A “Monstrous Lampoon” of a Portrait

Portrait of James Abbott McNeill Whistler by William Merritt Chase

William Merritt Chase, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, 1885. Oil on canvas, 74 1/8 x 36 1/4 in. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of William H. Walker, 1918

In 1885, William Merritt Chase stopped in London on his way to Madrid to pay a visit to James Abbott McNeill Whistler, the artist whom he had revered since the late 1870s, sharing with him a passion for the ideals of beauty and harmony in art. Upon Whistler’s urging, Chase stayed the summer so that they could sit for each other’s portraits. Their friendly relationship soon deteriorated into bitter quarreling in the face of Chase’s struggle with Whistler’s two-sided personality: “One was Whistler in public—the fop, the cynic, the brilliant, flippant, vain, and careless idler; the other was Whistler of the studio—the earnest, tireless, somber worker, a very slave to his art, a bitter foe to all pretense and sham, an embodiment of simplicity.”

To evoke the public persona of Whistler in his portrait, Chase adopts the technique of his protégé in his use of a limited palette, soft background, and thinly applied application of paint. Chase’s portrait captured his sitter’s trademark features: the white lock of hair, bushy eyebrows, carefully waxed mustache, monocle over one eye, and wand. Writing to his wife, Chase reported that his portrait “promises to be the best thing I’ve done.” Whistler, on the other hand, dismissed it as a “monstrous lampoon.” We can only guess what Whistler’s portrait of Chase may have looked like; its whereabouts remain unknown and some suggest that Whistler may have destroyed it.

Elsa Smithgall, Exhibition Curator

Honoring Memories through Art and Storytelling

Group photo at Phillips

Student ambassadors from “Bringing the Lessons Home” with the School Programs Educators who led their tour of The Phillips Collection. Photo: James Fleming

As a School Programs Educator at The Phillips Collection, each teaching opportunity is a unique and special experience. I was recently part of something that felt extra special when I collaborated with James Fleming, Program Coordinator of Youth and Community Initiatives at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). James brought his student ambassadors from the “Bringing the Lessons Home” program to tour the Phillips at the start of their Art and Memory project. This project was first adapted by USHMM in 2006 from an Israeli project, Dor le Dor (Generation to Generation), which pairs high school students with holocaust survivors. The students interview the survivors and then work together to capture the essence of the stories in an artwork.

Students at Phillips

Students investigate Jacob Lawrence’s use of line, shape, and color in The Migration Series. Photo: James Fleming

James expressed to me early on that the artistic ability and confidence level of participants in the program varied greatly. He wanted to expose the students to a variety of artworks to help them understand that there are many different ways art can visually convey emotions and ideas. During their tour, student ambassadors carefully looked at how artists made choices about color, line, and shape, among other elements.

Students with survivors

Students discuss their plans and progress with the holocaust survivor whose story and ideas they have represented. Photo: Miriam Lomaskin

My fellow educators and I were blown away by their insights through the lens of their own life experiences! At the close of the tour, James invited me to visit the students while they worked on their artworks with the survivors.

When I arrived at their classroom, it was a typical high school scene: hanging out , eating, and showing each other pictures on their phones. However, when the survivors got there, the students got straight to work and took their time very seriously. They clearly felt the responsibility of honoring these important memories. Many expressed their wishes for more time with the survivors to really “get it right.” They seemed pleased, though, with what they were able to accomplish in their brief time together. One student proudly stated, “That was my part, my idea!” after I had admired the use of symbols to help tell the story of the selection process at a work camp.

Students working on project

Students apply finishing touches to their Art and Memory artwork and explain their artistic decisions to Heather (School Programs Educator). Photo: Miriam Lomaskin

When I asked students how their time at the Phillips impacted their project, I got a variety of responses about learning to use different colors, making things abstract, and building a comfort-level in making art. One student explained, “It helped to know that things don’t have to look exactly like the real thing;” another stated, “Simplicity is okay as long as you get your message across well.”

Final projects

The finished product! A selection of the final student artwork. Photo: Heather Brubach

I hope the students have a chance to visit the Phillips again this fall, when the complete Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence, a work that inspired and encouraged many of them, will be on view.

Heather Brubach, Phillips School Program Educator

The Particular Fishiness of Fish

Chase_Still Life-Fish

William Merritt Chase, Still Life–Fish, c. 1900. Oil on canvas, 44 1/2 x 56 1/8 in. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Hayden Collection–Charles Henry Hayden Fund

In the early 20th century, William Merritt Chase returned with renewed vigor to still life painting, a genre he had pursued since the beginning of his career. Most but not all of these works were given over to fish, due at once to their popularity with collectors and museums and Chase’s great pleasure in their making. For this reason, Chase jokingly quipped, “It may be that I will be remembered as a painter of fish.” He explained at the end of his life his attraction to the “subtle and exquisitely colored tones of the flesh fresh from the water, the way their surfaces reflect the light.” When museum founder Duncan Phillips paid tribute to the artist upon his death, he singled Chase out as being “unequalled by any other painter in the representation of the shiny, slippery, fishiness of fish.”

Elsa Smithgall, Exhibition Curator