Stylish Premodern Chase, Coeval of the Avant-Garde

It has come as a surprise to me to be reminded that the career of the American painter William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) actually overlapped with the emergence of the modernist movement in this country. I’d always thought of Chase-to the extent that I thought about him at all-as belonging to an earlier, premodern period. Yet in the sumptuous exhibition of his work at the Berry-Hill Galleries-it’s called Chase Inside and Out: The Aesthetic Interiors of William Merritt Chase-the dates of the later pictures place the artist squarely in the age of the avant-garde. The paintings themselves, however, resist that classification.

They are paintings heavily weighted with the discarded conventions of an earlier era-not exactly Victorian, though Chase shares with the Victorians a penchant for sentimentalizing children in his art; something more akin to the Edwardian period, when it was the fashion for the cultural elite to affect an opulent, ornate, overrefined and pompous lifestyle.

It was not only in his art, moreover, but in his person as well that Chase favored such a style, as we can see in the Edward Steichen photograph of Chase in the catalog of the exhibition. This is how Bruce Weber describes the picture: “The Steichen portrait of Chase reproduced here shows the artist in three-quarter length, standing in profile, dressed in his silk top hat and fur-trimmed overcoat, holding a gold-tipped walking stick in one hand and a cigarette in the other … portraying the artist as patriarchal, stately, refined and prosperous.” It’s a case where style does indeed make the man.

This is not to deny that Chase commanded immense fluency and skill in the painting medium. The trouble is, he fell deeply in love with his own virtuosity and took to flaunting it even in paintings that would clearly have benefited from a more measured approach to the canvas. Chase claimed to be a realist in his paintings, yet in virtually all of his work-but especially in the overloaded paintings of the studio interiors-his style is as heavy and unvarying as the furniture and rugs and bric-a-brac that crowd the shadowy spaces they occupy.

On the subject of Chase’s realism, Bruce Weber recalls for us that “In Munich, Chase came increasingly under the spell of Wilhelm Leibl and seventeenth-century Dutch, Flemish, and Spanish painting. Leibl worked under the influence of the Old Master tradition of dark tonal painting as revived by Gustave Courbet. Upon visiting Munich in late 1869, the French artist became a hero for Leibl and a host of other young realist painters.” But to claim some sort of aesthetic kinship between Chase’s over-upholstered manner of painting and the tough-minded realism of Leibl and Courbet is preposterous. So is the claimed comparison of Chase with the “flashy virtuoso technique” of Frans Hals, whose mastery of touch and characterization Chase never comes close to equaling. Chase was never an artist in that exalted class.

When it came to characterizing his subjects, his powers were remarkably limited. If his depiction of children is often sentimental, his depiction of women tends to be uniformly pensive and a lot less varied, certainly, than his depiction of inanimate objects. Even in paintings of his most beloved human subjects, Chase could usually be counted upon to display more feeling in painting their clothes than in portraying their personalities.

It’s odd to think of Chase as a contemporary of Bonnard and Vuillard, never mind Matisse, and odder still to be reminded that his students included such modernists as Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, Edward Hopper and Charles Sheeler.

Chase Inside and Out: The Aesthetic Interiors of William Merritt Chase remains on view at the Berry-Hill Galleries, 11 East 70th Street, through Jan. 29, 2005, and is accompanied by a catalog that gives us a comprehensive account of the artist’s life and work.