William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) is one of America’s leading Impressionists, and the most famous 19th-century American painter that most have never heard of. On the centennial of his death, the MFA (with the help of the Phillips Collection in Washington DC, Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia in Venice, and the Terra Foundation for American Art) has put together the first Chase retrospective in roughly 30 years; the first and last time that Chase’s work was exhibited in Boston was in 1886.
Translation: This is a big deal.
This sprawling exhibition, containing over 80 different works, is divided into seven different sections. Each showcases various phases of interest for Chase, as well as his many different strengths as an artist. It not only highlights the great depths of Chase’s artistry and his interest in advancing American modern art, but also shows that Chase didn’t merely paint because he could, but rather because he had to. Adding to his rich contributions to American art, he also taught and mentored other artists for much of his life, among them Georgia O’Keeffe and Edward Hopper.
Highlighted in the exhibition’s first section, “Studio as Theater,” is Chase’s storied Tenth Street Studio, which he ornately and exhaustively decorated with treasures from around the world. The theatricality of his studio works is unmissable, and here we see Chase as not only a tremendous artist, but as a master arranger. The highlight here is The Tenth Street Studio, in which a woman in a long white dress sits casually on an intense blue chair. A dog lies at her feet, and behind her, a menagerie of exotic fabrics and objects. It is easy to miss that to her right sits a man in the shadows, Chase himself.
The next section, “A European Education,” opens with Ready for the Ride, a perfect illustration of the techniques that Chase mastered while studying in Munich (he thought Paris might be too distracting), and also a nod to the 16th-century Dutch masterworks that he so adored. A new acquisition for the MFA—and its first time on display in its new home—perfectly highlighted here is the seductive juxtaposition of old and new; the woman is dressed in traditional Dutch-style hat and collar, yet the confident expression on her face and the take-charge way that she is putting on her gloves makes it clear that we are looking at a modern woman.
The theme of juxtaposition pulses through most of Chase’s work, and it is highlighted generously in this retrospective, which has been exquisitely curated by Erica Hirshler. Whether it is the seductive contrast of East and West, as shown in Spring Flowers (Peonies), indoors being brought outdoors (The Open Air Breakfast), or the conflation of public and private (Hall at Shinnecock), the surprises in Chase’s work are endless.
Other highlights of the exhibition include the sassy Lydia Field Emmet and her splendid “follow me lad” streamers, the realistic shimmer of Still Life—Fish, the flickering light in Mrs. Chase and Child, the variance in technique present in Hide and Seek, and the astonishing detail of The Unexpected Intrusion (The Turkish Page).
The exhibition ends with Self-Portrait in 4th Avenue Studio, which is one of Chase’s final works. Chase is shown standing before a white canvas and surrounded by his painting supplies. Behind him is the same kind of dark, richly decorated interior seen in earlier portraits of his studio. Beyond the canvas, pristine, unobstructed light pours into the next room. This is a moving work by a man whose own mortality was clearly on his mind. When asked about the blank canvas, Chase said: “[It] is my masterpiece, the alluring, tantalizing, great picture I always hoped to paint.” According to Hirshler, this perfectly sums up his philosophy as a painter: He believed that his next painting was always going to be his best.
To have all of these works simply hanging under one roof would be quite enough on its own; but the curatorial expertise and far-reaching thoughtfulness that have gone into this exhibition is an astonishing achievement. You don’t want to miss this.
“I think he’s very deserving of being admired,” said Hirshler. “I think it’s time.”
WILLIAM MERRITT CHASE. THROUGH 1.16 AT THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS, 465 HUNTINGTON AVE., BOSTON. MFA.ORG