The Whistler in the Room

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

Every time I walk from my desk to the library, I pass through the Phillips’s new exhibition, William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master. I always make a point to stop by one portrait: an 1885 portrait of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, hung beautifully in the high-ceilinged Wurtzel Gallery. It’s a work that stands out for its distinguished sitter and for Chase’s distinguished artistry.

Whistler was also a portraitist of the late 19th century, Chase’s senior by some years. Chase greatly admired him, and sought Whistler out in London early in his career. The two immediately became friends, and Whistler suggested that they paint each other’s portraits. The picture in this exhibition, which Chase described to his wife as promising “to be the best thing”[1] he ever did, is what resulted from Whistler’s urging.

Unfortunately, their friendship was short and ended bitterly. Whistler described the portrait as a “monstrous lampoon,”[2] though his Brown and Gold (Self Portrait) (1895-1900) seems to echo Chase’s earlier image. Both Whistler and Chase are important to The Phillips Collection outside of this 2016 retrospective exhibition. Duncan Phillips acquired Whistler’s Miss Lillian Woakes (1890-91) in 1920 (which is currently on view in another gallery in the museum) and Chase’s Hide and Seek (1888) in 1923.

Whistler’s Miss Lillian Woakes is small, dark, and extraordinarily powerful. Whistler’s first biographer, Joseph Pennell, described it as “one of the most successful—certainly the most beautiful [works] Whistler produced after his marriage.”[3] Included in the Knoedler Galleries group of Whistlers in 1914, a New York Times critic praised it: “Above enchanting draperies rises the head, soundly modelled and rich in humanity.”[4]

Whistler can be a hard artist to classify due to his whimsicality, exploration, and innovation. About 300 of his works can be found across the city at the Freer|Sackler. Its founder, Charles Lang Freer, collected Asian art as well as Whistler and other American artists; Whistler due to his Asian influences—this is particularly evident in Whistler’s Peacock Room. Whistler’s paintings also hang beside Thomas Eakins’s in the American galleries at The National Gallery of Art.

Phillips seems to have seen Whistler as a link to the realism of Gustave Courbet and Edgar Degas, and the naturalism of Diego Velázquez. In the 1930s and 40s, Phillips usually displayed Miss Lillian Woakes next to French masters: Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Honoré Daumier, Degas. More recently, the portrait has been hung with American contemporaries: Eakins, George Fuller, Winslow Homer, and George Inness.

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James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Miss Lillian Woakes, 1890-01. Oil on canvas, 21 1/8 x 14 1/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC

Phillips was keen to distinguish his Whistler from those held at the Freer. In A Collection in the Making, he catalogued her: “Miss Woakes, however, is not a mere pretext for a color scheme, and not a Japanese conception of the figure as an arabesque, nor a graceful form enveloped in shadowy air. She is a robust blooming English girl in whose vitality and subtle spirit the artist seems to have forgotten himself, striving only for the plastic ‘presence’ and for an expression of the ‘eternal feminine.’”

When you come to visit William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master at the Phillips, ensure you take the time to go downstairs and see the lovely Miss Lillian Woakes as well.

Noah Stevens-Stein, Director’s Office Intern

[1] William Merritt Chase to Alice Gerson, August 8, 1885, reel N69-137, frame 538. Chase Papers.
[2] Smithgall, Elsa, Erica E. Hirshler, Katherine M. Bourguignon, Giovanna Ginex, and John Davis. William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016.
[3] Joseph Pennell to Knoedler Gallery, n.d., Knoedler Archives, New York.
[4] W. L. Lampton, “Art Notes,” New York Times, Apr. 5, 1914, sec. 3, p. 14.

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.