March 2000: William Merritt Chase: Modem American Landscapes, 1886–1890 explores for the first time a group of Brooklyn and Manhattan outdoor scenes by one of the most important American artists of the nineteenth century. New research into Chase’s personal life and the locations of his urban landscapes has revealed the significance of these paintings. The exhibition will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, May 26–August 13, 2000. It will travel to The Art Institute of Chicago (September 7–November 26, 2000) and to The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (December 13, 2000–March 11, 2001).
The thirty-five paintings and pastels in the exhibition mark a pivotal period in Chase’s career and in American art history. The works are the first significant studies of American landscape executed in the Impressionist technique. These landscapes led Chase to a breakthrough in his painting career and the renewed acclaim of American art critics. The works feature scenes of Brooklyn’s Prospect and Tompkins Parks, Central Park, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Gowanus Bay, Bath Beach, and the painter’s family backyard in Brooklyn.
In his early career, Chase was hailed as a genius bound to transform American art upon his return from his training in Munich in the 1870s. But by 1885, critics were assailing Chase’s work as too closely aligned with Munich style and lacking truly American subjects. The artist was also working at a time of heightened attention to declining morals among city dwellers. His audience demanded art that reinforced its nationalist sentiments and desire to preserve social order.
Chase answered his critics by appropriating the French avant-garde concept of the flâneur, or the detached observer of modern life, and applying this method to American urban landscapes. He chose as his subjects the parks and harbors of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Chase deliberately focused on this subject matter with the aim of underscoring the civility of modern American culture. Armed with new discoveries about the artist’s life and work, the exhibition and accompanying book challenge the standard assumptions concerning Chase’s reputation as a realist. For example, the exhibition questions whether Chase’s park subjects were artistic fictions that either conformed or conflicted with the aims of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the parks’ creators. Newly discovered facts about Chase’s private life explain the artist’s decision to concentrate on Brooklyn’s Tompkins Park during the summer of 1887.
William Merritt Chase: Modem American Landscapes, 1886–1890 was organized by Barbara Dayer Gallati, Curator of American Painting and Sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Dr. Gallati has recently identified many of the landscapes once thought to be Prospect Park as Brooklyn’s Tompkins Park, now called Von King’s Park. Dr. Gallati’s research further concludes that Chase conveyed conservative subject matter in an avant-garde formal language. This is illustrated by the paintings of Brooklyn’s Navy Yard (also previously thought to be Prospect Park), which emphasize the nature and purpose of institutionalized public spaces set aside for the general improvement of the city’s residents. Chase applied the same treatment to the suburban Brooklyn resorts of Bath Beach and Gravesend by omitting references to the increasing intermingling of social classes and sexes and adopting “civilizing” ploys. By transforming Brooklyn’s docks into high-art subjects, he challenged his viewers to explore the cultural connotations of these ordinarily rough, commercial spaces.
The Brooklyn Museum of Art holds one of the largest public collections of Chase’s art. The exhibition, including works from the Museum and collections throughout the United States, will be installed in the Robert E. Blum Gallery on the first floor of the Museum. Accompanying the exhibition is a fully illustrated book written by Dr. Gallati and published by the BMA in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes, 1886–1890 is made possible by The Henry Luce Foundation, Inc. Generous support has also been provided by The Ronald H. Cordover Family Foundation and The David Schwartz Foundation. The BMA is also grateful to Mr. and Mrs. Richard A[.] Debs, Mr. and Mrs. John S. Tamagni, Mrs. Avery Fisher, Constance and Henry Christensen III, Mr. and Mrs. Paul Bernbach, Mr. and Mrs. Edgar M. Cullman, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. Joseph T. McLaughlin, Sol Schreiber, and Mr. and Mrs. William D. Watt.
Support for the publication was provided through the generosity of Furthermore, the publication program of The J.M. Kaplan Fund, as well as a BMA publications endowment created by The Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
The Museum is organizing a series of public programs in conjunction with the exhibition. For more information, contact the Museum’s Education Division, (718) 638-5000, ext. 230.
A Brief Biography of William Merritt Chase (1849–1916)
William Merritt Chase was born in rural Williamsburg, Indiana, in 1849. He grew up with a thirst for travel and a passion for art. The Chase family later moved to Saint Louis, where the young painter gained support from local patrons for European study. He entered the Royal Academy in Munich in 1872.
Chase lived in Europe for almost seven years yet remained involved with the American art world. He exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1875 and was honored at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia the following year. In 1877 Chase won critical acclaim for Ready for the Ride, which was on view at the inaugural exhibition of the Society of American Artists, of which he later became president. Chase returned to New York in 1878 to teach at the Art Students League. Chase was a founder of the American Society of Painters in Pastel and a principal force at the Shinnecock Summer School of Art on Long Island. Shinnecock is considered the first important summer art school in America, and Chase taught there until 1902. He also taught at the Brooklyn Art Association, at the Chase School of Art (later the New York School of Art), and at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Among his students were Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and Georgia O’Keeffe. Chase died in 1916 in New York.
American Art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art
The Brooklyn Museum of Art is recognized as a leader in the acquisition, study, and exhibition of American art, with a collection of some 2,500 oil paintings, sculptures, watercolors, and pastels that range in date from 1720 to 1945. Among the five most important collections of American art in the world, it has long been one of the most popular for visitors to the BMA.
The collection is distinguished by its breadth, quality, and size. The painting collection includes strong holdings of works by such artists as John Singleton Copley, Thomas Cole, Winslow Homer, William Merritt Chase, John Singer Sargent, George Inness, Eastman Johnson, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Thomas Eakins, Marsden Hartley, and Stuart Davis, as well as a broad selection of excellent works by lesser-known artists to whom revisionist scholars increasingly direct their attention.
In addition to its exceptional permanent collection, the Museum has a long tradition of presenting seminal exhibitions and publications devoted to examining nineteenth-century American art. These projects have set a standard of scholarly excellence and established a curatorial tradition of pioneering exhibitions such as: Triumph of Realism: European and American Realist Paintings, 1850-1910 (1967); William T. Richards (1973); The New Path: Ruskin and the American Pre-Raphaelites (1985); Albert Bierstadt: Art & Enterprise (1991); The Art of Thomas Wilmer Dewing: Beauty Reconfigured (1996); Masters of Color and Light: Homer, Sargent, and the American Watercolor Movement (1998); and Eastman Johnson: Painting America (1999-2000).
Brooklyn Museum Archives. Records of the Department of Public Information. Press releases, 1995 - 2003. 2000, 028-31.