William Merritt Chase, self-portrait (ca. 1884)

It’s hard to overstate the dexterity of William Merritt Chase. It equaled that of John Singer Sargent. Like Sargent, whose oils are extraordinary but whose watercolors seem to have been guided by angels, Chase’s oils are as fine as anything but his pastels are mouth-gapingly good. A 1884 self-portrait on display in “William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master,” up through the end of this week at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, may be the best dry-medium drawing in the history of nineteenth-century American art. If you’ve never worked with soft pastels—not the oil pastels that grade schoolers usually get their hands on, but sticks of pigment bound lightly in vegetable glue—imagine trying to make a passable figurative picture with expensive dust. Then, marvel at the buttery surface of Chase’s portrait, the perfect rendition of the lighting, the blaze of gold in the background that is in fact just yellow and yellow ochre put down with high authority. The artist is holding his oil palette, which is a curveball for the viewer since this is not an oil painting, though it could pass for one at first blush. His suit, complete with a flower in the lapel, is oaken and crisp. His gaze is restful and assured. His mustache soars like a triumphant osprey. The artist was thirty-five.

Also like Sargent, charges of glibness followed him throughout his career, and not unjustifiably. Someone who can essentially exhale a competent plein-air study like At the Seaside (ca. 1892) is going to sometimes make skillful but slight works. Moreover, he is known to have been a showman. Whereas Sargent became fed up with Paris after the scandal that emerged around his Portrait of Madame X, Chase traipsed back and forth between New York City and the old continent in a top hat and spats, attracting ever more students into his booked classes at the Art Students League, positioning his work into private and public collections, and seemingly trying to charm his way into art history. Even his teaching had a Barnumesque quality. As recorded in the superb catalogue for the MFA exhibition, one of Chase’s favorite demonstrations was to paint a still life of fish, and return them to the market still fresh enough to be sold. One of his students, Georgia O’Keefe, later recalled how much fun he had been in the classroom.

This kind of facility drew barbs from critics, one who panned his contributions to an 1884 exhibition as possessing “no loftiness of aim, nor dignity of intention.” Robert Henri, then a young rival, formed a dissenting coalition around himself that took exception to Chase’s emphasis on technique at the expense of subject matter. Modern artistic tastes were quickly gaining popularity, and the hostility toward Chase became widespread enough that he experienced a financial crisis later in life. He was forced to abandon his Tenth Street studio—which he had depicted with heartfelt fondness in paintings like Studio Interior (ca. 1882) and which served as the center of the whorl of his career—and sell off its plush contents.

That much disdain was undue, and fortunately it didn’t ruin him. He continued to make pictures, and to attract students around New York and on Long Island. He even arranged an educational excursion to Venice a few years before his death in 1916. As hard as he hustled, he wasn’t a cynic. Chase adored his students, sometimes purchased their work, and often raffled off his classroom demonstrations—which were valuable little works—to the roomful of aspiring talents who watched them come into being. He treated the women as seriously as the men. One of his female students, Lydia Field Emmet, posed for him in an outfit to which was pinned what used to be known as a “follow-me-lad,” a satin sash that hung from the scoop of the dress-back and trailed to the ground. Any lad who dares to follow the woman in the picture is going to have to deal first with her elbow, which is pointed straight at him, painted that way in recognition of her agency (she was showing her own art around town) and probably in quotation of a ca. 1630 van Dyck portrait of Lord Bernard Stuart.

Moreover, there is often mystery in his work that would have been beyond a painter who was glib to the marrow. Sunlight and Shadow (1884) comes off at first as a standard genre scene of people relaxing in a garden, and as expected, the drawing is fine, the foliage is painted in verdant dapples, and the atmosphere hums with Impressionist energy. But the man sits with his legs crossed uncomfortably as he stares into the coffee cup that he’s fiddling with. A pillow obscures the head of the woman lying in the hammock. Another woman in the distance inspects who-knows-what behind an enormous rain barrel. There’s something reminiscent of Edward Gorey about the picture, with the characters disconnected, disconcerted, and in the lounging woman’s case, strangely transformed.

There is also Hide and Seek (1888), in which a golden-haired girl (and good heavens, the paint handling on that hair is exceptional), ensconced in the lower left corner of the picture, peers from behind a curtain at another girl who pursues her through the wrong doorway on the other side of the room. Walter Darby Bannard used to say that you can judge a painter by how he paints an empty expanse, and the ones here shimmer. The far-off girl is nearly an abstraction, the bow on her dress a scribble. The figures playing in the void aren’t all that far off emotionally from certain de Chiricos.

Henri, who, for all his talents as an artist and teacher, never painted anything as good as this, was only half-right about Chase. Yes, technique isn’t everything. As Henri put it in the lecture collected in The Art Spirit, the student “must be master of such as he has.” Chase’s facility did at times put a veneer over his subject matter instead of digging into it. But at other times, and more often as he matured, that facility served as a channel through which the ordinary subject moved into the realm of the timeless. A small panel from 1892, The Lone Fisherman, depicts his father sitting on a seawall with rod in hand. We can see him to be elderly despite that he consists of a dozen gray and ocher dabs. The wall is concrete, bolstered by the kind of waste boulders that engineers dig out of quarries. The sky is clear, the sea blue, the landscape unremarkable. Yet the painter’s love comes through, in the form of sun-warmed surfaces and a peaceful old man in the distance. It was all the subject he needed.

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