At Christmas, I received the exhibition catalogue to the William Merritt Chase show that my mom and sister saw at the Phillips Collection in D. C. last summer. Treasure! My favorite things I learned from the book:
1. Chase’s insistence on establishing an American art style—and scene. He studied in Munich, and he returned to the US with this express goal. While he revered the Old Masters and all things European, he knew that his home country had an opportunity to contribute to the history of painting, and HE was going to light the fire. Now that’s ambitious. And at the same time, American painter Mary Cassatt was in Paris working a different angle on behalf of her scrappy homeland. She was pushing Europe’s new modern art on American collectors to ensure we wouldn’t be left out of what she knew was a big deal.
2. His self-promotion tactics, which I think were largely related to reaching point no. 1. Starting with his New York studio--He picked the best building in town and created a bombastic space for painting, exhibiting, teaching, and any other cultural/social events he dreamed up. It was filled with his collections (he liked browsing junk shops, too), but highly curated to create a particular atmosphere of worldly sophistication. His personal style was equally impressive. With dapper clothes and fancy twirled mustache he showed that an artist was a serious and respectable profession. He taught for decades, across the country and abroad—thousands of people got to see that fancy mustache and learn how to be “Chasey.” He strategically exhibited at home and abroad work that he knew would stir debate. What do you do when you can’t share your work on Instagram? You ship (literally, on a ship) your canvases to Paris in hopes they will get selected for a coveted juried exhibition, get a good spot on a crowded wall, and the press will write about you.
3. The idea of modernism at this time as it relates to women. Chase was lauded for his modern portrayals of women. He set them in scenes and poses for male subjects. They stare at us, they are enigmatic, they relax, they demand our attention. Again I bring up Cassatt, who at the same time was painting women in an equally modern spirit. They are at ease, reading, socializing, loving. Today, it’s hard to believe that portraying women as more than a female form was considered modern in art, but it’s also hard to imagine that art was an academic, dignified career.
4. Sing, swear, sweat, and then try again. Chase was a prolific teacher, and this was his motto to his students. He said, “Feel happy when you are painting and practice brush work to such an extent that after a while you forget the means by which you are doing it.” This would lead to the freedom to experiment and figure your own style, and that attitude is what would lead to the formation of modern American art.
5. Ah, critics. There are great accounts of completely opposite reactions to the same painting of his (the book cover image, above). “His work is exquisite with grace and perceptiveness” vs. “a pointless, indolent muddle of color, without an element of genuinely artist feeling in it.” Ouch. It reminds me of that Andy Warhol quote about art making, “Let everyone else decide if its good or bad. . . While they’re deciding, make even more art.”
6. The importance of the “art of looking” is a common thread through artists I admire, and I can now include Chase as part of that gang. He was criticized as a “seeing machine,” whose talent was his eyes rather than his imagination. He was also praised for this ability because while his images lacked poetry or deep meaning, critics couldn’t deny “the pleasure of his carefully rendered surfaces.” He could make any subject attractive through applied technique and elements of design, and this is why I enjoy painting. The ordinary becomes poetic when you transform it with paint.
Later is what?
After settling into various desk jobs, I always said I'd get back to painting later in life, and later is now. Again means that I tried once before. I decided to write about my painting endeavor, too, as a learning tool, an accountability tool, and to stay sharp in case I have to go back to a desk job. Again.
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