There are some painters, floating out there in the ether of history, that can leave you breathless. It’s an interesting feeling to stumble across one — your eyes contort, your lips part, your chest becomes light and your arms become heavy. No single thing defines this greatness, there is no real formula or pattern. It is as mystifying and intoxicating as a human attraction, as love: when you know, you just know.
For this writer, at least, William Merritt Chase is one of those painters.
He is a painter I worry others won’t understand, overlooked as a popular artist of a certain era whose position among permanent museum collections is taken for granted. The decisions he made in his work can be so perfect, and executed with such facility, nuance, creativity and expression, that the paintings seem inevitable and their presence becomes oddly invisible.
But this summer, the Phillips Collection has put Chase’s work in the spotlight and demanded all take notice, with “William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master,” on view through Sept. 11. It is an incandescent display of Chase’s artistic legacy, charting his themes, styles, influences and evolutions, showing him to be nothing less than one of the defining American artists of the turn of the century.
It is also a treatise on the lasting power and unparalleled beauty of paint, an ideal that Chase embodied over his half-century career. At a moment when politics threatens to consume our souls and entertainment is a flittering montage of Netflix series and digital media, it is a welcomed and refreshing elixir.
Born in Indiana in 1849, Chase grew up studying under local artists while working for his merchant father. After a stint in the Navy, he moved to New York to study art before being brought back by his family to St. Louis due to financial hardship. But his striking talent was soon discovered by collectors in St. Louis, who sponsored him to study abroad in Munich in 1872 (a prospect over which Chase enthused, “I would rather go to Europe than go to heaven”).
Over the next six years, Chase developed a personal artistic language that married the Munich School’s painterly bravura and dark tonal contrasts with the realism and contemporary subjects of the European masters he so admired, among them Frans Hals, Velázquez and Manet.
Chase had a rare talent for rendering brilliant surfaces and rich color harmonies. In “The Turkish Page” of 1876, he conveys a velvet blanket with such deftness that it could easily be overlooked, precisely because the color and shifting refraction of light off the luxurious fabric is so perfectly captured.
In the following gallery, a painting from nearly 40 years later, “Just Onions” of 1912, offers the chance for a remarkable comparison across time. A handful of small onions scatter over a dim counter amid ceramic ware and a small copper jug, the skins glistening translucently like veiled silk over a pale face. The whole scene glows out from the surrounding darkness, like Caravaggio’s “The Calling of St. Matthew.”
Over his long career, Chase never lost sight of inspiration in pursuit of mastering his medium. The vitality and freshness with which he pursued this small still life shows a painter eternally determined and in love with his work.
Much like my tour through the exhibition itself, this article threatens to unravel into an overexcited time crunch, where I expend too much energy enthralled among the first couple galleries, then scuttle about the rest of the show tying things together before my time (and space on the page) runs out.
Mind you, I could obviously trim down my commentary on velour blankets and root vegetables to make room for a parade of masterworks. But I wonder if that would in a way ring false. What makes this exhibition so wonderful is how easily you are swept up among Chase’s paintings in any given room.
If you want his wispy scenes of the seashore, they are here. “At the Seaside,” painted around 1892, is particularly exquisite. If you long to see his formal portraits of women, bold, austere and strong, they will entrance you with their piercing gaze.
Chase could imbue his subjects with rich inner life, and his interiors scenes are full of lived-in space, both intellectually and temporally. Light from windows wash through everything, shadows are subtle but defining, and his subjects always between breathes.
His garden and Plein-Air painting scenes seem like they must have been wildly popular and sold very well. You can envision them in every turn-of-the-century parlor in America.
The exhibition’s last gallery might well be its best, devoted to Chase’s paintings from his famous Tenth Street Studio. Reputed as one of the finest studios in New York, Chase’s lavish studio was a bohemian paradise, brimming with a diverse array of objects, paintings, textiles and bric-a-brac. His painting from 1880, “The Tenth Street Studio,” captures the rhythm and harmony that he imparted to both his life and his art.
From an expansive frontal view of the studio’s grand interior we witness an exchange between a young woman and the artist. It is difficult to state this without seeming fawningly hyperbolic, but almost everything about the painting is perfect. The heavenly white of the woman’s cascading dress traces your eye down to the paw of Chase’s black Russian hound, drawing the viewer into the rouge and darkness of the remaining scene. Off to her right sits Chase, enveloped in shadow with palette in hand.
It is nice to think that this is how the artist wanted to be remembered, as an attentive and observing presence, almost spectral in his influence and indistinguishable from the heart of his work. He gave shape to the darkness and made beauty out of his surroundings. Don’t miss the chance to glimpse his spirit through the paint.