Who Was Dora Wheeler?

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William Merritt Chase, Portrait of Dora Wheeler, 1882–83. Oil on canvas, 62 5/8 x 65 1/8 in. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Boudinot Keith in memory of Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Wade

This is one of William Merritt Chase’s defining early masterworks that showcases his burgeoning talent as a still life painter and portraitist. Dora Wheeler was one of the artist’s first private students. Chase painted this portrait just as Wheeler returned from her training at the Academie Julian in Paris to establish a career in New York. The portrait exudes the quiet dignity of the sitter with the assured placement of her curled hand on her face, relaxed pose, and direct eye contact with the viewer. Dora’s mother, Candace Wheeler, owned a decorative textile firm, Associated Artists, in which her daughter worked as a designer. In the same building was Dora’s own art studio, where Chase painted this portrait. She sits on a grand Elizabethan chair with a blue art deco bowl full of narcissus on top of a carved ebony Chinese tabouret. The brilliant golden tones of the hanging tapestry extending from one edge of the canvas to the other serve as a dramatic foil to the rich brown and blue contrasting tones.

From the beginning, Chase conceived of the painting as an exhibition piece, one that would showcase his virtuosity and bolster his reputation. Chase’s approach builds on the legacy of the opulent illusionism of his Munich manner and asserts, with its richly layered palette of yellows, blues, and browns, the vibrancy of color and virtuoso brushwork that earned the artist international acclaim. Indeed, the groundbreaking nature of Portrait of Dora Wheeler catapulted Chase’s career, earning him honorable mention in 1883 at the Paris Salon and the gold medal in Munich’s Crystal Palace exhibition.

By contrast, the following year, when the painting made its United States debut in the Society of American Artists exhibition, it met with mixed praise because of its radical departure from the conventions of portrait painting. In his review of the show, painter W.C. Brownell expressed his dismay at how unagreeable the portrait was, arguing that Miss Wheeler “counts for next to nothing in it”—a mere decorative prop in the overall ensemble. Perhaps emulating the artist Whistler who signed his works with a butterfly, here Chase inscribed his personal insignia into the painting. Look at the upper left of the painting for the cat chasing its tail.

Elsa Smithgall, William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master exhibition curator

Artistic Echoes: Chase and Whistler

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William Merritt Chase, The Young Orphan, c. 1884. Oil on canvas, 44 x 42 in. National Academy Museum, New York

The Young Orphan is one of William Merritt Chase’s boldest early compositions, exemplifying his experimentation with an abstract, expressive language of color and form. Chase likely found his model for the picture from the Protestant Half Orphan Asylum, located next door to his Tenth Street studio at 61 West 10th Street. Thinly painted in gradations of red and black on a coarsely woven canvas, the painting recalls the atmospheric, subtle color harmonies in the work of the well-known American artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, whom Chase greatly admired. Whistler’s Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist’s Mother) had been a sensation in New York’s 1882 Society of American Artists exhibition and in the Paris Salon of 1883. The year after he completed this picture, Chase spent the summer with Whistler in London, where he produced the portrait of Whistler.

Elsa Smithgall, William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master exhibition curator

Acting Out Arts Integration

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Teachers spent time learning about Jacob Lawrence and practicing playwriting in the galleries where The Migration Series is on view.

On July 7 and 8, teachers from schools in Washington, DC, and Prince George’s County spent two days at the Phillips working together to discuss and practice strategies for arts integration. The experience not only incorporated lesson planning, but it brought the group together to form a teacher cohort community. With a focus on Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, the focal point of an exhibition this fall, the cohort used playwriting to navigate Lawrence’s work. From playing theater games to writing their own monologues, the cohort practiced ways to bring stories to life for their students with the help of playwright Jacqueline Lawton.

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Left: Former Phillips’s Curator Beth Turner video conferenced with the cohort to provide behind-the-scenes information about Jacob Lawrence and The Migration Series. Right: Teachers use artworks and photographs to tell stories.

The two-day institute also familiarized teachers with Prism.K12, the museum’s teaching tool to create arts integration for any subject. As they brainstormed ideas of how to incorporate Prism.K12 arts integration strategies and playwriting in their classrooms, they also used social media as a way to share their thoughts with one another and the greater educator community. Teachers are already sharing classroom tips and will document classroom process; follow along in Twitter and Pinterest with #PrismK12 and #MigrationExperience for more!

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Teachers explored theater games to build community and boost creativity!

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Laura Hoffman, Manager of K–12 Digital and Educator Initiatives ran a “Social Media Bootcamp” for teachers.