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

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

Who Was Dora Wheeler?

Chase_Portrait of Dora Wheeler

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