Artist Biography

William Merritt Chase

(1849 - 1916)

Table of Contents

    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

    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.

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