the "inventor" of the American park subject. (left: A City Park, 1867, oil on canvas, 13 5/8 x 19 5/8 inches, The Art Institute of Chicago, Bequest of Dr. John J. Ireland, 1968.88)

William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) was one of the first American painters to document turn-of-the-century urban life in the public spaces devoted to leisure activities. Chase was, in fact, one of the most prominent artists in the United States around the turn of the 20th century. Celebrated for his expertise in a variety of styles and media, Chase applied his considerable technical talents to an equally wide range of genres -- portraits, still lifes, and landscapes. In 1886, he began to depict views of the public parks and harbors of Brooklyn and Manhattan, utilizing methods clearly inspired by French Impressionism, only to abandon these urban subjects in the early 1890s as abruptly as he had adopted them. William Merritt Chase brings these paintings and pastels together as a group for the first time.

Chase was born in Williamsburg, Indiana, and studied art in Indianapolis before moving to New York, and thence to Munich, where he trained at the Königliche Academy for six years. Although he returned to New York to teach at the Art Students League in 1878, Chase continued to travel in Europe--particularly to Paris--into the 1880s, studying and absorbing much of what he saw. Reflecting his rigorous European training, though, his early pictures were characterized by a brushwork and tonal palette that evoke the Old Master painting tradition, effectively obscuring the American subjects he portrayed. (left: The Boat House, Prospect Park, c. 1888, oil on panel, 10 1/4 x 16 inches, Private collection)

By 1885, Chase's art had come under attack from American critics who asserted that it indeed aligned itself too closely with foreign styles while avoiding truly native subject matter. Taking these criticisms seriously, Chase immediately began to alter both the form and content of his work. After re-settling in Brooklyn, he began a series of works that depicted the city's newly created parks. Echoing his French counterparts, he produced gorgeous views of everyday life -- the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and Tompkins, Prospect, and Central parks, for example, as well as scenes of his parents' backyard.

These paintings and pastels were also the products of his personal link with Brooklyn. Like another American Impressionist, Mary Cassatt, who painted her Parisian home life during the 1880s, Chase's new subject matter focused on the environments that defined his own daily routines -- what might be called "domestic exteriors." (left: Wash Day - A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn, 1886, oil on panel, 22 x 25 inches, Anonymous lender)

While "Americanizing" his subjects, Chase turned to the French avant-garde for inspiration in his approach to plein-air (outdoor) painting. His landscapes clearly reflect the loose brushwork and compositional treatments of space and light found in the canvases of Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, and Gustave Caillebotte. Chase was a perfect candidate for the high Impressionist style -- his keen powers of perception produced paintings and pastels drenched in intense, primary colors that create light-filled atmospheres and utilize oblique angles to accentuate the architectural drama of urban scenes.

William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes relates Chase's extraordinary vision to the efforts of the late 19th - and early 20th -century City Beautiful movement and city planners -- the great Frederick Law Olmsted, Calvert Vaux, and Chicago's William Le Baron Jenney among them -- who worked to revitalize the American urban landscape using park spaces. A special feature of the Art Institute's presentation of the exhibition is a group of major landscapes by other, mainly American, 19th-century painters. Seen together, Chase's pictures and those of his contemporaries emphasize the crucial part that city parks and other public spaces came to play in the leisure activities of 19th century Americans. This juxtaposition also looks at the influence that Chicago's recreational landscapes have had on artists who came to the city and were captured by its beauty. (left: In the Park - A By-Path, c. 1890, oil on canvas, 14 x 19 3/8 inches, Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection)

In Chicago, William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes is curated by Judith Barter, Field-McCormick Curator of American Arts at The Art Institute of Chicago.

William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes was organized by the Brooklyn Museum of Art, where it was on view May 26 - August 13, 2000. Following its Art Institute showing, the exhibition travels to Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (December 13, 2000 -March 11, 2001).

Read our earlier article on William Merritt Chase: William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes, 1886-1890 (3/21/00)

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