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William Merritt Chase

Modern American Landscapes, 1886-1890

The Brooklyn Museum of Art

May 26-August 13, 2000

The Art Institute of Chicago

September 7-November 26, 2000

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

December 13, 2000-March 11, 2001

"Wash Day - A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn"

"Wash Day - A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn," a 22-by-25-inch oil on canvas, 1886, anonymously lent to the exhibition

By Carter B. Horsley

William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) is widely regarded as the best American Impressionist painter. At his best, he can be wonderful, a bravura painter with great dash and elegance. Chase’s oeuvre, however, reveals considerable inconsistency in quality and he tended to get into formulaic ruts. His influence as a teacher was considerable and his dandified persona epitomized to a great extent the elegance of the American Renaissance period of the late 19th Century that blossomed in a flourish of pretty ladies in white in handsome surroundings, a vision of a powerful, confident world of refinement and grace and a lot of pretension.

Childe Hassam, on the other hand, experimented wildly with many different styles, with varying degrees of success, producing a few masterpieces and an impressive and very interesting body of work.

The American Impressionist painter who produced the most memorable works was John Twachtman, but his oeuvre is also very uneven and contains only a few masterpieces. His best works sublimely combine Impressionism with a poetic abstraction.

Probably the best American Impressionist was Winslow Homer but art historians usually put him in other categories even though he was contemporary with and uninfluenced by the French Impressionists.

Chase’s popularity reflects, to a great extent, his genteel, idyllic subject matter of lazy summer afternoons at the beach and well-dressed children romping about. He painted a great many still lifes and portraits during his career, but the urban landscapes that are the subject of this fine exhibition are strong arguments for his stature as a major American artist and will come as a surprise to some collectors not familiar with them.

This exhibition focuses on the period between 1886 and 1890 when Chase painted a lot of urban park scenes in New York City and landscapes around Shinnecock, Long Island.

In his foreword to the exhibition’s 192-page catalogue, published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., ($37.50), Arnold L. Lehman, the director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, made the following observation: "The exceptional works in this exhibition amply explain Chase’s success in reclaiming critical approbation in his own time and demonstrate why his art has retained its importance today. Colorful, vital, and immediate, Chase’s park and harbor paintings record how he ingeniously transformed public spaces into the subjects of hart art and, through them, underscored the modernity of his vision."

"In the Park - A By-Path"

"In the Park - A By-Path," a 14-by-19 3/8-inch oil on canvas, circa 1890, Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection

Indeed, some of the smaller works are quite striking in their almost abstract and strong but simple compositions. Particularly fine examples in the exhibition of his boldness are "The Common, Central Park," a 10 3/8-by-16-inch oil on canvas, and "A Bit of Sunlight," a 7 ½-by-12 ½-inch pastel on paper, shown below, which are strongly related to "In Brooklyn Navy Yard (Probably Navy Yard Park),", a 10-by-16-inch oil on panel in the collection of Steven C. Walske, and "Brooklyn Navy Yard," a 10 7/8-by-16-inch oil on panel in the Erving and Joyce Wolf Collection. In these four works, Chase took a rather oblique horizontal view that creates a lot of flat space in the bottom half of the works, a visual device that propels the viewer into the scene. This compositional scheme would be occasionally used by Chase in some of his harbor and beach scenes and he also sometimes use a titled perspective as in "Terrace, Prospect Park," a 9 5/16-by-13 13/16-inch pastel on paper, circa 1886, in the collection of the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, gift of John Gellaty, one of his most colorful and impressionistic works, and "Afternoon by the Sea," a stunning 20-by-30-inch pastel on linen, circa 1888, courtesy Gerald Peters Gallery, Inc., and Hirschl & Adler, Inc., or an emphasized curve as in "In the Park - A By-Path," a 14-by-19 3/8-inch oil on canvas, circa 1890, in the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, shown above, and "Park Bench (probably An Idle Hour in the Park - Central Park)," a 12-by-16-inch oil on canvas, circa 1890, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, gift of Arthur Weisenberger, to add dynamics to his compositions and all of these are among his most interesting and successful works.

"The Open Air Breakfast"

"The Open Air Breakfast," a 37 7/16-by-56 ¾-inch oil on canvas, 1887, The Toledo Museum of Art, purchased with funds form the Florence Scott Libbey Bequest in Memory of her Father, Maurice A. Scott

Such unconventional compositions, however, were actually not used that often by Chase, but even his more straight-forward works, such as the wonderful "The Open Air Breakfast," a 37 7/16-by-56 ¾-inch oil on canvas, 1887, The Toledo Museum of Art, purchased with funds form the Florence Scott Libbey Bequest in Memory of her Father, Maurice A. Scott," has a unexpected subtlety. "The Open Air Breakfast," shown above, is an expansive horizontal composition in which the painter’s viewpoint is level, but not centered. One of the exhibition’s surprises is "Wash Day - A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn," a 22-by-25-inch oil on canvas, 1886, anonymously lent to the exhibition. In this work, Chase’s vantage point is somewhat elevated above the woman hanging clothes on a line who is at the left of the painting and the clothesline and the fence at the right are diagonally angled to meet at a tree in the upper right corner. Clothes and sheets are strewn on the sunlit portions of the yard’s grass, but the woman is in the shade.

One of Chase’s greatest works, unfortunately not in the exhibition but reproduced in black-and-white in the catalogue, is "Hide and Seek," a 27 3/8-by-35 7/8-inch oil on canvas, 1888, in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., that is a fabulous abstract work in which one girl peers at another from behind a door at the extreme left of the painting.

The exhibition was conceived and organized by Barbara Dayer Gallati, curator of American Painting and Sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum.

"Because the creative process is often deliberately mystified and romanticized by artists and by writers about art, the fact is sometimes overlooked that art usually has a good measure of pragmatic decision-making at its source," Ms. Gallati declared in her preface to the catalogue.

At the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889, Chase exhibited eight works, the most of any of the 189 American painters who participated in that important international event. "Although Chase’s strong presence at the exposition should not be considered extraordinary (in addition to being artist of proven ability, he was president of the Society of American Artists and adept at organizational politics), the nature of the work he displayed was unusual within the context of the United States art section," Gallati noted in her catalogue introduction.

Five of the eight works shown by Chase were small, freely-brushed outdoor subjects that Gallati maintained "stood in graphic contrast to the other paintings shown by Chase, the most famous of which is the full-length Lady in Black."

"This portrait…emphatically aligned his art with figure painting, a subject area that had overtaken landscape as the dominant iconography in the United States mainly as a result of the teaching practices in the Paris ateliers, where so many Americans had trained….Chase’s paintings, possessed of radically divergent subjects and styles, reinforced the already common perception of eclecticism that attached to his artistic identity. …Although they were certainly not the only landscapes on view, they were the only views of an American city and its suburbs, …The differences between Chase’s landscapes and those of his colleagues, however, were likely to be overlooked, not only because the exposition galleries were so crowded with paintings and viewers but also because Chase’s intimately scaled works were handicapped at the outset, since they competed in a value system in which the size of a painting was usually part of the equation in determining its consequence….If only on the basis of his own emphasis of this group of works at the exposition, we must assume that Chase deemed his urban-suburban Brooklyn landscapes to be significant examples of his art. It will be shown that they were vital components in his complex project of ongoing self-definition (ore reinvention). Just as they represent a critical transitional phase in Chase’s career, these painting may also be looked to as the primary harbingers of the stylistic and thematic shifts that finally took firm hold in the American visual arts in the 1890s. The period of Chase’s interest in painting Brooklyn and Manhattan scenes is clearly demarcated, limited to five summer painting campaigns beginning in 1886 and lasting through 1890 (the year before he began spending the summer seasons teaching at the Shinnecock Summer School of Art at the eastern end of Long Island). Prior to 1886 Chase had traveled to Europe each year, …it becomes clear that Chase, unlike his American contemporaries, deliberately focused on American urban and suburban spaces with the aim of underscoring the civility of modern American culture. …In addressing the changing landscapes of Brooklyn and Manhattan as the two cities became increasingly urbanized, Chase signaled his position as a modern artist. The radical compositions he employed were already established signs of the social transformation of urban and suburban geography put in place by such advanced European artists as Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894)(see The City Review article on the Christie's Impressionist auction in the spring of 2000 that reproduces and discusses his "L’Homme au balcon, boulevard Haussmann" an oil on canvas, 45 7/8 by 35 1/8 inches, 1880, which sold for $14,306,000). In the visual forum of the 1889 exposition, where the question of stylistic influence was constantly debated, Chase’s landscape submissions suggest that the intentionally separated himself from the American expatriate contingent and simultaneously aligned his art wit that of the French Impressionists, who had had no hand in training Americans and whose work was not shown at the exposition. Such a distinction is vital to the understanding of the motives behind Chase’s relatively sudden changes in technique and subject matter,…What will be shown is that he embraced a variant Impressionist mode to relieve the barrage of negative critical commentary provoked by his identity as a painter working in a Munich-inspired style. In turn, this introduces the matter of European influence, a concern that was at the core of contemporaneous critical discussions….Chase heeded the nationalist call by quickly adapting a subject matter redolent of the avant-garde ideal of ‘modern life- in this case modern American life."

Chase was born in Williamsburg, Indiana in 1849 and his family would later move to St. Louis. He went to Europe to study art in 1872 and returned to the United States in 1878 and rented the most prestigious space in the famous Tenth Street Studio Building (see The City Review article on an exhibition about this famous, lost landmark), which would serve as the subject of many of his most famous paintings, and began teaching at the Art Students’ League. His artistic style at the time was inspired by the prevailing interests of artists in Munich that focused on a rich palette, realism and character studies, perhaps best represented by his "Boy Smoking - The Apprentice," a 1875 oil on canvas now in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn.

Gallati notes that in the early 1880s the "public profile that Chase was in the process of constructing for himself was intentionally provocative. The highly publicized grandeur of his studio alone signaled the extent of his ambitions and drew as much attention to the nature of his personality and the environment he manufactured for himself as it did to the character of his art," she wrote, adding that some of Chase’s work took on the "art for art’s sake" mantra promoted by James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) whose famous libel trial against critic John Ruskin in 1878 was a famous scandal of the period.

In 1883, Chase and J. Carroll Beckwith (1852-1917) selected the art for the Pedestal Fund Loan Exhibition of art at the National Academy of Design to help raise funds for the Statue of Liberty’s base. Gallati noted that critics at the time "apprehended" their bias for "painterly, non-narrative works that eschewed moralizing or sentimental imagery - the type of art, critics observed, that appealed more to connoisseurs than it did to the general gallery visitor." The two most "sensational" works in the show, she continued, were Edouard Manet’s "Boy with a Sword" and "Woman with a Parrot," that Chase had advised collector Erwin Davis to acquire and which are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gallati argues that some of the exhibited works such as James-Jacques-Joseph Tissot’s "Richmond Bridge," Giuseppe de Nitti’s "Place de la Concorde" and Mihály Munkácsy’s "Luncheon in the Garden," "may have contributed to Chase’s aesthetic reconstruction" as they were "united by their common roots in contemporary urban life, non-historicizing attitudes…these paintings represent the juste milieu of European taste, a mode of imaging contemporary life that was palatable and fashionable without being stridently revolutionary in subject or fracture."

Chase would become a major force in the Pastel Society that was founded by Robert Blum in 1882 and indeed Chase’s pastels are generally superb. In 1884, however, critics were not enthusiastic about him. "As the chief proponent of the radical membership of an already identifiably liberal organization [the Society of American Artists], Chase was attacked on both personal and aesthetic grounds. Not only was his work considered empty of serious (and more important, ‘American’) content, but its technical characteristics denoted a flimsy sleight of hand owing to the mixture of the ill effects of Munich training or, alternatively, the adoption of monotonous compositions and tones arising out of a denatured Whistlerian style," Gallati wrote.

In 1885, Chase took the first of his summer classes abroad and his trip was "highlighted by a brief, but exhilarating friendship with James McNeill Whistler, whose memorable portrait Chase painted in London," Gallati wrote. The day after he married Alice Gerson, the daughter of the manager of the art department for the lithographic firm of Louis Prang and Company, in 1887, they had their first child. "A wife and child would enforce an unsought pattern of conventionality and domestication on his life that conflicted with the public image of cosmopolitan sophistication that he was so industriously constructing for himself," Gallati wrote.

In 1886, he got generally good reviews for his work including in the annual exhibition of the Society of American Artists but rave reviews for a one-man show at the Boston Art Club which included 23 small scenes in and around Brooklyn.

"Chase’s pronounced emphasis on American scenes in his newest work, Gallati maintained, "may simply be a result of the fact that he painted what he saw during his first stateside summer in years. Yet the sudden emergence of his interest in local subjects may have been a deliberate experimental device engineered not only to appease critics who lobbied for American themes, but also to carve out a subject matter that would be perceived as uniquely his. Otherwise, he could have easily ignored landscape altogether and continued to concentrate on portrait, figure, and still-life painting, which had already brought him a modicum of success."

That same year, Paul Duran-Ruel, the Parisian dealer, held a large exhibition of French Impressionist painters in New York at the American Art Galleries including a Gare Saint-Lazare painting by Claude Monet (1840-1926), and a study for Island Grand Jatte by Georges Seurat (1859-1891), and "Dance at Bougival" by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). The show was very well received although Degas was not a favorite because, Gallati wrote, "his works spoke of the unhealthy debauchery of Parisian life." "So far as Degas’s work was concerned, Chase likely concluded it best to avoid its ‘coarse’ subject matter, but nonetheless found Degas’s manipulation of compositional space irresistible," she added.

In his "Prospect Park," a 6 ¼-by-9 ½-inch oil on panel, 1886, Megan Moynihan Fine Arts, New York, Chase depicts "an elegant, formal space dominated by the sweeping curve of the walks bordered by carefully designed plantings and punctuated by elaborately carved balustrades."

"In it," she continued, "Chase synthesized avant-garde compositional approaches, particularly by leaving a substantial void in the foreground that bears the fluid markings of a wide brush to indicate the shade of the trees just outside the pictorial space. From the shaded foreground the eye is drawn to the sunlit walk that seems to decrease in width as the eye travels this length along the curve, until it disappears from view. The pull to the more distant spaces of the scene, however, is counteracted by the emphatic horizontal provided by the line created by the highlighted wall at the left that is augmented by the darkened lower edges of the balustrades and carried through the line of red flowers o the right. The complexity of this seemingly arbitrarily chosen composition is at first concealed by the painting’s small scale. But the notion of casualness is erased once the artist’s choices are examined closely, for he deliberately applied a modern spatial trajectory to a location that also spoke of modern life - a public park, where the solitary women dressed in white may be read as a sign for the gentility of these public spaces. …Chase’s palette reaches a high key in this work, thus declaring an affinity for the prismatic colors of Impressionism, if not a wholehearted commitment to what he considered the overly systematic application of the ‘science’ of color that he detected in Monet’s art. It would be a mistake to attribute Chase’s experiments of the summer of 1886 solely to the Impressionist exhibition,…for there are other potent factors….One such factor is the influence of Alfred Stevens, who, although Belgian born, was essentially French in his ways and art….In addition to reportedly advising Chase to lighten his palette, Steven’s considerable influence on the American is also revealed by Chase’s frequent borrowing of motifs from the Belgian’s repertoire of studio, beach, and marine paintings."

Gallati emphasized that Stevens admonished artists to not only be of their time but also of their place. Gallati noted that such artists as Julian Alder Weir and Fernand Lungren had begun painting some urban scenes. "Perhaps more significant for Chase were John H. Twachtman’s…canvases showing the dynamic shapes of boats and harbor equipment along the New York docks, which roughly recalled the Venetian views the two had painted while together in Italy in 1877," she wrote.

While critics for clamoring for an "American" art that was not derivative or highly influenced by European art, artists around this time were experimenting with various styles and subjects. Gallati provides the following interesting quotation from Chase in a newspaper interview:

"Absolute originality in art can only be found in a man who has been locked in a dark room from babyhood…Since we are dependent on others, let us frankly and openly take all that we can. We are entitled to it. The man who does that with judgment will produce an original picture that will have value."

The exhibition’s large focus on Chase’s small landscape paintings of this period is striking and many of them use Brooklyn locations. "The Brooklyn that Chase knew was the third largest city in the United States with roots in several of the oldest colonial settlements along the eastern seaboard….Public transportation had improved rapidly from its early beginnings in 1814 when the Fulton Ferry (named for Robert Fulton’s steam-powered boats) made crossing between Brooklyn and Manhattan a common convenience. By 1860, five different ferry companies were carrying 32 million passengers across the East River annually, and by 1868, the number had swelled to approximately 50 million. And…it was not the Brooklyn Bridge that killed the ferry business but, instead, the building of the first subway tunnel connecting the two boroughs in 1908….Over its history Brooklyn has at times seized the world’s attention, and one of those moments was the 1883 opening of the Great East River Bridge, John Augustus Roebling’s engineering masterpiece that has gained iconic status as a symbol of the modern age….Post-Civil War industrial expansion had made Brooklyn the center for the five ‘black arts’: glassmaking, porcelain manufacture, printing, petroleum and gas refining, and iron making. And, by 1890 it was the site of the largest sugar-refining operations in the world."

Chase, Gallati argued, was not significantly influenced by Brooklyn’s burgeoning growth and impressive structures and his relationship with the borough "was ambiguous in that he was neither a permanent resident nor a tourist.

She describes "Wash Day - A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn," as a "boldly conceived painting filled with the visual dramas of rushing perspectives, briskly painted surfaces, and vibrant patterns of light and shadow." "The eye," she continued, " fights to find the center of this asymmetrical composition, meeting powerful resistance in the diagonals formed by the clotheslines that converge near the street on the right. The radically cropped figure of the laundress recalls the same compositional device perfected by Degas and looks forward to Chase’s 1888 Hide and Seek [The Phillips Collection,Washington,D.C.].

"I Am Going to See Grandma"

"I Am Going to See Grandma," a 29-by-41-inch pastel on paper in the collection of the San Antonio Museum of Art, Texas, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Frederic G. Oppenheimer

Gallati suggests that "Wash Day…" depicts his parents’ back yard in Brooklyn and that many his interior genre paintings have subtle meanings. One of the works in the exhibition that shows Chase’s work in pastel to great advantage is "I Am Going to See Grandma," a 29-by-41-inch pastel on paper in the collection of the San Antonio Museum of Art, Texas, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Frederic G. Oppenheimer, shown below. "The pastel is ostensibly a simple genre subject of a mother preparing a child for an outing. It need not be anything more. However, it does not register as such with viewers familiar with Chase’s art inasmuch as the protagonists are unquestionably his wife and child, both of whom were becoming well known to his audience. While the setting here is probably the parlor in the artist’s East 40th Street home in Manhattan, the title creates in the mind’s eye the child’s destination, evoking the trip downtown through Manhattan, over the river, and into the quiet, more neighborly, and greener realms of Brooklyn. This biographical layering of content, as it were, is symptomatic of Chase’s mode of constructing his paintings, and, pronouncements of his adherence to a realistic vision notwithstanding, such imagery relies on a network of content that was rich for him and for those were privy to the spaces he referenced.

"One of the most masterful works of Chase’s career is The Open Air Breakfast….The scene portrays the same backyard as that shown in Wash Day, seen from a slightly different angle, but identifiable conclusively by the white wooden stairway that occupies approximately the same position in the upper portion of both works….In comparison with other paintings by Chase, The Open Air Breakfast possesses a peculiarly emblematic character, an artificiality analogous to that of Velázquez’s Meninas (Prado, Madrid), a painting that he knew well - or perhaps even to Courbet’s Painter’s Studio: A Real Allegory Summing up Seven Years of My Artistic Life (Musée d’Orsay, Paris). And, while the painting’s conception may have exploited the more art-historically rooted ideals of Veláquez or Courbet, Chase may also have considered the more recent painting Luncheon in the Garden…by the Hungarian artist Mihály Munkáscy as inspiration. Owned by the widow of the collector Robert L. Stuart, Chase and Beckwith had included the painting in the Pedestal Fund Exhibition….On the surface, Chase’s Open Air Breakfast may be enjoyed as a pleasant depiction of a leisurely alfresco breakfast on a bright summer’s morning. Yet, taking into account the biographical layers Chase manipulated to create content…, the painting reads as a statement summarizing his own artistic progress, his family relationships, and the increasingly blurred divisions between the two areas of this life….[the] stiffly posed figure [of Hattie, his sister] claims our attention because of its rigidity, which is anomalous within the scheme that suggests relaxation and ease….her gaze directed outward in acknowledgment of the artist-viewer’s presence. It is the blankness of that gaze that undermines the painting’s status as pure genre, for its emotional flatness acts as a magnet for the eye, disruptive the narrative flow. Through the device of Hattie’s gaze, Chase implicates himself as a participant in the scene, thereby manufacturing a conceptual self-portrait and completing the connection between this painting and those of Velázquez and Courbet…, both of which…contain self-portraits….To today’s viewers the image probably resonates with the ideas of quiet middle-class gentility of days gone by. Yet, in the mid-1880s, it would have been considered an inappropriate public display of private life.…The Open Air Breakfast …marked a watershed in Chase’s aesthetics; it commemorates the transitional moment in his career when he became committed to a subject matter than incorporated figure painting and the American landscape….it is the first major work in which Chase could be said to have effectively repatriated his imagery."

Gallati’s observations about the symbolic importance of Chase often using members of his family as models are interesting, but the works transcend mere biographical importance. The Open Air Breakfast is a great painting because of its superb spatial qualities. The white tablecloth is at the painter’s center and it makes the viewer zoom into the asymmetrical composition whose dappled palette is comforting. The delicate and very painterly treatment of the hammock softens the otherwise dramatic spatial effects. The work’s tripartite horizontal composition is rather unusual for its time, but is judiciously minimized by the strong tree branches in the upper right, the spindly legs of the child’s high-chair and, most importantly, by the angled left arm of the woman in the hammock. It is very elegant, but the wooden fence of the backyard makes it not grandiose.

One of his finest works is "Mrs. Chase in Prospect Park," a 13 ¼-by-19 5/8-inch oil on panel, 1886, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Chester Dale, 1962. With its rather somber palette of murky browns and the pensive pose of his wife sitting in the rowboat with an oar across her lap, this sketch is strangely lyrical. The figure and the boat are well defined by the landscape is not. The bold water reflections, however, uplift this otherwise dark work and Gallati suggests that this was an experiment and that Chase would soon adopt a brighter palette.

Indeed, "Boat House, Prospect Park," a 10 ¼-by-16-inch oil on panel, 1888, private collection, is much brighter and a delightful impressionistic work. Gallati notes that Chase’s Prospect Park paintings of this period lack a "stylistic cohesiveness" and that some of the works are "intriguing," especially those that devote almost two-thirds of the bottom to a rather featureless lawn, revealing what Gallati described as "an even greater bid on Chase’s part to adopt an avant-garde position within the American vernacular of public space." One of Chase’s "aesthetic plays," according to Gallati, was to "convert common, unpretentious subject matter into art." "His application of it emerges in these specific (real) yet anonymous park views, which allude to contemporary French realist (Impressionist) subjects, yet do not succumb to the vulgarity that Americans associated with French art. In this way Chase’s paintings represent a reconciliation of American and French taste in which a normalization takes place whereby the plain - or common - American scene permitted Chase to exercise extreme choices elsewhere, that is, in the formal and technical aspects of his art," Gallati wrote.

"Park in Brooklyn"

"Park in Brooklyn," a 16 1/8-by-24 1/8-inch oil on panel, 1887, The Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, New York, Littlejohn Collection

One of the artist’s best Prospect Park pictures is "Park in Brooklyn," a 16 1/8-by-24 1/8-inch oil on panel, 1887, The Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, New York, Littlejohn Collection, shown above. The bottom quarter of the painting is lawn, but the rest of the composition is very animated with diagonal streaks of sunlight in the middle crossing the angled path, and a dramatic sky punctuated by a tall tree next to a red building in the top third of the three-tiered horizontal composition.

Chase used diagonal streaks of sunlight to add startling drama to "Going to See Grandma," and also in "The Lake for Miniature Yachts," a 16-by-24-inch oil on canvas, circa 1888, collection of Mr. and Mrs. Peter G. Terian, that depicts the delightful small lake in Central Park near Fifth Avenue at 74th Street.

"The Common, Central Park"

"The Common, Central Park," a 10 3/8-by-16-inch oil on panel, circa 1889, photographed at exhibition of Sotheby's spring 2000 American Paintings auction

Perhaps the most interesting of the Brooklyn pictures, however, show interior spaces at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. "A Bit of Sunlight," a 7 ½-by-12 ½-inch pastel on paper, shown below, is illustrated in the catalogue and was sold at Sotheby’s American Paintings auction May 24, 2000 for 22,600 including the buyer’s premium. At the same auction, "The Common, Central Park," a 10 3/8-by-16-inch oil on panel, circa 1889, shown above, was sold for $192,750, and this work is also illustrated in color in the exhibition catalogue. Both works are closely related "Brooklyn Navy Yard," a 10 1/8-by-16-inch oil on panel, circa 1887, in the Erving and Joyce Wolf Collection, which is a little weak in comparison, but still lovely, and another painting of the same title and almost exactly the same dimensions in the collection of Steven C. Walske that is dated circa 1887 and is very fine and includes a woman walking with a parasol.

"A Bit of Sunlight"

"A Bit of Sunlight," a 7 ½-by-12 ½-inch pastel on paper, photographed at exhibition for Sotheby's American Painting auction in the spring of 2000

Among Chase’s major works of this period is "Afternoon by the Sea," a 20-by-30-inch pastel on linen, circa 1888, that shows a mother holding a baby while her daughter looks at the harbor from an esplanade in the Bath Beach section of Brooklyn. The esplanade’s railing is set diagonally in this fine composition that marks Chase’s turning toward views of the sea as subject matter. Two exquisite jewels in the exhibition show that Whistler’s influence emerged strongly in Chase’s work: "Sailboat at Anchor," a 26-by-17-inch oil on canvas, shown courtesy of Adelson Galleries, Inc., New York, circa 1888, shown below, and "Seascape," a 6 1/8-by-9 1/8-inch oil on panel, circa 1888, private collection.

"Sailboat at Anchor"

"Sailboat at Anchor," a 26-by-17-inch oil on canvas, shown courtesy of Adelson Galleries, Inc., New York, circa 1888

The narrow focus of this exhibition leaves out the prolific artist’s many strong self-portraits, his fine, unfinished sketches of women, including at least one fabulous nude in a chair, his still-life paintings and his many landscapes in and around Shinnecock, Long Island. What is fascinating is that many of the best paintings in this show are very small and that Chase did not do bigger, "major" paintings of the same subjects. These small works hold up admirably and are superb and much better than many of his later Shinnecock scenes that often tend to be either "pretty" or bland, and have tended in recent decades to overshadow his other work.

The color plates in the exhibition catalogue are excellent and the catalogue offers a most interesting overview of the artistic scene in New York that was dominated for many years by this very versatile and able painter. Gallati goes to great lengths to make a case for Chase’s "modernity," a case that is a bit forced. The great small landscapes that are very bold and almost abstract were appreciated by some contemporary connoisseurs, but not enough for Chase to commit himself fully to their style and it would fall to other artists, such as Albert Pinkham Ryder, to become "modern" by their concentrated focus and intensity. Gallati underscores Chase’s timidity and conservatism and concerns about his professional reputation, as well as his finances. A few of his works of this period are a bit dated because of fashions and a bit too sentimental and a bit too slight, but by and large the exhibition clearly demonstrates that Chase’s enormous talents could and did produce some sensational paintings during this period that would be among the very best of his fabled career.

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