The Technical Brilliance and Self-Expression of William Merritt Chase

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William Merritt Chase, “I Think I Am Ready Now,” c. 1883

This article, written by “William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master” curator Elsa Smithgall, was first published by Yale ARTbooks Blog on June 22, 2016.

The storytelling picture, of course, is an absolute impossibility, the picture that depends for its interest alone on the story. Imagine how impossible! We who have ever told a story, seek not to tell the same story to the same person the second time.

—William Merritt Chase, 1916


Over the course of working on the retrospective on William Merritt Chase I came to appreciate all the more deeply the artist’s overriding aesthetic belief that technical brilliance, beauty, and self-expression are the highest mark of a great masterpiece. Chase strongly avowed that “it is never the subject of a picture which makes it great; it is the brush treatment, the color, the form. There is not great art without great technique back of it.”[1]

Any subject could be made beautiful, declared Chase, but it was how that subject was painted and not what that subject represented that mattered most. With this in mind, the question of content is a fascinating one in the art of Chase. Without doubt, Chase sought to avoid the trite sentimentality or the staid quality of a fixed narrative that would grow old and lose its hold on the viewer. Perhaps with this motivation in mind, it is not surprising to find that in many of Chase’s finest interiors, he often instills a sense of drama, mystery, or ambiguity into the scene.

Consider for example, the painting “I Think I Am Ready Now” (c. 1883; Private collection) showing a woman in a pink dress before a mirror holding a hair brush in one hand and fixing her hair with the other.

Darkness surrounds her suggestive form conjured out of thick brush strokes that mesmerize us as they reach a dramatic flourish in the abstract train of her dress. With her back turned, we encounter the subject from behind, glimpsing her face only through its reflection in the mirror. Through the title, Chase conjures an imagined dialogue between the subject and the unseen protagonist (the artist) who hovers outside the frame.

In another equally captivating work called May I Come In? (c. 1883; Private collection), Chase entreats us into the picture with the title itself, if not visually with the woman peering behind a partially open door.

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William Merritt Chase, May I Come In?, c. 1883

We traverse an empty, shimmering hardwood floor offset by a soft green hanging textile. No sign of the woman’s interlocutor may be found; instead our eyes settle on two discrete, carefully arranged shimmering pots on the floor that command center stage. In this intimate space suggestive of the interior chamber of Chase’s Tenth Street studio, the woman appears reluctant to cross the threshold into the room itself. We too remain behind that door, our imaginations stirred by the anticipation of what will come—as our eyes seize upon the beauty of the surroundings—a red tassel dangling from a door strung with three framed pictures and a cropped portion of a gilded frame above a blue upholstered ottoman.

A similar sense of the unknown lurking in our everyday life awaits the viewer in The Phillips Collection’s playfully beguiling Hide and Seek (1888).

By framing the composition with the children posed from behind and their facial expressions masked from view, Chase heightens the emotional tension in the scene. At the far left edge of the picture, the gaze of the young child leads the viewer to the ghost-like figure approaching a sliver of light spilling through a curtain. We witness the mystery of the deceptively simple game unfolding in a spare, dark-filled domestic space. Yet Chase fills that void with an intensity of color, subtlety of touch, and spatial complexity, all the while imbuing the work with striking, cinematic power.

In such works as Hide and Seek, May I Come In?, and “I Think I am Ready Now,” Chase evokes a world outside the frame, a world shaped by his lifelong commitment to forging a personal artistic language with which to express his response to a changing modern world at the turn of the twentieth century.

Elsa Smithgall, Exhibition Curator

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William Merritt Chase, Hide and Seek, 1888. Oil on canvas, 27 5/8 x 35 7/8 in. Acquired 1923. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

[1] Perriton Maxwell, “William Merritt Chase—Artist, Wit and Philosopher,” Saturday Evening Post, November 4, 1899, 347.

First Look: William Merritt Chase

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Entrance to special exhibition William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master

William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master opens this Saturday, June 4! Here’s a sneak peek of some the galleries.

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Installation view of special exhibition William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master.

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Installation view of special exhibition William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master.

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Installation view of special exhibition William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master.


Deconstructing Lawrence’s Struggle Series: Panel 24

This spring, former Phillips curator Beth Turner taught an undergraduate practicum at the University of Virginia focusing on Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle series. In this multi-part blog series, responses from Turner’s students in reference to individual works from the series will be posted each week.

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Jacob Lawrence, Struggle … From the History of the American People, no. 24: Of the Senate House, the President’s Palace, the barracks, the dockyard…nothing could be seen except heaps of smoking ruins…—A British Officer at Washington, 1814 (Burning of Washington DC August 24, 1814), 1956. Egg tempera on hardboard, 16 x 12 in. Private Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Of the Senate House, the President’s Palace, the barracks, the dockyard… nothing could be seen except heaps of smoking ruins– A British officer at Washington, 1814 (1956)

The War of 1812 moved to the capital when British troops arrived in Washington on August 24, 1814, without encountering much resistance. That evening, they began the systematic destruction of all public buildings, including the White House and the Capitol. It was said that the city was swallowed in flames that could be seen miles away.

Lawrence’s depiction of the Burning of Washington focuses on the violence and destruction with the canons firing against a dark, smoke-filled sky. A dash of red dripping from one of the cannons adds to the destructive nature of the scene. Off to the left corner of the panel is the corpse of a small bird, still bleeding. The only indication of what this panel is about comes from the title and the caption, which is a quote from a British soldier’s eyewitness account. This panel was completed in 1956, when the Montgomery bus boycott ended successfully. Prior to this successful conclusion, in February 1956, Martin Luther King’s house was bombed. An analogy can be made between the bombing of King’s house and the destruction of Washington in 1814. King was one of the central figures of the boycott; the bombing of his house with the intention of killing him was a certain attempt to cut off the source of inspirations and support of the African American communities to continue fighting for their rights.

Phuong Nguyen