William Merritt Chase

Praised by critics, admired by colleagues and respected by students, the distinguished 19th-century artist produced paintings and pastels of gentle beauty

William Merritt Chase dominated the universe of American art during the late 19th century. He was one of the first artists to turn out Impressionist landscapes in the United States, a portrait painter of the first rank, a master of still life, a renowned teacher, a leader of societies of artists, and a gifted connoisseur of European painting. He also knew everyone who counted in American art.

Chase believed in theatrical self-promotion, and cultivated a bohemian guise and public image of artful sophistication that won him both publicity and patrons. It was his studio, however, that made him a celebrity. Crammed full of objets d'art and exotic treasures—Japanese fans, East Indian drums, paintings, tapestries, Phoenician glass, ornate frames, a stuffed flamingo and 37 Russian samovars—the spacious suite Chase rented at the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York soon became the talk of the town. Illustrations of the studio were featured in art magazines, and Henry Adams and other novelists employed it as a setting for their fiction.

Chase had studied at the Royal Academy in Munich and adopted the dark, lush colors and bold brushwork that characterized the prevailing style there. In the late 1880s, however, he changed his approach and turned to the brighter, lighter palette and shorter brushstrokes of the French Impressionists. He also took his canvases and easel out-of-doors to directly capture scenes of American life. Some 30 paintings from this period are currently on view in the exhibition "William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes." Organized by Barbara Dayer Gallati of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the show, which is at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston through March 11, 2001, features early Impressionist coastal scenes, and cityscapes and parks in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

One of the most prominent art teachers of his day, Chase was also the founder of the Chase School of Art (now the Parsons School of Design) in New York. The roster of his students included such future luminaries as Georgia O'Keeffe, Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent. "William Merritt Chase's teaching, like the British drumbeat," declared the Chicago Post, "is heard round the world."

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.