Balancing on the Tight-Rope of American Art–William Merritt Chase: Artist, Instructor, and Funambulist
As a cultural melting pot, the United States has proven itself quite adept at digesting foreign practices and re-molding them to conform to our own societal standards. Artists and critics across the world have always struggled with this process of Americanization, which is undoubtedly a back and forth that has no foreseeable end. Those artists who chose to integrate any kind of foreign styles or aspects into their work received flack from both sides of the fence: incorporating too much of a particular influence was to create work that lacked originality and an American essence, but using too little ran the risk of coming off as too gritty or avant-garde. While there are many American impressionist paintings that epitomize this artist plight, one man in particular strove to find a balance between the two: William Merritt Chase.
Born in Indiana, Chase grew up in the heart of the American Midwest, but left at the age of twenty to pursue his artistic career in New York in 1869. As an artist, Chase had the opportunity to study both stateside and in Munich at the Royal Academy, and also briefly in Venice. For American artists, the first step of stylistic absorption was hidden under the premise of traveling and working abroad in order to widen one’s aesthetic horizons. Chase continued to paint after his return to New York in 1878, but also assumed an instructive role when he was hired by the Art Students League of New York. As one of the pioneering artists of American Impressionism during the 1870s, William Merritt Chase was a firm advocate of teaching the methodologies that he learned abroad, but with a distinctly American twist.
“Many people say that we have no school of art in America, but I do not agree with them. The studies of our Shinnecock School which cover these walls tonight are representative of American art… Let me urge you to strive to prove that American Art is a vital thing.” 1
Chase can be credited with forging the path for American impressionist painting, which was a style he passed down to students that attended the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art. As a school dedicated to the art of working en plein air, the East End of Long Island provided the perfect seaside home for the institution. With an impressive roster of students such as Rockwell Kent, Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and John Marin, it became clear that the instruction of William Merritt Chase was a valuable asset to an artist’s resume. There seemed to be limited elbow room at the table reserved for important art teachers from the end of the nineteenth century, and Robert Henri was consequently pitted against Chase as a rival instructor.
While both men significantly impacted American art, their vastly different approaches seemed to have evolved from the two opposing sides of the Americanization debate: Henri’s attempts to capture a new American spirit were rendered with an anti-academic approach that resulted in gritty depictions of immigrant life in New York, while Chase incorporated aspects of European Impressionism into subjects and landscapes that were distinctly American. As an artist, William Merritt Chase introduced Impressionism to America through his paintings; as a teacher, he helped to create and pass down a genre of art that was markedly American.
William Merritt Chase, Idle Hours, 1894, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX
1. “Talk on Art by William M. Chase,” Art Interchange 39 (December 1897): 127.
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