William Merritt Chase (1849–1916)

A leading American impressionist and respected art instructor, William Merritt Chase was responsible for pioneering the plein-air movement in the United States.

By Chelsea DeLay

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

William Merritt Chase was born in the small town of Williamsburg, Indiana, on November 1, 1849. After his family moved to Indianapolis in 1861, the young teenager spent several years working as a salesman in his father’s store, David H. Chase Boots Wholesale and Retail.(1) When it became clear that Chase’s interest in drawing overshadowed any possibility of working in retail, his exasperated parents relented and allowed him to train under the self-taught painters Barton S. Hays and Jacob Cox. At the age of eighteen, Chase and a friend briefly enlisted in the Navy Apprentice program, yet after only three months of being assigned to the USS Vermont and USS Portsmouth, Chase sent a letter to his father asking to arrange his discharge.(2)

When the two arrived back to Indianapolis, a room in the family home was given to Chase to use as his studio where he resumed lessons with Hays and Cox. However, his former instructors soon realized that Chase’s artistic abilities had matured beyond what they could teach him; they encouraged the young artist to continue his education under the instruction of their colleague, Joseph O. Eaton, a professor at the National Academy of Design. An eager student, Chase moved to New York City in 1869 and enrolled in the school’s fall session, along with classmates Julian Alden Weir and Albert Pinkham Ryder. The next year Chase was faced with a difficult reality when his father’s business folded—left without his father’s financial support, he earned money to support himself by painting fruit and flower still lifes and portraits in Yonkers, New York.(3)

Chase experienced mild success selling his work on the competitive New York art market, but recognized that the Midwest possessed a greater potential for offering better commissions. After his father went out of business, the Chase family relocated to Missouri, and by the fall of 1870 Chase had reunited with them in St. Louis and established a studio. He won two awards at the 11th St. Louis Fair in 1871, and his work caught the attention of local businessmen and art patrons; one banker described his perception of the twenty-one-year-old artist, stating, “There is a young man here who paints so well that I dare not tell him how good he is.”(4) Several of these wealthy merchants knew of Chase’s strong desire to continue his education abroad, and recognizing his artistic potential, they offered him a two-year stipend to study at the Royal Academy in Munich.

Chase left for Europe in 1872 and would not return to the United States until 1878. During these six years abroad, he painted with the dark colors and somber tones typical of the Munich School, and developed an immense passion for collecting art. When he returned to New York City, he occupied the former studio of Albert Bierstadt in the famous Tenth Street Studio Building, which he quickly filled with paintings and objects from his travels. Chase’s grand studio developed an impressive reputation: it was described as “the finest studio in this city, if not the whole country”, “one of the most remarkable ateliers possessed by any artist”, “one of the most celebrated and bewildering museum-studios in New York”, and distinguished as “…one of the sights that artists and students, coming to New York, desire to see.”(5)

His teaching career began when he accepted a position at the Art Students League in 1878; over the next thirty-seven years, Chase established a reputation as the nation’s leading art instructor while teaching at The Art Institute of Chicago, Brooklyn Art School, New York School of Art, and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Determined to create a truly American school of art, Chase founded the Shinnecock Hills Summer School, the country’s first plein-air school, on the east end of Long Island in 1891, and five years later opened the Chase School of Art. As America’s foremost art instructor, his pupils included artists which would become some of the most important of the twentieth century, such as Gifford Beal, Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, Georgia O’Keeffe, Guy Pène du Bois, Charles Sheeler, and Joseph Stella.

Chase’s sphere of artistic influence expanded beyond his teaching career and carried over into several artist organizations: he was an active member of the Tile Club and served as the president of the Society of American Artists from 1885 to 1895; The National Academy of Design elected him associate membership in 1888, and full membership two years later; and he also was a founding member of both the Society of Painters in Pastel and the National Association of Portrait Painters.

Just before the turn of the century, Chase’s style took on a more impressionist approach that was well suited to his penchant for painting en plein air. His impressive Long Island landscapes, painted primarily at the Shinnecock Hills Summer School, were rendered with a brighter palette and demonstrated a mastery of light effects that garnered a positive response from art critics. In 1902, his reputation as a leading American impressionist was cemented in history when he was invited to join The Ten, a group of New York- and Boston-based impressionist painters that included Childe Hassam, Julian Alden Weir, Robert Reid, Willard Leroy Metcalf, Frank Weston Benson, Edmund C. Tarbell, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Joseph DeCamp, and Edward Emerson Simmons.

Chase’s fame continued to rise during the later years of his career as he exhibited work at the Boston Art Club, Corcoran Gallery of Art, National Academy of Design, National Art Club, and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. One year after Chase’s 1916 death,, a memorial exhibition was held in his honor at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. His works are widely regarded as some of the best examples of American Impressionism and are included in the permanent collections of respected institutions, including the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Texas; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York; Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; U.S. Department of the Interior Museum, Washington, D.C.; and The White House, Washington, D.C.

II. Chronology

1849 Born in Williamsburg, Indiana, on November 1
1861 The Chase family moves to Indianapolis
1867 Enlists in the Navy Apprentice program and travels to Philadelphia on July 22; after three months working on the USS Vermont and the USS Portsmouth, he returns to Indiana
1869 Moves to New York City and enrolls at the National Academy of Design, studies with Julian Alden Weir and Albert Pinkham Ryder
Travels briefly to Indianapolis, Indiana
1870 Visits family, whom has relocated to St. Louis, Missouri; shares studio with James W. Pattison in Missouri
1871 Receives two awards at the 11th St. Louis Fair
Accepts a two-year stipend for two years’ study in Europe offered by a group of St. Louis businessmen
1872 Arrives in Europe, spends the summer in London and Paris
Enrolls at Munich’s Royal Academy, rooms with Frank Duveneck
1877 Travels to Venice with Duveneck and John Henry Twachtman
1878 Returns to New York after six years abroad, accepts teaching position at the Art Students League
Occupies Albert Bierstadt’s old studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building
Exhibits work at the inaugural exhibition of Society of American Artists
Joins the Tile Club
1879 Elected to the Society of American Artists
Organizes the Tile Club’s famous barge trip up the Hudson River
Joins the American Water-Color Society
1880 Elected president of the Society of American Artists
1881 Visits Antwerp and Madrid
Meets Carolus-Duran, John Singer Sargent, and Alfred Stevens while in Paris
Returns to New York and goes on the Tile Club’s Long Island trip
1882 Travels to Antwerp with James Carroll Beckwith and Robert Blum
Visits Sargent in Paris
Spends five weeks in Madrid with Blum; they work together on illustrations for Scribner’s
Becomes a founding member of Society of Painters in Pastel
1883 Summers in Europe
1884 Spends summer with Blum in Holland
Exhibits with Belgian secessionist group Les Vingt
1885 Travels to Antwerp with James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Resumes teaching at the Art Students League
Elected president of Society of American Artists, holds position until 1895
1886 Marries Alice Gerson
First solo exhibition at the Boston Art Club, presents 133 works withgreat success
1887 First child, Alice, born February 9
Teaches at the Brooklyn Art Association
1888 Elected Associate of the National Academy of Design
1889 Second daughter, Koto, born January 5
1890 Son, William Merritt Chase Jr., born June 5
Elected Academician of the National Academy of Design
1891 Founds Shinnecock Hills Summer School
William Merritt Chase Jr. dies
Third daughter, Dorothy, born August 24
1891–94 Teaches at the Brooklyn Art Association
1892 Chase family spends the summer at their Shinnecock home, a tradition continued through 1916
1893 Fourth daughter, Hazel, born August 2
Exhibits work at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois; sits on the committee of judges
1894 Fifth daughter, Helen, born
1895 Closes studio in Tenth Street Studio Building
1896 Spends six months in Europe; teaches in Madrid
Begins teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Opens Chase School of Art in New York, which would become Parsons The New School for Design
1897 Takes leave of absence from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to teach at The Art Institute of Chicago
1898 Resigns from administrative position at the Chase School of Art, which is renamed the New York School of Art
Second son, Robert Stewart Chase, born December 19
1896–1913 Moves to Philadelphia, teaches at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts until 1909; continues to teach privately until 1913
1901 Third son, Roland Dana Chase, born November 19
Receives gold medals at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo
1902 Closes Shinnecock School
Becomes a charter member of the Society of American Portrait Painters
Joins The Ten, assumes the vacant spot left after Twachtman dies
1903 Teaches summer classes in Holland
1904 Teaches summer classes in London
Sixth daughter, Mary, born February 2
1905 Teaches summer classes in Madrid
1907 Resigns from the New York School of Art due to long-term dispute with Robert Henri
Resumes teaching at the Art Students League
1907, 1910–11 Teaches summer classes in Italy
1908 Elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters
Receives knighthood in Order of Saint Michael from the prince regent of Bavaria
1909 Leaves teaching position at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
1910 The National Arts Club holds retrospective of 142 works
Resigns from teaching position at the Art Students League
Awarded the Grand Prize at the Exposición Internacional del Centenario in Buenos Aires
1912 Teaches summer classes in Bruges
Awarded the Proctor Prize by the National Academy of Design
Becomes a founding member of the National Association of Portrait Painters
1913 Teaches last summer class abroad in Venice, Italy
1914 Teaches summer class in Carmel, California
1915 An entire gallery is dedicated to his work at the Panama-Pacific Exposition
1916 Passes away in New York City, buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York
1917 The Metropolitan Museum of Art holds a memorial exhibition in his honor
Wife Alice Gerson Chase auctions off family-held works at American Art Galleries; the sale realizes $60,151.50

III. Collections

Akron Art Museum, Ohio
The Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, St. Joseph, Missouri
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, New York
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Texas
The Arkell Museum at Canajoharie, New York
The Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois
Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama
Brooklyn Museum, New York
The Bruce Museum, Greenwich, Connecticut
The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio
Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Cheekwood’s Museum of Art, Nashville, Tennessee
Chrysler Museum of Art, Virginia
Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio
The Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio
Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine
Columbia Museum of Art, South Carolina
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas
Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire
Dallas Museum of Art, Texas
Denver Art Museum, Colorado
Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan
de Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, California
Grand Rapids Museum of Art, Michigan
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire
THE HYDE COLLECTION, Art Museum & Historic House, Glens Falls, New York
The James Cowan Collection—The Parthenon, Nashville, Tennessee
Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska
Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Michigan
Lilly Endowment Inc., Indianapolis, Indiana
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California
Maier Museum of Art, Lynchburg, Virginia
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minnesota
Montana Museum of Arts & Culture, The University of Montana, Missoula, Montana
Montclair Art Museum, New Jersey
Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Alabama
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain
Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas
National Academy of Design, New York, New York
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
National Museum of Wildlife Art of the United States, Jackson, Wyoming
Newark Museum, New Jersey
Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Oklahoma
Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania
Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Phoenix Art Museum, Arizona
Reading Public Museum, Pennsylvania
Richmond Art Museum, Indiana
Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska—Lincoln
Smart Museum of Art—The University of Chicago, Illinois
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, Indiana
Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois
Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia
Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Hagerstown, Maryland
The Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, Pennsylvania
Wright Museum of Art—Beloit College, Beloit, Wisconsin

IV. Exhibitions

The Art Institute of Chicago

1871–1918 National Academy of Design, New York, 1912, Proctor Prize
1873 Royal Academy, Munich, Germany, bronze medal
1876 Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, medal
1876, 1879, 1881–84, 1886, 1901–9 Boston Art Club, Massachusetts, 1886, solo exhibition
1877–81, 1884, 1892, 1912 Brooklyn Art Association, New York
1878 Society of American Artists, New York, New York
1879–1917 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Pennsylvania, 1895, gold medal; 1901, Temple Gold Medal
1881–3, 1889 Paris Salon, France, 1881, honorable mention; 1889, medal
1883 Munich, Germany, prize
1884 Society of Painters in Pastel, New York, New York
Society of American Artists, New York, New York
1888 Society of Painters in Pastel
1889 Chicago Interstate Industrial Exhibition, Illinois
Paris Exposition Universelle, France, silver medal
1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, Illinois
1894 Cleveland Art Association, Ohio, prize
1895 Society of American Artists, New York, New York, prize
1900 Paris Exposition, France, gold medal
1901 Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo, New York, gold medal
1902 Charleston Exposition, South Carolina, gold medal
1903 M. Knoedler, New York, New York, solo exhibition
1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, Louisiana, gold medal
1905 McClees Gallery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, solo exhibition
1907–16 Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.
1909 Herron Institute, Indianapolis, Indiana, traveling exhibition
1910 National Arts Club, New York, New York, retrospective
1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition, San Francisco, California, prize
1917 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, memorial exhibition
1983 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York New York
Henry Art Gallery-University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, retrospective
1984 Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York
1987–88 National Gallery, Washington, D.C.; Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, Illinois, traveling exhibition
1995 Spanierman Gallery, New York, New York, retrospective

V. Memberships

American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1908
The American Water-Color Society, 1879
The National Academy of Design, Associate, 1888; Academician, 1890
National Association of Portrait Painters, 1912, founding member
Society of American Artists, 1879, president, 1880, 1885–95
Society of American Portrait Painters, 1902
Society of Painters in Pastel, 1882, founding member
The Tile Club, 1878

VI. Notes

1. Barbara Dayer Gallati, William Merritt Chase, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995), 12.
2. Keith L. Bryant Jr., “Genteel Bohemian from Indiana: The Boyhood of William Merritt Chase,” Indiana Magazine of History 81 (March 1985), 29.
3. Ibid., 35
4. Ibid., 40
5. Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., “William Merritt Chase’s Tenth Street Studio," Archives of American Art Journal 16, no. 2 (1976): 2–3.

VII. Suggested Resources

1. Falk, Peter Hastings, ed. Who Was Who in American Art, 1564–1975: 400 Years of Artists in America. Vol. 1, A–F. Madison, Connecticut: Sound View Press, 1999.
2. Gallati, Barbara Dayer. William Merritt Chase. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995.
3. Ness, June L. “William Merritt Chase and the Shinnecock Summer Art School,” Archives of American Art Journal 13, no. 3 (1973), 8–12.
4. Pisano, Ronald G. A Leading Spirit in American Art: William Merritt Chase 1849–1916. Seattle: Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, 1983.
5. Pisano, Ronald G. The Students of William Merritt Chase. Huntington: Heckscher Museum, 1973.
6. Pisano, Ronald G. William Merritt Chase: Portraits in Oil. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.