Short Review of the MFA's 2016-17 William Merrit Chase Exhibit

        William Merrit Chase was a year younger than his fellow Munich trained painter Frank Duveneck, and almost ten years older than Joseph DeCamp who followed them to Germany's Royal Academy for training. Any number of his pictures were painted alongside Duveneck with whom he shared models and, for a time, aesthetic inclinations. Chase remains an American Painter of the second rank, and this is something of a quick discussion of what keeps him there.
        For good or not so good, Chase's outstanding characteristic was in presenting many artistic faces: something of an artistic chameleon. After sharing the Duveneck look and approach to painting early on, he appears to have taken on the look and ideas of the naturalists, Bastien LePage perhaps, or the Newlyn School in numerous subsequent pictures. Later, he shares an aesthetic with Whistler and the tonalists, borrowing with them the flat patterning and diminished depth of values of Japanese prints. At other times his brushwork and light-effect production using dramatic blacks emulate Sargent, especially in his fish still-lifes and certain portraits. His full color interiors of later on and some of his outdoor subjects strongly reflect the Boston School painters, with whom he showed as one of the Ten American Painters. Finally, the body of outdoor work - mostly landscapes from Long Island - appear to be some mix of naturalism and understated impressionism, usually in very shallow value ranges.
        He expressed a regretful belief that he would probably be best remembered for the still-lifes with fishes that clearly show him at his strongest, and most individual. As is typical of those who emulate other painters, hopping from one style to another (perhaps in an attempt to follow market trends) can rarely achieve their model's level of quality. His Whistler/tonalist visitations while decidedly flat, lack the distinctive tastefulness of Whistler and numerous others who are clearly better at it. The attending tendency to flatten, which seemed his relentless goal, inhibited the truth of his light effects and left his pictures -except the still-lifes - decidedly ineffective with regard to edge, value, and chroma ranges.
        Although he was at times somewhat up to the task of 'doing it with the brush' a la Sargent or Duveneck, he seldom truly maintains the unity of that approach throughout - again with the possible exception of the fish pictures. Unlike Sargent, his work also typically fails to carry from across the room. Perhaps as a result of exhibiting with the impressionist oriented men of Boston, he suddenly and dramatically ups his chromal range from the doldrums of the Newlyn naturalism, yet he never achieves Boston School impressionistic sunlight effects, atmosphere, or even the inherent suggestions of depth characteristic of those who work from the effects of light. Instead, like so many who attempt impressionist light, his relentless grip on the outline of objects, and the false evens of his edge relationships held him back. His large busy interior start, despite its reasonable color-values, is a model of outline chaos at the expense of the visual unity which is the objective of Boston impressionist painting from start to finish. To give him credit, the color schemes of numerous pictures (especially when working tonalistically) though shallow, are sometimes distinguished and good. His drawing appears consistently accurate though seldom actually inspired or expressive.
        When my students and I visited the Boston wing of the MFA following our tour of the Chase exhibit, the first picture to greet us was the bare shouldered woman seated on a couch playing a guitar by Joseph DeCamp. They were stunned by the almost unbelievable strength of this work compared with anything by Chase. One of them was led to comment, “Its a good thing we didn't come to the Boston rooms first.” What was clear was that the elevated attention to the truth in the painting by DeCamp gave his work a far more impressive, but also more individual beauty than those of Chase. Instead of working humbly under DeCamp's assumption that the sometimes elevated poetry we call impressionist art is the result of the deep pursuit of visual truth, Chase appears to injure himself by a too persistent chase... after art.

 

 Chase, Still Life- Fish ca.1900

Chase, Still Life- Fish ca.1900

 Chase, Studio Interior ca. 1882

Chase, Studio Interior ca. 1882

 DeCamp, The Guitar Player, 1908

DeCamp, The Guitar Player, 1908