Posts Tagged ‘ Georges Seurat ’

“Do not try to paint the grandiose thing …”

William Merritt Chase: Gilded Age Rebel, Aesthete, Dandy, Conservative.
Retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

1. Ready for the Ride. Oil on canvas. 1877. Museum of Fine Art, Boston. (All illustrations in this post are of works in exhibit and can be enlarged by clicking.)

On March 1898 a New York Times writer mused about the nature of artistic cycles.1 The immediate subject was the opening of the Society of American Artists’ annual exhibition in the Fine Arts Building on West 57th Street in New York City. But he also looked back to the beginning of the Society, twenty years earlier, when a “small band” of art students returning from Europe, called the “Munich men” (because they studied in that city rather than Paris) upended the American art world (such as it then was) with their new sensibilities by revolting against the “antiquated rules” of the National Academy of Design. The Society was created to escape the doctrinaire hold on on big time arts shows and its use of its power to squeeze out any new comers. The inaugural show of the Society was designed to provide an alternate venue. The “Munich men” took over that show, and provided quality works that pointed the way to an American art more attuned to the times. The group was headed by William Merritt Chase and his associates, James Carroll Beckwith, John Henry Twachtman and J. Alden Weir, principally:

“These bold and brave young artists scarcely realized themselves at the time what their revolt and their new move meant to the cause of American art, nor how it wrote the doom of the well-termed Hudson River school of painting in this country, and the beginning of a new use of broader methods and more liberal ideas, which within a few years affected the old Academy itself.”

The Times writer proceeded to compare their debut to the then present when those very New Men had become the Academy. And in a world that moved much faster than they thought, most, including (and especially) Chase, would be left behind. But we’ll get to that later. For now let’s look at the beginning of the career of William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), a career on full display in the marvelous retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston: William Merritt Chase, an exhibition running until January 16, 2017. The exhibition is a travelling show co-sponsored in addition to the MFA by the Phillips Collection of Washington, D.C., Fondazione Musei Civici Venezia and the Terra Foundation for American Art of Chicago. The exhibition opened at The Phillips Collection (June 4–September 11) before traveling to the MFA (October 9, 2016–January 16, 2017), and next year it will travel to the International Gallery of Modern Art, in Venice, Italy (February 10–May 28, 2017). The MFA show (which I will call it for ease, and because I saw it there) exhibits nearly 80 paintings, and gives justice to every aspect of Chase’s career. Indeed, nearly every one of the paintings one could hope to view is on display.2 The exhibition contains quite a few surprises, and it is a powerful proof that Chase deserves wider recognition. (This is the first major show in nearly thirty years.3) The surprises begin with his student years.

Student Works

2. Boy Smoking (The Aprrentice). Oil on canvas. 1875. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut.

2. Boy Smoking (The Apprentice). Oil on canvas. 1875. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut.

Chase made his first stir in the American art world even before he returned from studies in Munich. The entrance to the MFA gallery devoted to his student day confronts the viewer with Ready for the Ride (#1), a painting which Chase sold to New York art dealer Samuel P. Avery. Avery was well plugged into American collectors and routinely visited Europe to scout out likely works for them. He had been in Munich in 1875, and knew Karl von Piloty, a genre and historical painter who dominated the Munich art scene at the time. It was probably through Piloty, who was then teaching Chase in a master class, that Avery heard of Chase and purchased the work in 1877. (He would resell it to the Union League Club in New York City.) In 1878 Ready for the Ride was one of three works of Chase loaned to the Society of American Artists (SAA) exhibition (together with Boy Smoking (The Apprentice) (#2) and The Wounded Poacher). On the basis of this show, an art critic writing for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle singled Chase out as “one of the most promising of younger American artists” and used Ready for the Ride as proof:

“Ready for the Ride” is a very strongly treated picture, the coloring and drawing being remarkable. He seems to have aimed at a Rembrandt effect in this work, and the old Dutch school is plainly visible in both the figure and the dark, shadowy background. … [it] is the certainly the finest work he has yet sent home.”4

It is indeed true that the Dutch masters’ dark background makes Chase’s subject appear nearly three dimensional. The collar and “Puritan-like” hat also suggest his Dutch models. But what strikes the viewer today is how starkly “modern” the pose and attitude of the woman is. She is seen from nearly her back, and she turns to look at the artist/viewer. Her manner of putting on her glove shows complete assurance as does her confident gaze. The size of the work (53½ x 33½”) makes it more imposing and emphasizes the “equality” of the modern woman. It is a work that also underscores the elegance of the modern upper middle class at the beginning of the Gilded Age in America, a theme that Chase would perfect for his commissioned (and other) portraits. It would make him a well-to-do artist.

3. Unexpected Intrusion (The Turkish Page). Oil on canvas. 1876. Cincinnati Art Museum.

3. Unexpected Intrusion (The Turkish Page). Oil on canvas. 1876. Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Boy Smoking (The Apprentice) (#2) shows a path that Chase could have pursued, but ultimately did not. Together with Impudence (The Leader) (1875, now at the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts), the canvas consists of a sympathetic portrayal of a young working class teenager, not very much different from Chase himself not even a decade before, when he clerked for his father at a shoe store in Indianapolis. Much like the woman in Ready for the Ride, the Boy Smoking shows a person of (perhaps misplaced) confidence, and no attempt is made to patronize him, even though it is clear that he comes from an entirely different world than the one Chase now aspired to. Of particular interest are the soiled hands of the boy, one holding a cigar, the other a clay jug. They are the hands destined for a lifetime of work, unlike the gloved hands of the woman in Ready for the Ride. But unlike the peasants in the paintings of the contemporary Barbizon school, Chase’s young worker is neither bowed over nor humble. Perhaps this is a particularly American view. But Chase was more concerned about new art for America than making any kind of political or sociological statements.

Chase never pursued portraits of commoners beyond his student days. It seems he only painted the likes of Boy Smoking because he was working with models together with fellow American student Frank Duveneck, with whom he shared a studio in Munich and who would become a noted American figure painter in his own right. The two often split the cost of a young model and his costumes and painted the same figure. The most famous of their joint sessions produced Chase’s Unexpected Intrusion (The Turkish Page) (#3). With that painting Chase showed not only that he fully learned the lessons in technique that the Munich Royal Academy stressed but also that he was moving beyond its preferred dark palette. It captures a surprising moment when the (stuffed?) cockatoo lands on a bowl of grapes which spill onto the carpet covering the legs of the boy. The picture combines a variety of surfaces from the fabrics of the carpet and background screen, the feathers of the bird’s wings and crest, the skin of the boy (both torso and feet bottoms) and the metal neck chain on the boy and the chain binding the parrot’s feet to the metal ringed perch. Various shades of red dominate the scene from the darker red of his cap and slippers, to the lighter carpet to the pink tinge of the bird. These reds are offset by the dark bluish green of the background curtain. But what makes the picture memorable is how it seems to capture a fleeting moment, not only by the outspread wings of the cockatoo but also by the posture of the boy.


4. “Keying Up”—The Court Jester. Oil on canvas. 1875. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.


The student picture, however, that brought Chase his first fame in America was earlier than either Ready for the Ride or Unexpected Intrusion, and like the latter traded in the exotic and even more than Unexpected Intrusion is drenched in red. The painting display a humorous sensibility that would rarely be seen after Chase’s student days. The diminutive jester pours himself a glass of spirits while his look-alike puppet watches. Both sport the telltale alcoholic red on their long noses and prominent cheeks. Both are similarly dressed, and Chase pays especial attention to the caps with their bells. The curved mustaches on both add to their humorous appearance. Like all Chase portraits, and indeed almost all Chase works, the painting elaborately renders surfaces from the polished wood of the gargoyle-like head carvings on the dark wooden cabinet behind him to the different fabrics of his costume and slippers, to the glass bottle he holds.

“Keying Up” was entered in the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and won a gold medal. In many ways it was that show that marked the turning point in American art. The celebration of the second century of the country emphasized urbanization, mechanization and technological and social change. The art show featured works from American students from Paris and Munich, and the styles of both fundamentally subverted the underlying assumptions of prevailing American art. That art was mostly expressed by the Hudson River School. (For a sample of this style, see this post on Albert Bierstadt.) The paintings were largely of outdoor scenes, usually of breathtaking scope and often of monumental landscape features (mountains, waterfalls, lakes). The works were not so subtly “patriotic,” depicting a view of America involving a destiny conjoined with the land, rural and wild. (Sometimes the works were more or less explicitly political, as in the works lending support to the Union cause.) This vision of destiny had moral undertones, and so the art dedicated to it was awe-inspiring, reverential and, frankly, static as a result. And most characteristic of all, people had very little place in these works. When they were portrayed, they appeared small, in the distance and overwhelmed by the landscape. American students educated in either Paris or Munich could not help but reject all the underlying assumptions of the Hudson River artists. This was particularly true of those who were influenced by the anti-academic movements in Paris. (Chase saw these influences indirectly through the Leibl-Kreis.) As for the American art-consuming public, located east of the Mississippi and north of the old confederacy and becoming predominantly urban and wealthier than ever before, the rural and awe-inspiring nature no longer held their attention. Money was being made in cities and in industry, and the intellectuals who thrived during the Gilded Age would emphasize individualism, secular optimism and the possibilities of change. Chase and his fellow “rebels” had the attitude and technique to replace the prevailing style whose rules had become calcified into the rules of the academy. The critics were quick to extol Chase, and the popular press echoed the encomiums.5

New York Studio Artist

10. Tenth Street Studio. Oil on canvas. ca. 1880-81 and ca. 1910. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

5. Tenth Street Studio. Oil on canvas. ca. 1880-81 and ca. 1910. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

When Chase burst upon the New York scene in 1878 (he was 29 at the time), he had fixed ideas of how he was to make an impact—his flamboyant art was to be part of a flamboyant life. For six years Chase had immersed himself in pure aesthetic devotion, and, cut off from America, he had become something unknown on these shores: a practicing aesthete, and an evangelical one at that. Nothing could be further from his his upbringing in a Midwestern family desperately trying to claw its way into an economically secure and respectable status. None of this would have come about but for Chase’s time abroad.

Chase ended up studying in Munich by a series of contingencies. His father wanted him to remain in Indianapolis to help him in his barely profitable shoe store.6 But to mollify a disinterested young “Will,” his father paid for lessons from a local portrait and still life painter. Chase, however, was so restless that he ran away and joined the navy. It didn’t take long for him to regret the decision, and he had his father travel to Annapolis to secure his release from service. Chase returned to Indianapolis, where he clerked and again studied, this time being given a studio to work in. Soon, however, Chase was able to persuade his father, with the help of another local artist who counseled him, that he had serious prospects as an artist if he could study in New York. In 1869 20 year-old Chase travelled to New York and enrolled in the National Academy of Design (where J. Alden Weir and Albert Pinkham Ryder would be his classmates). The following year his father’s business closed, and Chase’s funds ran out. So he returned to his family, who had then moved to St. Louis. It was there that he developed sufficiently as an artist that a group of local businessmen struck a deal to underwrite two years of study in Europe in exchange for a painting by Chase for each one and services as an agent to procure likely European art for them. This offer changed his life. He was acutely aware of how significant training in the world’s best painting centers would be to his career, and his response to the offer was “My God! I’d rather go to Europe than go to heaven!”

When Chase arrived in Europe he selected Munich rather than Paris for study, not only because he knew Americans who studied there, but also (possibly because of the Midwestern work ethic instilled in him) to avoid the distractions that Paris would offer. Germany was in the first flush of its race to European cultural legitimacy following its overwhelming defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian war. In Munich Chase would room with, first, Walter Shirlaw and later with Duveneck. When the funds from his St. Louis deal ran out, Piloty commissioned him to paint his children and assisted him in selling certain canvases. With the funds he received he travelled to Venice with Duveneck and Thwachtman. It was during this time that Chase developed the habit of living beyond his means. As his funds ran out, he continued buying art and various objects that he intended to fill a studio with. He became a compulsive aesthete, convincing himself that “beauty” was the most important objective. Fortunately his friends financed his basic needs until until he was able to return to New York. He had accepted (tamping down his strong ambivalence) a teaching position in New York at the Art Students League, a decision that allowed him to set up a first class studio.

6. The Inner Studio, Tenth Street. Oil on canvas. 1882. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, California.

6. The Inner Studio, Tenth Street. Oil on canvas. 1882. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, California.

Back in New York Chase believed his most important task was to secure a prestigious studio. He was able to rent a small studio (15′ x 20′) in the famous Tenth Street Studio, the first commercial building designed to house artists, located between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, which housed studios of America’s most prominent artists. Chase, however, had his eyes on the large two-story studio, originally designed as an exhibition space, but recently occupied by Albert Bierstadt. To the annoyance of the more established artists, who believed their greater fame and longer residence entitled them to priority, Chase obtained the studio and symbolically replaced arguably the most famous Hudson River School painter in America.

The large studio would become the place where Chase worked, a subject of numerous paintings and the center of his self-promotional energies. During his student days Chase concentrated on works in which he could paint a model costumed elaborately and surrounded by visually interesting objects. Chase therefore filled his studio with objets d’art, bric-à-brac and other decorations. The studio itself became the background in many works. Tenth Street Studio (#5), begun in the early 1880s and completed some three decades later, not only shows how he used the studio in his paintings but also symbolically reveals his view of art itself. The painting has two visitors inspecting a painting in the middle of a long wall of the studio filled with paintings and other objects including a large stuffed swan. Two others are seated on the left looking at sketches on a table. But none of the four figures are completed, and their faces are obscure. In fact, it is only the paintings and other artistic objects that are clearly rendered in detail. Although schooled in European realism, Chase makes the point that it is art that is “real.” Indeed, in all his early studio paintings Chase drives home the idea that art is valuable in itself, and that he himself is a prophet of that belief.

The Inner Studio (#6) shows another art devotee, this one perhaps more serious than the visitors in the later Tenth Street Studio (#5). Like a temple with its inner sanctum, Chase’s studio has an Inner Studio, and here the model, back to us, closely studies a framed painting, while a matted picture lays on the floor to her left. There is a gold bowl to her right. The things surrounding her represent the tools of this priestcraft, things prepare the soul to enter the mysteries of the world of artistic beauty.

7. Tenth Street Studio. Oil on canvas. 1880. St. Louis Art Museum.

7. Tenth Street Studio. Oil on canvas. 1880. St. Louis Art Museum. St. Louis, Missouri.

The 1880 Tenth Street Studio (#7) makes a somewhat different point. Beauty and luxury and elegance are, for Chase, intimately related. This is true for the artist as well as the art patron. Chase could not fail to understand the interrelations of these qualities is what attracted the wealthy patrons that were his market. The studio itself was something of a gallery in which he could display his works to the select public (e.g., #5). The more attractive and engaging the space, the more of a luxurious atmosphere it surrounded the visitor with, the more likely it was that the visitor would wish to purchase a painting or commission a portrait. But it was probably was not entirely a marketing ploy; “art atmosphere” meant something to him. Yet his beliefs mereged with a kind branding that came natural to Chase, who was not hesitant to make decisions that might enhance his fame and marketability. He joined all the important artistic associations in New York and founded others in order to associate himself with energetic and like-minded artists. He became a friend of most of the important intermediaries in the art world, first the publishers of art journals and books and later the curators of the major galleries and museums. The studio provided space for social and cultural events he sponsored. He held open houses on Saturdays. And he frequently had his students to his studio for a variety of lessons, not the least of which was to inculcate them with his view of the place of art in society and how to approach it. The studio accommodated every part of Chase’s life, and Chase’s life was consumed by the quest for elegance, style and beauty. He became almost a caricature of the new artists, who could only exist in this new, urban and increasingly prosperous America. And while he courted the New York elite, he did so to draw them into his own world, a world where everything was involved with art, a world entirely like the old, rural, pre-industrial America.

8. May I Come In?. Pastel on canvas. 1886, Collection of W. & E. Clark.

8. May I Come In?. Pastel on canvas. 1886, Collection of W. & E. Clark.

For Chase the studio was where art was made.That statement seems unremarkable now, but in the late 1870s it marked a new kind of artist and also drastically different subjects for art. Aside from portraits (mostly uninspired likenesses designed as mere memorial keepsakes), American art American art was about Nature, often wild and untamed, but sometimes in harmony with frontier and rural folk who have barely tamed it. American artists worshipped at the altar of Nature; painters were Nature’s celebrants and painting its ritual. To properly capture the essence of Nature, artists painted outdoors. And therefore the outdoors were the painter’s studio; indoors, where paintings were finished, were simply workshops. Inspiration was obtained by personally experiencing the beauty of the natural world, and the artists’ job was to communicate that awe and wonder through representational (if overly romantic) pictures.

Unlike the artists who occupied the field of American art before those of Chase’s generation returned from Europe, Chase believed that art itself is what the painter owed his allegiance to. The previous generation worshipped Nature and believed art celebrated it: painters were Nature’s celebrants and painting its ritual. And therefore the outdoors were the painter’s studio; indoors, where paintings were finished, were simply workshops. Inspiration was obtained by personally experiencing the beauty of the natural world, and the artists’ job was to communicate that awe and wonder through realistic (if romantic) pictures.

Chase, above all his generation in America, promoted the new European view that Art existed for its own sake, not to represent a higher ideal. Nature was not the exclusive, or even primary object of Art, and artists did not have to commune with it for experience. In fact, in the early 1880s he told his fellow aesthetes at the Tile Club that even if one painted landscapes it should be done in the studio:

“The proper way to paint a landscape is in the studio, far from the thing itself. You must simply look at a scene you are going to paint, observe the detail, saturate yourself with it. Then you have the spirit within you and can paint it later under ideal conditions, taking plenty of time to work it up to perfection.”7

Indeed for Chase, the studio was the center of art-making. It not only provided the props for works and a convenient place for models to pose or patrons to be painted, it also, and more importantly, generated the inspiration for his work. And for that reason it had to be filled with beautiful objects. In a 1906 lecture at the New York School of Art Chase ascribed to their studios the inspiration that the Old Masters displayed: “the secret of the success of the old masters … was their environments—and it was this influence that helped to produce their great works. It is really that in art that counts and it was this kind of art atmosphere that was of importance.”8 This belief drove Chase’s need to acquire “beautiful things,” and that in turn drove him to live beyond his means, a habit he never really conquered even once he had a large family to support. His first biographer Katherine Roof (at 254) said, “No man ever lived more completely in the atmosphere and the idea of art than Chase did.”

9. In the Studio. Oil on canvas. ca. 1881 or 1882. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

9. In the Studio. Oil on canvas. ca. 1881 or 1882. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

That Chase justified his need for an “art atmosphere” by reference to the Old Masters was not simply rationalization. His view of beauty was deeply rooted in the tradition of Western Art that went back to the Baroque. His two points of reference throughout his career were the Northern European (particularly Dutch) art of the seventeenth century and the collection of the Prado, especially Velázquez. Chase saw his own art as part of that tradition and often harkened back to the originators in his composition, treatment of light, posing of models and so forth. Although he could not articulate it clearly, Chase’s view of “beauty,” what it constituted, what objects possessed it, how to show it, was not a mere solipsism, but rather a view supported by deep study of the past. And often in his works he made allusion to that past. The early work In the Studio (#9), for example, is another picture of a richly clad devotee of beauty studying art while surrounded by objects selected and arranged by Chase. In nearly the very center of the painting is a framed etching of “Malle Babbe” by the Dutch master (or student of) Frans Hals, one of Chase’s favorites. The reference has interest beyond the mere statement that Chase’s art is part of that traditon, for the painting by Hals is of a subject not conventionally beautiful. Its inclusion states that the beauty in art is in the technique and execution, not the subject.

By surrounding himself with his version of beauty Chase made his studio nationally famous. It became the emblem of eccentric artistic genius and regularly appeared (and sometimes was satirized) in fiction, such as Esther by Henry Adams, The Coast of Bohemia by William Dean Howells, The Third Violet by Stephen Crane, The Other Fellow and Tile Club Stories by F. Hopkinson Smith, and even after his death in The “Genius” by Theodore Dreiser. And it frequently was discussed in the art journals. It was said to be a place that aspiring artists and artists of all sorts from outside of New York City made a pilgrimage. All of this gave Chase an added layer of celebrity, and in trying to enhance it, his religion of aestheticism led him into foppery, dandyism and, frankly, embarrassing and offensive behavior. Not only did he fill his office with pottery, elaborate furniture, Japanese umbrellas, old books, fabrics, fans, tapestries, brass pots, glazed glass objects, costumes and the like, he kept a cockatoo, 10 macaws and a Russian wolfhound and another dog. He forced his African-American servant Daniel to dress in exotic outfits when serving guests, and he often would strut through Manhattan with ridiculous affectation:

“He walked down Fifth Avenue dressed as an elegant Parisian art student with his Russian wolfhound and Daniel in tow wearing his Nubian costume. Chase wore a narrow, flat-brimmed French silk hat and a soft tie, both highly unconventional, as well as several rings from his growing collection. Chase ‘the cosmopolitan’ appeared sophisticated and cultured to the rich and the well-born.” (Bryant, at 68.)9

In the end, however, the affectations did not pay for the show, or perhaps Chase’s excesses were too much for the revenue of his patrons. While he maintained the studio through 1895, when he auctioned its contents (including many of his own paintings) in January 1896 he received only a fraction of their purchase price (Bryant, at 173). Although he would maintain more modest studios thereafter for portrait commissions, he had transitioned from nineteenth century hipster to establishment academician by that point. Before then Chase would make his mark on American art in a couple of other ways.

Portrait Artist Extraordinaire

10. An Idle Moment (also At Her Ease or Study of a Young Girl.). Oil on canvas. ca. 1884. National Academy of Design, New York City.

10. An Idle Moment (also At Her Ease or Study of a Young Girl). Oil on canvas. ca. 1884. National Academy of Design, New York City.

Chase’s principal claim to early fame and his most reliable source of income from his art came by way of his portrait paintings. Not long after he returned to New York City from Munich, he was regularly given official commissions for prestige portrait projects.10 By and large Chase’s portraits of men intended to promote their official or institutional capacity (including formal family roles like pater familias) and seem stiffly formal or out-of-date today. Many of Chase’s paintings of women, by contrast, reveal personality while also conveying a sense of style and elegance. Chase’s interest in figure painting, of course, went back to his original interest in art in Indiana, and his studies in Munich concentrated on figures (as well as still lifes). Even during his first stay in New York in 1869-70, while studying at the National Academy of Design, Chase was accomplished enough to obtain commissions for portraits. But over his career his portraits of girls and women seemed to have gained strength mainly by his interest in composition and the poses of the subject in addition to his mastery of the textures of clothing and accessories.

From his student days (e.g., ##1–2) Chase had a flair for discovering poses that illustrated an attitude. That talent only improved when he began his annual trips to Europe to meet with contemporary artists and study unfamiliar old masters beginning in 1881. That particular summer proved highly influential to Chase’s career, for he met arguably Europe’s three most prominent painters of women of high society and began a close study of the golden age artist who would inform his portrait technique. During two weeks in Paris in the early summer fellow Art Students League teacher James Carroll Beckwith introduced him to his teacher Carolus-Duran and arranged a lunch with American expatriate John Singer Sargent. Returning to Paris in September he met Belgian impressionist Alfred Stevens at his studio. That meeting had a substantial effect on Chase. Stevens had seen Chase’s The Smoker (his portrait of Duvaneck, an etching of which preceded the first Van Rensselaer article [linked below]), which had received honorable mention at the Paris Salon that year. Stevens advised Chase to lighten his palette from the dark values preferred by the Munich school. He also urged Chase to strike off on his own and not attempt to recapture the forms and techniques of the old masters. Chase seems to have almost immediately followed the former advice (as can be seen by comparing #9 with #7 among the “studio” piictures). But Chase had more difficulty with the second recommendation, especially because he had spent the time between his two trips to Paris that year in Madrid and he fell under the influence of Velázquez. He would spend five weeks again in Madrid with his friend Robert Blum (producing drawings for Scribner’s) the following year, and Velázquez remained under the Spaniard’s thrall for the rest of career as a portrait painter. (In 1894 he named his fifth daughter Helen Velasquez.)

11. Portrait of Mrs. C (Alice Gerson Chase). Oil on canvas. ca. 1890-95. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

11. Portrait of Mrs. C (Alice Gerson Chase). Oil on canvas. ca. 1890-95. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Chase’s reliance on old masters, particularly in his portraits, probably served a number of purposes. In the first place, Chase undoubtedly saw it as an homage, and perhaps also a way to influence American art to incorporate and become part of the broad European art tradition. Quite frequently he would borrow poses from the masters. Chase’s intriguing picture of his wife, Portrait of Mrs. C. (#11), is an example, for it is clearly based on Van Dyck’s portrait of the one-armed Flemish artist The Painter Martin Ryckaert (ca. 1631, Prado, Madrid). Not only is the composition nearly identical in both (with the seated figure occupying nearly the entire frame), but their postures in the chair are also strikingly similar. Moreover, Chase costumed his wife in a way to recall the earlier picture, with a heavy coat amd fur lining. They both even sport unusual and colorful caps. But the uncanny treatment is how Chase had her throw the left arm of the coat over her side to mimic the empty sleeve of the one-armed artist. And finally the subjects in both portraits stare directly forward. What makes both portraits fascinating is how the ambiguous expression of both requires the viewer to ponder what the subject is thinking and to decide to what extent he will participate in that contemplation.

12. Lydia Field Emmet. Oil on cavas. ca. 1892. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

12. Lydia Field Emmet. Oil on canvas. ca. 1892. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

Chase turned to Van Dyck again for the pose of his student, who acted as model in Lydia Field Emmet (#12). Left arm akimbo, she looks over her shoulder from a reverse, three-quarter view just as does the younger brother in Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart (ca. 1638, National Gallery, London). The subdued palette of the composition probably was under the influence of Whistler, who Chase grew to greatly admire. In fact, the scheme as well as the overall composition is similar to Whistler’s Arrangement in Black & Brown: The Fur Jacket (ca. 1876, Worcester Art Museum, Worcester, Massachusetts). It is the dress’s trimmings and the long ribbon that flows down her back onto the floor that makes Chase’s work distinct from that of Whistler, who was not aiming to achieve the effect of “eloquence” which was Chase’s main goal.

On another occasion Chase subverted one of Whistler’s experiments in An Idle Moment (#10). The work Chase played off of was Whistler’s most famous compositional  experiment, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: The Artist’s Mother (1871, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). Chase starts with the basic compositional framework of Whistler, a nonsymmetrical view of a woman in a chair facing perpendicular to the viewer. He then subverts most of the other elements. In the first place Chase’s sitter is very young, whereas Whistler’s is old. Whistler’s mother sits very formally and rigidly, whereas Chase’s lounges to relax. Whistler’s mother wears an old-fashioned cap, but Chase’s model’s hair pours out in a very modern manner. It is the color scheme, however, where the greatest divergence is noticed. Whistler employs his customary and restricted palette, emphasizing darker values. Chase, by contrast, employs flamboyant reds to envelop the velvety black dress the model is wearing. The combination turns Whistler’s staid formal “arrangement” into a lively expression of youthful luxury.

13, James Abbott MacNeill Whistler. Oil on canvas. 1885. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

13. James Abbott MacNeill Whistler. Oil on canvas. 1885. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

Whistler would remain a fascination for Chase for the rest of his life. In his last two decades Chase gave talks on Whistler, much to the latter’s annoyance. He wrote (in “The Two Whistler’s” linked below) that his fascination took hold while at the Prado: “Every Velasquez seemed to suggest Whistler … .” So he resolved to meet him, but it took several failed attempts before he gathered the nerve to introduce himself to the notoriously caustic and unpredictable egoist. To his surprise upon meeting him in the summer of 1885, Whistler was charming and solicitous of Chase’s regard. Eventually, however, Whistler became smothering and grew increasingly annoying, and Chase sought to escape his grip. So avoid losing Chase Whistler proposed that they each paint the other. Whistler painted Chase in his plodding meticulous fashion, causing Chase to stand well into the evening for many days. That painting has since disappeared. Chase’s painting of Whistler, however, is at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (but now in the Chase exhibition at the MFA).

Chase portrayed the “public” Whistler, who he characterized as “the fop, the cynic, the brilliant, flippant, vain, and careless idler …” (and this was written by a painter who had his “man” dress as a “Nubian” on Fifth Avenue). Emphasizing his proportionately too large walking stick, Chase painted him as he described him: “a dainty, sprightly little man, immaculate in spotless linen and perfect-fitting broadcloth. He wore yellow gloves and carried his wand lightly in his hand. He seemed inordinately proud of his small feet and slender waist; his slight imperial and black mustache were carefully waxed; his monocle was indispensable.” As for his personality: “He took no one and nothing seriously; he was sublimely egotistical, and seemed to delight in parading his conceit. He was trivial, careless, brilliantly and smilingly careless.” Chase even painted the small shock of white hair which Whistler carefully ironed and curled at a mirror before presenting himself to the public. Of course, Chase had a dramatically different view of the artist Whistler, who he admired and defended the rest of his life.  But the painting was of the public Whister. And Whistler saw only maliciousness in the portrait. He complained to The World (October 15, 1886): “How dared he, Chase, do this wicked thing?—and I who was charming and made him beautiful on canvas—the Masher of the Avenues.” The two never reconciled.

14. Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler. Oil on canvas. 1883. Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio.

14. Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler. Oil on canvas. 1883. Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio.

15. Portrait of Mrs. C. (Lady with a White Shawl). Oil on canvas. 1893. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Constraints of space (and your patience) prevent comments on the many highlights of the gallery containing the Chase portraits. I will even skip over the one that Chase himself regarded as his best portrait: Portrait of Lady C. (Lady with a White Shawl) (#15). Instead I will treat an earlier portrait, one that deserves especial note, because it marked such a turning point in Chase’s career, and it too had a connection with Whistler. The painting is Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler (#14). The work is one of his first major portraits, and one that Chase evidently designed for exhibition, for it was not commissioned nor even painted in his own studio. Dora Wheeler was Chase’s first private student in New York and a pioneer as a woman in fine art. Her mother founded Associated Artists, a firm of women who produced high quality needlework and decorative textiles for the same strata of patrons that Chase was looking to see oils. Dora’s mother realized the limitations a woman artist of the time labored under without instruction, so she sent her for instruction to Chase (who taught her along with Lydia Emmet (#12)), then to the Art Students League and finally for two years to the Académie Julian in Paris.

Chase was unusually progressive in supporting women in fine arts. He not only taught them the same way he taught men (including with nude models), but he also bought their paintings. He considered Wheeler talented enough that he made a concerted effort to support her. The portrait, painted in her own studio, is of an artist, not a mere prop in a studio full of fineries. He gives her the seriousness of a professional rather than an idealized figure, a fact that the American reviewer for Magazine of Art highly objected to: “The first necessity of a portrait from the point of view of art is, of course, not that it should be resemblance, but that it should be agreeable, and agreeable this portrait certainly is not.” But of course “agreeableness” is in the eye of the beholder, and Chase was ahead of his time in in his view of the proper role of women, at least in art. Unlike Chase’s earlier studio paintings (e.g., ##6, 7, 9), Wheeler is not a mere decoration; she is fully the center of attention and dominates the scenery. Nor is she painted as a figure of “elegance.” Her face is serious, but she makes no effort to display her hands or even slippered feet in a graceful manner:

“Miss Wheeler may be the most forceful, dispassionate study of personality Chase would ever produce; her closest affinities are with the penetrating psychology of Thomas Eakins’ female portraits of the late 1880s rather than with the fluffy inconsequence of debutantes at the 10th Street Studio. Intelligent eyes, frank in confrontation beneath vast, careless brows; a long, distinctive nose; an angular chin, wispy curls low on the forehead, refusing the discipline of elegant coiffure—these are not the attributes of conventional beauty. Even the placement of the feet and hands bespeaks a woman whose demand for recognition is premised upon individual qualities.” (Marlin, at 47.)

16. I Think I am Ready Now (The Mirror, The Pink Dress). Oil on canvas. ca. 1883. Private collection.

The rest of the composition surrounds and supports her with the kind of eloquence that Chase (and Wheeler) believed comported with Gilded Age aesthetics. Her English revival chair and the taboret to her right allow Chase to show his ability to represent carved and polished wood. Meanwhile the vase provides the reflective surface that Chase liked to depict. The color scheme of the work uses hues of the three primary colors, with the vase and her dress dominated by blue, the carpet red and the background drapery and daffodils yellow. (Oddly, Chase once admitted that he had difficulty with flowers, and in fact he rarely painted them.) It is with that background hanging that Chase lets loose his bravura brush strokes, producing swirling yellow background around the flowers and throughout. The curtain sports an oriental effect with its waterfowl, dragonflies, butterflies and the cat within a swirl of yellow. The butterfly and the cat, perhaps performing the function of a colophon, may be tributes to Whistler.

Chase entered the Wheeler painting in the Internationale Kunstaustellung in Munich, and despite the reaction of the American reviewer was awarded a gold medal by the jury. After that the work was hung in the Paris Salon, the same one that saw Whistler’s Arrangement/Portrait of his mother. William Milliken has opined that the Wheeler portrait is the principal basis for Chase’s European fame.

It was in his portraits, especially in the commissioned ones, that Chase continued to freely indulge his belief that art was, in essence, simply technique, something he already showed in his studio genre works. The portraits, however, were less populated with objects on which Chase could lavish his brushwork. Nevertheless, Chase always dressed his subjects in finely worked fabrics and furs often with other accessories. Chase could then concentrate on rendering lace, ribbons, stitching and texture with intricate care. Despite criticisms he received that his attention to surface at the expense of story or theme or concept made his art superficial, he maintained as late as an interview in 1899 that technique is the eloquence of art and that “[w]hatever success I may have attained comes from my love of art for art’s sake only” (Brant, at 126 & 128). So, to the extent that the Wheeler portrait represented a turning point, the turn came not so much in portraits (which, after all, depended on client patronage) but in his new field, impressionism-influenced outdoor paintings.

Outdoors: From Europe to New York Parks

 Chase had almost no formal training in landscapes. While studying in Munich, however, Duveneck discovered a picturesque retreat in the Bavarian Alps in a town named Polling about 25 miles to the south. In 1875 he, Shirlaw and Chase rented an abandoned monastery there, where they could paint pictures of country life. The students hired peasants to pose, and they had access to sheep and cattle for their work. Chase’s few paintings there were heavily influenced by Corot (whose work he was familiar with from his annual visits to Paris and the French art periodicals he acquired in Munich) and the atmospheric effects of Currier (the American landscape painter who was a fellow student at the time). Like all of Chase’s work at the time, the paintings were technically accomplished, but unlike his figure paintings, showed little originality.

17. Venice. Oil on canvas. 1877. Oklahoma city Art Museum, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

17. Venice. Oil on canvas. 1877. Oklahoma City Art Museum, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

In 1877  Chase spent nearly a year with Duveneck and Twachtman in Venice. But he doesn’t seem to have taken advantage of the light, water, buildings and subtropical effects of the city and environs to an optimum extent. Many of the works, such as Venice (#17), seem to have been painted from inside his apartment. This may have been owing to the serious illness (perhaps malaria) he contracted while there. Nevertheless, Chase began exploring outdoor subjects and effects. Venice is a careful treatment of the effect of sunlight on mineral and stone surfaces. The composition places the flower pots on the balcony at the center of our attention, and they, together with the brightness of the reflection, almost make us miss the woman leaning out of the window in the upper left corner.

Chase’s small outdoor painting In Venice (#18) is somewhat remarkable given that the composition prefigured later work by Sargent and Renoir in Venice. The painting, though relatively small (8 x 13″), allowed Chase to capture differing effects of sunlight on the two sides of buildings as well as on the water before them. The restricted and muted color palette is broken with an exclamation point of red on the hat of the gondola rider in the center. All of this is done with the same easy brushstroke that he employed in Venice and that was commonplace in his figure paintings. It was thus a step forward from his work in Polling.

18. In Venice. Oil on canvas. ca. 1877. Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, Rhode Island.

18. In Venice. Oil on canvas. ca. 1877. Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence, Rhode Island.

After Chase returned to New York City in 1878, he not only neglected landscapes, he also actively promoted the idea that the artist’s proper role was in the studio, as we saw. This was all part of his effort to replace the Hudson River School with his view of Art for Art’s Sake vision of American art. But his views on outdoor painting began to change when he started his annual summer trips to Europe to inform himself of new developments. In the sumer of 1882, during his stay in Madrid he began outdoor painting again, perhaps attracted to the very bright Madrid sun. (No example of this work is in the MFA exhibition.) It was in 1883 that Chase began the transformation that turned him into a master landscape painter of the new school.

19. A Bit of Holland MNeadows (A Bit of Green in Holland). Pastel on paper. 1883. Parrish Art Museum.

19. A Bit of Holland Meadows (A Bit of Green in Holland). Pastel on paper. 1883. Parrish Art Museum, Water Mill, New York.

Chase’s work in Holland in 1883 was connected the  proposed exhibition of the Society of Painters in Pastel, an organization he founded in 1882 with Blum and Beckwith. The medium had become “legitimized” by such European artists as Mary Cassatt, Edgar Degas and Whistler. Chase undoubtedly familiarized himself with their works before working with the medium in Holland. One such painting is included in the MFA exhibit, A Bit of Holland Meadows (#18). The color is remarkably bold for a Chase landscape at the time. It is as much a turning point for Chase as was the Wheeler portrait (#14) completed the same year. As with the portrait, in the pastel landscape Chase began conceiving of composition as something more than a way for him to display treatment of unusual and different surfaces. Indeed much of A Bit of Holland Meadows is occupied with relatively undifferentiated surface. This too may be traced to Chase’s principal influence in the Wheeler portrait—Whistler. Pisano (1993, at 6) notes the similarity between Chase’s Holland pastel and Whistler’s 1866 seascape Symphony in Grey and Green: The Ocean (Frick Collection, New York), particularly the “sparseness of detail the asymmetrical composition, and the flat decorative patterning … .” The paintings even have similar leaf designs on the right; Whistler’s comes from the bottom, presumably from a bush on the land above the shore where the viewer is standing, while Chase’s comes from the top from a tree. In Whistler’s work of the time the leafy branch acted as something of a colophon derived from Japanese prints. Both works also involve a high horizon line and vast expanses of green, although Whistler’s is much paler than Chase’s. The brushwork in Chase’s midground (where no individual clumps of grass can be seen) is very much like a watercolor, and it may have been influenced by the Hague School watercolorists, which Chase must have seen at the time. Another Whistler that may ave informed Chase’s approach, one closer in time to Chase’s composition and also in pastel, is San Biagio: Flesh Colour and Grey (1880, Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, Winchester, Virginia), painted in Venice, which could have been of especial interest to Chase. I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to discover the similarities and differences.

20. At the Shore. OIL on canvas. ca. 1884. Private collection.

20. At the Shore. Oil on canvas. ca. 1884. Private collection.

By the following summer Chase’s approach to landscapes was undergoing a remarkable change. While more attention was paid to composition, at the same time, Chase was simplifying the other elements. A good starting point is At the Shore (#20), painted sometime between 1882 and 1884. The work is very bright for Chase in this period, and this perhaps is the lingering effect of his Madrid experience. The brushwork has become as assured, bordering on bravura (especially with the ocean foam, sand, flags and canvas tops), as his studio work. His rapid sketching of persons gives the impression of a casual glance, and while the work contains quite a few people, the composition does not look crowded, largely owing to how the shore divides the composition in two and the structures recede into the background (along a line perpendicular to the shoreline). What is striking about the work, however, is the large area devoted to a sky with striking blue mixed with clouds. The horizon (on which we see steam ships adding to the mix of the sky) curves upward much like the curve of the canvas atop the boat in the foreground. The composition is cleverly designed but not as simplified as it would soon become.

21. Coast of Holland. Oil on canvas. 1884. Frye Art Museum, Seattle, Washington.

When Chase painted in Holland in the summer of 1884, he produced two major works which pointed toward his future direction, both are in the exhibition. One, Sunlight and Shadow (Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska), experiments with dappled sunlight and compositionally resembles the later family genre painting Open Air Breakfast (ca. 1886, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio). Both those exhibited works are fairly famous, so I will leave it to the links if you wish further comment.11

The painting that most clearly shows Chase’s future direction is Coast of Holland (#21). Like A Bit of Holland MeadowsCoast of Holland has a large expanse of “empty” space in the fore- and midground as well as a high horizon. A line of posts supporting a wire fence leads the eye in a curved fashion from the left edge towards the matter of interest in the background (in this case a sea churned by the strong winds, evidenced by the three flags along the water’s edge). Two heavily clad figures can be seen on the left, but what they are doing is not clear. In fact, their presence is somewhat superfluous. The general plan of composition as well as the green and brown color scheme of the land will be seen in the landscapes Chase would paint at Shinnecock about seven years later.

22. End of the Season. Pastel on board. ca. 1884 or 1885. Mt. Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Massachusetts.

22. End of the Season. Pastel on board. ca. 1884 or 1885. Mt. Holyoke College Art Museum, South Hadley, Massachusetts.

After his return to New York Chase tried a seaside picture, and once again by using pastel he created an astonishing composition, perhaps the most clever work he ever created, considered solely from that point of view, End of the Season (#22). Once again a sandy green-brown land occupies much of the bottom of the small picture (13¾ x 17¾”). The sea then makes a very high horizon. In this case, however, the expanse of sandy grass and scrub vegetation is not empty; rather, the field is filled with empty tables with their chairs turned on them. The line of tables and chairs (which form an interesting cross-hatch pattern) curve around to the place where the last vacationing visitor is looking–towards men grappling with a sailboat. The end of summer is indicated not only by the upended chairs but also by the coat worn by the visitor. A calm sense of wistfulness is conveyed by the painting at the same time that it is pleasantly (if conventionally) colorful.

It is curious that so many of Chase’s experiments, like End of the Season, took place in pastel. Perhaps the nature of the medium restricted his easy brushwork and required more concentration. Perhaps because it did not allow him to dwell on intricate surface detail, he devoted his attention to other elements. Or perhaps because the lighter palette it brought suggested to him different subjects and artistic models. The latter has some support when we look at his cityscapes with their impressionistic influence and lighter colors.

23. A City Park. Oil on canbas. ca. 1887. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.

23. A City Park. Oil on canvas. ca. 1887. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois.

From the late eighties to the early nineties Chase embarked on a genre that was new to America: outdoor scenes of city parks. American landscapes before this time were of course mainly of rural and wild settings. Urban metropolises were just arising in America, and the public park movement was only in its infancy. Frederick Law Olmsted had only designed Prospect Park in Brooklyn in 1865, Chase began painting urban park scenes around the time of his marriage in 1886, when he stopped his summer European travels to care for his young family. Many of the scenes involved his wife and first child, Alice (“Cosy”) Dieudonnée. There was thus practical reasons for him to turn his attention to landscapes near his new home. But there was an artistic incentive as well: In April 1886 a large exhibition of French Impressionism was mounted in New York City.

The French Impressionism show at the American Art Association, which opened on April 10, 1886, was a startling event for the staid and conservative art world of New York. Some American painters had engaged for some time in an informal version of Impressionism, without the strict attention to the underlying principles of the French movement. The American Art Association exhibition, however, was the real thing, with 300 items, including numerous paintings by Monet, Degas, Manet, Renoir, Pissarro and Seurat. Those reviewers most closely connected with the conservatives of the National Academy of Design roundly condemned the foreign painters. The New York Times chose supercilious condemnation:

“The 300 oil and pastel pictures ‘by the Impressionists of Paris’ belong to the category of art for art’s sake, which rouses in the public more mirth than a desire to possess it. Coming suddenly upon the crude colors and disdain of drawing, which are traits positive and negative in the works of Renoir and Pissarro, one is likely to catch the breath with surprise. Is this art? Surely a third-rate Scotch artist far behind Faed or Cameron would be ashamed of No. 178, ‘Fisherman’s Children,’ but his style would resemble that. Helpless American painters of the old Hudson River school might blush, if they could not model human figures better than Seurat in No. 170, ‘Bathing.’ Weak imitators of Holman Hunt would be truer in color than Flameng in his clouds, No. 285, ‘Wrecks at Bordeaux.’ The first feeling about such works as these is, what extraordinary impertinence on the part of the artists! It is like turning the wrong side of the stage flies to the audience; it is offering to the public work which has been prepared up to a certain point only. No wonder that people are indignant.  No wonder that artists who are not in sympathy with the undaunted band of Impressionists affirm, sometimes not without a round expletive, that they can turn out several such canvases every day in the week!”12

24. Thompkins Park, Brooklyn. Oil on canvas. 1887. Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle simply heaped ridicule and contempt on the art: “As a mark for ridicule the impressionist display has been a conspicuous success. Few have regarded it as other than a display of monstrosities and crankisms, and one artist writes to me that he went home from the show and proceeded to have a nightmare as soon as he had fallen asleep.”13 The more forward looking artists of Chase’s circle, however, greatly admired the works. Many of them already referred to some of their work as impressionistic, but they had not seen, until the New York show, the full extent to which the underlying principles of French impressionism could be taken. American impressionists would never fully employ the advances of the French artists in the exhibition. Chase, for example, did not believe in the “scientific” approach to light that some impressionists showed. Chase felt that such an analytical violated the principle of artistic inspiration, relying instead on a set of rules. Moreover, the approach of most French impressionists to brushwork was entirely inconsistent with the broad strokes that Chase had worked more than a decade to make effortless. Nevertheless, although Chase’s reaction to the show does not seem to have been recorded, it is clear that he rejected the blanket condemnations of the conservative press. In 1883 when Chase and Beckwith organized the Barholdi “Pedestal Fund Art Loan Exhibition” (to raise funds for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty), Chase was instrumental in bringing Manet and Degas painting to the event.

25. Park Bench. Oil on canvas. ca. 1890. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.

25. Park Bench. Oil on canvas. ca. 1890. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

To whatever extent the Impressionism show influenced Chase, it is clear that his park paintings represented a new and separate departure for him. Just in terms of the elements of the works, a novel and fairly consistent combination had taken hold. Chase framed views of small sections of well-maintained public spaces. Lawns and ornamental plants cover most of the space with buildings, if shown at all, off in the distance.  Figures inhabit the scenes but are almost never the focus of attention. These people are well-t0-do, expensively dressed Brooklynites or New Yorkers at leisure, often with their children. The compositions frequently emphasize lines that not only lead toward a vanishing point but also divide the picture into geometrically designed segments that are dominated by a particular color. The lines direct the eye to quickly survey the scene, which adds to the effect of a fleeting impression which the brushwork aims for.

Chase began this series of paintings in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, near his then home. After several years working there, in the spring of 1890 he was barred from painting in the Park by order of the Brooklyn Parks superintendent, much to the outrage of the local press.14 Chase unsuccessfully attempted to obtain a license that summer, so he chose to paint in New York’s Central Park thereafter. Some of his paintings in the Manhattan show recognizable man-made monuments or other enhancements. Four of these paintings were featured in an article in Harper’s Weekly in 1891.15 Some focus on common features in recognizable locations, such as Park Bench (#25). This last painting emphasizes the inert bench which dominates both the young woman sitting on it and the two sparrows she is watching.

Chase did not follow the French impressionists either in their experiments with light or with their experiments with colors. Moreover, Chase did not veer at all from realistic representation of figures and things. And Chase’s impressionism-influenced park paintings did not treat any of the grittier city scenes, but instead painted the city from a distance in its semi-natural parks. Nevertheless, the paintings were still attacked by conservative critics. The reviewer for the Art Amateur of an exhibition at the American Art Galleries praised Chase’s portraits but had little regard for the parkscapes, concluding that they showed ‘no traceable intention … but that of reproducing the scene as in a looking-glass, with the least possible expenditure of work.” He conceded that revealed a “discipline of eye and hand” but in the end found them to “have no depth of meaning, and their beauty is of the every-day sort … .”16

The MFA exhibition only has a small sample of the city park paintings, and in any event they tend to have a sameness to them. While they represent a step in the direction of European advances, the subject matter, visual frame, color palette and treatment and intended effect tended to fall into a pattern. Chase would defend this fact on the ground that technique, and not subject matter, is the point of art. Right at the beginning of the period he spent making city park paintings, however, he painted a genre work titled Washing Day: A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn (#26). Although in some ways similar to the park paintings, particularly with the clotheslines acting in the same way that lines of paths and park sections do to direct the viewers eye and create sections of the work, the painting shows a scene rarely attempted by Chase—a person at work. It is the sheets, though, that give Chae the opportunity to make light reflection into a pattern, not only on the lines but on the ground between them. Behind this work are trees that themselves provide a pattern of light  (which appears to be coming from the left of the picture). A decade and a half later John Singer Sargent would employ the same concept in a watercolor, using instead of the colored linen, pure white sheets, which produce more of a patterned effect with reflected white and shadow, in front of small leafless trees. (To see a comparison of these two works, scroll to the bottom of the post Sargent’s Watercolors.) The painting is the kind of original concept approach that Chase abandoned once he hit upon the open air paintings in city parks.

Wash Day: A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn by William Merritt Chase. (Oil on panel. Private collection.) Not in the Brooklyn Exhibition. (Click to enlarge.)

26. Washing Day: A Back Yard Reminiscence of Brooklyn. Oil on panel. ca. 1886. Lilly Endowment, Indianapolis, Indiana.

Shinnecock and the Summer Art School

27. My Baby Cosy. Pastel on board. 1888. Private collection.

Chase was plagued his whole life with a taste for compulsive acquisitions that exceeded his ordinary income. His need for money only increased when he married Alice Gershon in 1886 and the large family that resulted, beginning with the birth of Cosy in 1887. Chase tried to reduce his expenses by ending his summer trips to Europe after his summer with Whistler in 1885. But from time to time he also attempted to obtain large sums by selling his works (and often his collections of others’ works) at auctions. Invariably, these sales, some of which were quite large, proved bitterly disappointing to Chase and a subject of astonishment to his friends and even the art press. Chase was forced to rely more and more on income from teaching. In 1885 he again took a position at the Art Students League. In 1887 he held an auction of 98 works after his first major solo exhibition in New York, and realized less than $90 per work. In 1889, two months before the SAA show that caused the Times reviewer to muse on Chase becoming unfashionably establishment, his second daughter, Koto Robertine, was born, and in June 1890 his son, William Merritt Chase, Jr. was born. The growing family probably convinced him of the wisdom of supplementing his income with a more-or-less permanent summer school proposed by Mrs. William S. Hoyt, in the eastern end of Long Island to be called the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art.

28. The Japanese Doll. Oil on canvas. ca. 1890. Walter & Lucille Rubin collection.

The school was located in a relatively unimproved area that a few fashionable New Yorkers had begun to develop for summer retreats. Janet Hoyt, a real estate professional and investor in her own right, managed the project to create the school and design an art village that would not only attract students of plein air painting but also become the catalyst for attracting others to purchase real estate in the area. She was assisted by two Southampton friends, Annie de Camp Perrot Hegeman Porter and Samuel L. Parrish, and together they obtained support from Mrs. Andrew Carnegie, Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, Mrs. August Belmont and various Astors and Whitneys. Chase presided over the school for 12 summers, and it became the largest and best known of the plein air summer schools. It was a breeding ground for artists who would set up schools elsewhere as well a basis for Chase’s national fame as an art instructor which would later allow him to create his own full time school in New York (the Chase School of Art in 1896) and generated offers for permanent employment (such as at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where Chase began teaching in 1896) and short term courses (such as at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1894 and 1897). But for our purposes the significance of the move is how it changed his approach to outdoor landscape painting.

29. Shinnecock Studio Interior. Pastel on paper mounted on canvas. 1892. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.

29. Shinnecock Studio Interior. Pastel on paper mounted on canvas. 1892. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.

At the end of the 1880s Chase was beginning to look for subjects beyond his portraits, studio views and parkscapes. Chase had a brief flirtation with Japonisme in the late 1880s. One of the interesting insights the MFA show provides is through collecting the little known Japanese-influenced works with the better known portraits. The Japonisme works of Chase were created during a four year period from 1888 to 1892. None of it shows a deep sympathy for Japanese art or printmaking. Instead Japanese elements are presented as merely exotic decoration. The paintings involve models wearing kimonos and sometimes with other Japanese accessories. In one still life (#28) Chase paints a collection of crafts before a Japanese hanging. Chase even presented his wife and children, dressed in Japanese outfits (#27) or amusing themselves with Japanese crafts and prints (#29).

30. Flying Clouds. Oil on canvas. 1892. Private collection.

The departure Chase made in this period in landscapes took place in the summers at Shinnecock. Chase was required to teach plein air painting (or at least evaluate it), so he threw himself into it. And as a result he pioneered a new type of American landscape. The land here in the Hamptons probably had a particular calling to Chase because it was quite like the sand and scrub vegetation that he encountered and painted in Holland. The similarity is brought home by an odd comment by a reviewer. In March 1884, at the first Pastel Society showing in New York, Chase exhibited a work painted in Holland, presumably much like Coast of Holland (#21). The reviewer for Art Amateur, who was filled with disdain for Chase’s studio genre works, commented appreciatively on a landscape from Holland,, “the best, one from Scheveringen, showing a beach and dune the very counterpart of East Hampton, where, so far as we know, no one ever found a subject of a landscape, … . [P]robably there are twenty Americans ready to buy a bit of Scheveningen for one that will look twice at a corner of East Hampton.”17 The anonymous critic noted the similarity of the vistas that Chase would paint a decade later to those he painted in Holland. And to perhaps acknowledge that similarity himself, Chase painted an early landscape there, Flying Clouds (#30), as a tribute to the Dutch master Jacob van Ruisdael, whose pioneering Baroque landscape, View of Haarlem with Bleaching Fields (ca 1670, Kunsthaus Zürich), resembles the later work not only in the kind of sandy soil and grasses, the distant building, the low horizon with vast expanses of sky, but also, and mainly, in the billowy clouds that fill the sky.

31. Untitled (Shinnecock Landscape). Oil on canvas. ca. 1895. Private collection.

31. Untitled (Shinnecock Landscape). Oil on canvas. ca. 1895. Private collection.

As in the untitled canvas called Shinnecock Landscape (#31), Chase captures the characteristic view of Eastern Long Island, the ecosystem of which is based on the sandy soil which can support only the intermittent clumps of grass and scrub bush. Without trees and owing to vast expanses of flat land, a large vista of bright summer sky can be seen and it is usually filled with large clouds backed by pale blue. In many of the Shinnecock landscapes, clouds seem to be the subject of the paintings. The combination of the blue, brown and green produces a harmony redolent of summer and all it connotes. Unlike the parkscapes, there are no artificial straight lines which always signify human interference with nature. The absence of such lines also means that there is no artifice of composition to direct the eye. The art is solely in the framing of the scene; the artist does not otherwise seem to intrude. In a lecture right before he established his Shinnecock school, he told of a means to avoid the difficulty of deciding how to “cut off” a scene:

“[T]ake a little card, a visiting card if you like, and cut an oblong square hole in it … look through it occasionally. push it about until you see something you like. … In this way you will find pleasing conceptions and original compositions, things that have not been done, and not too perfectly balanced to be delightful.”

Even before the Shinnecock paintings, Chase had thus abandoned his early tenet that artists should only make a sketch of an out-of-doors scene and paint the scene later in the studio. In fact in the same lecture in Buffalo in 1890, Chase urged beginners never to “meddle” with a work in the studio, otherwise its naturalness would be disturbed and it would take on the look of “conventional picture-making.” (Pisano 1993, at 11.)

32. Seaside Flowers. Oil on canvas. ca. 1897. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

32. Seaside Flowers. Oil on canvas. ca. 1897. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

Many of the Shinnecock paintings included his favorite subjects, his wife and children. Portrayed as members of the Southampton leisure class, they are depicted gathering berries or flowers, enjoying family time or relaxing on the beach. As is usual with paintings of his family, they are adorned in expensive outfits with colorful accessories to provide color accents to the muted color palette of the landscape. In Seaside Flowers (#32) Mrs. Chase is tending to her son and four daughters, who are out collecting wildflowers. Each of the three daughters in the foreground is wearing an individually adorned hat and colorful ribbon. In the background can be seen the Chase family summer home.

33. At the Seaside. Oil on canvas. ca. 1892. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

33. At the Seaside. Oil on canvas. ca. 1892. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

The Shinnecock landscapes represented the closest approach Chase ever made to French Impressionism. His color scheme and figure modeling looked vaguely like early Impressionism. But he only was interested in light as it reflected from surfaces or occasionally caused shadows. He never experimented with representation of figures or objects, instead he continued to draw with the same approach to realism that he developed in art school. For these reasons in his day Chase was not recognized as one of the core group of American Impressionists.  Art Amateur, for example, never mentioned Chase in any of its articles of the 1890s on American Impressionists, and his works were not acquired by collectors of American Impressionist paintings (Pisano 1993, at 14 & 18 n.62).

Nevertheless, the unusual views that Eastern Long Island offered (unusual in terms of American landscapes, that is) allowed for a somewhat forward looking approach to art and with the absence of recognizable figures like trees, land formations and buildings, suggested non-representational art, especially when the pictures lacked figures and clouds dominated the canvas.

34. The Lone Fisherman. Oil on mahogany panel. ca. 1895. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.

34. The Lone Fisherman. Oil on mahogany panel. ca. 1895. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire.

Despite his role in upending a style in American art, Chase did not believe in change as an end in itself. He saw art as part of a tradition going back to the Baroque masters—a tradition to be built upon and acknowledged. Innovation, as Chase saw it, was to follow a path suggested by past masters. The innovation was to extend, not to overturn, the tradition.

The one experiment he continued to pursue even late in his career was the treatment of space on the canvas. The open vistas of Long Island allowed for such experiments. In The Lone Fisherman (#34) Chase uses the foreshortening of a canal embankment and the row of rocks behind it to create a sense of depth to the picture. Those features take up most of the canvas and dwarf the figure, Chase’s father, sitting far down the line fishing in the canal. Chase uses the space devoted to the rock to show the reflection of light on the surface. The landscape portion of the picture occupies a small line on the horizon below a sky that has a yellow coloring near the earth and becomes bluish only at the top of the picture. Unlike Flying Clouds (#30) and Untitled (#31), the sky occupies only a small portion of the picture. All three of those paintings are related to the kind of treatment of space that Chase was doing in his late studio and family genre paintings, which is the last part of the MFA show.

Before considering those works, there remains only to briefly note Chase’s final landscapes after he closed the Shinnecock school in 1902. By that time Chase had almost completely transformed from vital force in the vanguard to grand old man. In 1888 he was elected to the National Academy of Design, the conservative force that the Munich Men rebelled against. In 1895 he declined to run for President of the Society of American Artists (the organization designed to counter the Academy), a position he held for a decade. In 1898 he gave up administrative control of the Chase School (it would become the New York School of Art). Chase would spend much of the rest of his life arranging for showings at various important expositions and shows.18 He also cultivated relations with major museum curators (his work was shown at the opening of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh in 1895, for example19). Many would purchase his works for reasonable prices, while other would host exhibitions at which sales could be made.20 Chase was also exhibited in large one man shows at the galleries.21 But he remained plagued by compulsive large expenses which he tried to finance with auctions of large amounts of his art. They all turned out badly. (In 1896 he sold off all the items from his 10th Street Studio as well as 66 of his own work. Flying Clouds was knocked down at $310. All 1800 lots produced slightly more than #21,000. Bryant, at 171.)

35. The Olive Grove. Oil on composition board. ca 1911. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago.

35. The Olive Grove. Oil on composition board. ca 1911. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.

After closing Shinnecock, Chase spent little time in outdoor painting. He organizied summer tours of Europe with students to finance trips to Holland (1903), England (1904), Spain (1905) and Florence (1908 and 1909). These trips, however, did not allow for systematic painting like he was able to do in Long Island where he had a house, permanent studio and his family. Yet he occasionally produced striking works, like The Olive Grove (#35). The problem Chase faced was that the cutting edge of art had moved well beyond him. By the time the Armory Show for Post-Impressionists was organized in New York in 1913 his work looked several decades out of date. None of his works were accepted at that show. The decision was devastating to him. And though he visited the show several times, he simply could not understand non-representational art, particularly cubism. He would spend his last several years polemicizing against it.

Chase’s Sanctuary: His Studio and His Family

As a teacher of artists, Chase was hardly doctrinaire and always urged his students to achieve their own artistic vision. But two bridges he could not cross. He could not bring himself to paint subjects he considered lacking in beauty. And he could not comprehend for what reason an artist could distort visual reality.

36. Two of My Children (At Play). Oil on canvas. ca. 1895. Private collection.

The first of these bedrock beliefs probably stemmed from the effects of his hard-scrabble upbringing in Indiana. Chase saw art as the way out of a grubby existence. Rockwell Kent remembered Chase once telling his studenta: “Look at me. Beginning as a shoe clerk trying on ladies’ shoes, I have come to be the guest of kings.” (Kent, at 76-77.) Chase probably did not even realize how much his aesthetic pose was a class attributem and he was anything but analytical in his aesthetic philosophy. When the Ashcan School attained ascendency at the New York Art School under Robert Henri, eventually forcing Chase to resign his teaching position 1907, Chase expressed his disdain dripping with class-based contempt: “A certain group of painters in New York paint the gruesome. They go to the wretched part of the city and paint the worst people.” (Bryant, at 211.) Deciding what was “beautiful” and what was base and mean was a visceral choice for Chase.

Chase’s second objection to modernism (or perhaps more fairly, to certain aspects of modernism that aroused him on an instinctual level) followed directly from the first: Why would one distort reality when what one saw to paint was beautiful? In 1899 he told a reporter for an Indianapolis newspaper that his approach to painting was through his own understanding of Nature: “Art transcends Nature. One must paint what is behind the eye of the artist.”22 Chase did not mean that an artist could refashion what is naturally true, but that an artist must conceive of what he sees in the most truthful and beautiful way and then to paint that conception. What Chase “saw” behind he eye was how what he saw with his eye should fit on a canvas. In the outdoors he could look for the right combination of elements to produce a picture behind his eye.  In the studio he could arrange objects, models and props to produce a picture. And his family played the central role in a great many of these compositions, his wife first and foremost.

37. Meditation. Pastel on canvas. ca. 1886. Private collection (W. & E. Clark.)

37. Meditation. Pastel on canvas. ca. 1886. Private collection (W. & E. Clark).

Chase met his future wife Alice Gerson shortly the year after he arrived in New York from his studies, in the summer of 1879. She was the daughter of widower Julius Gerson, who held something of a salon for artists and writers and even supported some artists. Chase was brought into this circle by Frederick S. Church, to whom he was introduced by Shirlaw. Alice was 13 at the time but Gerson encouraged her and her two older sisters to appreciate the artists and intellectuals he brought to his home, and Alice soon developed a crush on the flamboyant Chase. Chase frequented the family’s gatherings, sketching and painting the girls and guests. His affection developed into passion for Alice and he married her in 1886. She would prove to be his most reliable subject and muse.

The year of his marriage also saw Chase bask in a burst of popular and critical acclaim with his triumphant one man show in Boston’s Art Club which displayed 130 of his paintings and crammed the gallery with the bric-à-brac from his 10th Street Studio. A “sensation,” said Art Amateur, where the town

“went in full force, and repeated its visit with enthusiasm, and it is unanimously voted that nothing has been here at all like it since [William Morris] Hunt’s day. Such fertility, variety, dash, gayety, excitement! Such frank singleness of delight in in cleverness, in painting as painting; such naïve confession that the fun of doing it is the main thing; such happy unconsciousness that art has any other ulterior objects, any moral mission or historical function!”23

38. Mother and Child (First Portrait). Oil on canvas. ca. 1888. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas.

38. Mother and Child (First Portrait). Oil on canvas. ca. 1888. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas.

When Chase painted Alice he merged this same joie de l’art with joie de vie, and that can be seen in every one of the paintings he did of her for the rest of his life. He treats her not as a model but as a person whose thoughts, feelings and interior life is worth exploring. Meditation (#37), for example, sees the young Alice as wise beyond her years and suggests that she is lost in thought by enveloping her in soft blues and velvety greys which also frame her pale face, accented by dark brows and hair. It is a work that is difficult to look away from. (And doesn’t that make a masterpiece?)

With the arrival of Alice Dieudonnée (“Cosy”) in 1887 his children also became subjects of the art that most overtly showed his feelings of tenderness and devotion. The Chases would have five daughters and three sons although William Merritt Chase, Jr., died shortly after his first birthday. Chase dressed his children up in costumes and expensive clothes, presented them with costly toys and books, gave them the run of his studio and then painted them in this world that celebrated beautiful things. In Two of My Children (#36) Chase showed Cosy and Koto Robertine (his second daughter, born in 1889) captured in a “spontaneous” way just as Valázquez might have composed a picture of Philip IV’s household. Cosy looks back at us as she is tying the ribbon belt on her younger sister. The light brings the figures out of the dark background and emphasizes the beautiful salmon colored dress of Cosy and the lighter dress of the younger child, who we see only from behind. Both the Dutch masters and Velázquez made figures immanent by this trick of light to make the figures more “real” even though the light source, like Hollywood lighting, was unrealistic.

39. Hall at Shinnecock. Pastel on canvas. 1892. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.

39. Hall at Shinnecock. Pastel on canvas. 1892. Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Illinois.

From the evidence of Chase’s portrayals of them, his family happily participated in his world of art for art’s sake. Not only do they delight in each other’s company, but they do so principally by enjoying the objects that delighted Chase and which were part of his work, as they themselves were.  Chase introduced his most playful “tricks” in these family portraits and thereby showed that he enjoyed these works the most. In Hall at Shinnecock, for example, Cosy not only views Chase as he paints the picture, but we can see Chase ourselves in the reflection in the glass of the cabinet on the other end of the hall.

40. An Artist's Wife (A Study). Oil on canvas. 1892. Private collection (Fayez Sarofim).

40. An Artist’s Wife (A Study). Oil on canvas. 1892. Private collection (Fayez Sarofim).

An Artist’s Wife (#40) is a portrait of Alice looking away toward the artist who interrupted her from viewing Chase’s The Fairy Tale, a Shinnecock work (not in the MFA show) in which Alice and Cosy sit amidst the rolling landscape of Long Island both in their summer finery. The Alice who is contemplating this picture is dressed in clothes reminiscent of the days of the Dutch masters. And this is for good reason, because the painting itself is an homage to the portrait of Issac Massa by Chase’s favorite old master Frans Hals (1626, Art Gallery of Ontario). Both the study and The Fairy Tale were highly praised by John Gilmore Speed in an article in Harper’s [linked below]. Speed saw the works in Chase’s summer studio. It occurs to me that Chase must have viewed his own life as a Northern European Baroque painter, perhaps like Rubens, who also used his wife and child as subjects and who lived the life of an aristocrat as he painted for them.

The playfulness of the picture within a picture (and subject within a picture of the subject) is similar to the punning title (and meta-comment) of the painting Reflection (ca. 1893, private collection). In that work we see Alice’s face only in the mirror (her back is to us), but we can see that she is cogitating on something, reflecting. The mirror itself is fit in a section of the wall behind a current (drawn open), just like the window next to it. The window curtain, however, is drawn shut, for all of the interest is takes place within the room and within the mind of Alice. The reviewer of the Society of American Artists show of 1894, where this picture was exhibited, acknowledged that some would object to the literary nature of the composition but dismissed it because the “picture is a good one, nevertheless … .”24

Chase’s paintings of his children also displayed playfulness but less literary and more visual, much like Velázquez did in the day of the masters and John Singer Sargent in contemporary times. Chase’s Hide and Seek (#41) is a large canvas that presents a large empty space in the middle. Much like Sargent’s Daughters of Edward D. Boit (1882, which you can see upstairs in the MFA). (Sargent’s canvas is, however, much larger than Chase’s.) Chase places children at the opposite ends of a largely empty plane. In Chase’s painting, which the title tells us is about a game, the empty space ads to the excitement one feels for the girl at the bottom who is about to escape detection as the other girl departs the room. The light that seeps in from the exit the second girl is about to use illuminates the room, where we see only a curtain, a large green chair and the bottom of a painting above it. The care with which the hair and gown of the girl at he bottom are rendered make her the one we are rooting for. Of course the painting is actually a study in space, but Chase, like the old masters and Sargent, is never one to force-feed am aesthetic lesson down the viewer’s throat. That was never how he viewed the role of the artist; it is also why he never understood the post-Impressionists.

41. Hide and Seek. Oil on canvas. 1888. Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

41. Hide and Seek. Oil on canvas. 1888. Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Even if we didn’t have the letters when Chase was away and pined for his family, we would know that it was his family that meant the most to him in his latter years, solely through these genre paintings. That affection is palpable in these works which occupy the final gallery of the MFA show. These works are a fitting close to the show because they represent the central thing in his life, if our reaction to them is any proof. If I were to suggest why anyone should care about Chase, I’d suggest going straight to the end of the exhibition to view these pieces. Chase’s approach to art may have outlasted the public’s taste for it, but these pictures say something more than Chase’s place in art history. They transcend it. And that is what makes a master.

Chase the teacher (a role in which he contributed at least as much to American art) produced many quotable aphorisms, most of which seem hardly able to guide a beginning artist, or even a beginning art appreciator. His biographer Katharine Metcalf Roof collected many of them. Some seem hardly to apply to his own work. For instance, “Learn to paint so well that you can conceal your own dexterity,” seems on the basis of this exhibition to be something he never attempted. But perhaps his best known quote is “Do not try to paint the grandiose thing. Paint the commonplace so that it will be distinguished” (Roof, at 319). His family paintings belie this quote, for there was nothing commonplace in his love of his own family.

In the end this exhibition gives a comprehensive look at this important nineteenth century American artist. The enormous revolution of Modernism, which began at the end of Chase’s life, cause us now to give him insufficient credit in the great scheme of things at the beginning of the twentieth century. But for a brief peiood, at an essential time, Chase turned American art outward and tried to connect it with the trends and flow of Western culture as it was boiling up in Europe. That he accomplished that goal also caused his own contributions to be overwhelmed by the flood that followed. But this retrospect proves that he is still worth a serious look, even if he did not create a school or issue a manifesto and even though he viewed change as a conservative would: good only if it added to what was valuable, not if it tore it down.



1“American Artists’ Annual Exhibition,” New York Times, Saturyday Review of Books and Arts, March 19, 1898, p. BR191 (clip online via [Return to text.]

2I was (slightly) disappointed to see that neither of the two 1892 genre paintings, Afternoon by the Sea [Gravesend Bay] and The Fairy Tale (both in the same private collection, I believe), were present. The student work The Moorish Warrior, ca. 1878, which remained in a European collection until the twentieth century and now is owned by the Brooklyn Museum, also would have been nice to see. One or two of the better female portraits are not included, but all in all these are mere quibbles, given the large number of sources these works were borrowed from. [Return to text.]

3The National Gallery of Art and the Terra Foundation for American Art co-sponsored an exhibition entitled “William Merritt Chase: Summers at Shinnecock, 1891-1902” in 1987-1988. Before that a national retrospective of his entire career toured from the University of Washington’s Henry Art Gallery to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1983-84. It was three decades before then that the last previous major exhibition was mounted. [Return to text.]

4“The Society of American Artists,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, March 11, 1978, p. 2 (clip online via [Return to text.]

5Chase had not resided in New York for a year when Harper’s New Monthly Magazine included him among the most important new influences on American art, moving it away from landscapes to the portrayal of the human figure. The piece included an etching of his Boy Smoking (#2) (see S.G.W. Benjamin [cited below].) Not long after the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s own arts magazine, American Art Review, published a review of the young Chase together with detailed etchings, spread over two issues in early 1881 (see Van Rensselaer, below). That review was noted in newspapers around the nation. E.g., Detroit Free Press, February 8, 1881, p. 3 (clip online via; New York Times, February 16, 1881, p. 3 (clip online via; Chicago Tribune, February 26, 1881, p. 9 (clip online via [Return to text.]

6Much later in life Chase claimed that he was a successful ladies’ shoes salesman. He said the trick was to always recommend a size smaller than the woman was then wearing. [Return to text.]

7Baury, Louis, “Story of the Tile Club,” Bookman, Vol. 35 (June 1912) 381-96, at 391 (online via Google Books). [Return to text.]

8“Talk on the Old Masters by Mr. Chase, New York School of Art, November 17th, 1906,” typescript from Archives of American Art, quoted in Cikovsky [cited below], at 7. [Return to text.]

9Bryant’s biography, which makes no attempt to connect Chase to his social setting, gives no reason to think that New Yorkers viewed Chase as “sophisticated” rather than simply odd or worse. Cikovsky (at 2) is more likely correct in concluding that his European styled beard, his fastidious and often outrageous dress and his exotic pets “startled still provincial New York of the late seventies, when they first made their appearance.” Later he was satirized as a pretentious fop. In Coast of Bohemia Howells has his art student Charmian model herself on Chase in designing her studio: “I must have a suit of Japanese armor for that corner, over there; and then two or three of those queer-looking, old, long, faded trunks, you know, with eastern stuffs gaping out of them, to set along the wall. I should be ashamed to have anybody see it now; but you have an eye, you can supply every thing with a glance. I’m going to have a bed made up in the alcove, over there, and sleep here, sometimes: just that broad lounge, you know, with some rugs on it—I’ve got the cushions, you see, already—and mice running over you, for the crumbs you’ve left when you’ve got hungry sitting up late.” (Chapter XVII.) [Return to text.]

10For example, the State Department commissioned Chase for the official portrait of Secretary of State William M. Evarts, “Notes on Art and Artists,” New York Times, March 19, 1882, p. 5 (clip online via, and Harvard College commissioned him to paint ex-President Rutherford B. Hayes. [Washington, D.C.] Evening Star, March 26, 1881, p. 1 (clip online via [Return to text.]

11For a contemporary review of Sunlight and Shadow, see “Water Colors and Etchings,” New York Times, January 30, 1886, p. 5 (clip online via [Return to text.]

12“Paintings for Amateurs,” New York Times, April 10, 1886, p. 5 (clip online via [Return to text.]

13Untitled paragraph, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 18, 1866, p. 4 (clip online via [Return to text.]

14The decision was made by Superintendant Aneurin Jones, and it was unknown even to the Parks President when asked about it. Jones had recently been dismissed as superintendent of parks in New York City and soon became a target of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle for his imperiousness. The paper reported on the barring of Chase in “The New Autocrat of the Park,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 18, 1890, p. 4 (clip online via Both The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and The New York Times reported on the bureaucratic intircacies that prevented Chase from paining in Brooklyn’s parks throughout the summer. [Return to text.]

15See Charles de Kay”Mr. Chase and Central Park,” Harper’s Weekly, Vol. 35, no. 1793 (May 2, 1891),, pp. 324-25, 327-28 (online via Hathi Trust). The four paintings, photographed in black and white on pp. 234-34 are: A By-Path, (ca. 1890, Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection), The Nursery (1890, private collection), The Lake for Miniature Yachts (ca. 1888 or 1890, Peter G. Terian collection) and A Bit of the Terrace (1890, private collection). The second and third of these paintings are exhibited at the MFA show. [Return to text.]

16“Minor Exhibitions,” Art Amateur, Vol. 22, no. 6 (May 1890), pp. 113-14, at 114 (online via JSTOR, open access). [Return to text.]

17“The Pastel Exhibition,” Art Amateur, Vol. 10, no. 6 (March 1884), pp. 123-24, at 124 (online via JSTOR; open access). [Return to text.]

18In 1893 Chase exhibited five works at Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition. World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893: Official Catalogue. Part X. Department K. Fine Arts (Chicago : W.B. Conkey, 1893), p. 15 (online via Hathi Trust). In 1894 he received first prize in the Cleveland Art Association show. (American Art Annual (Macmillan Co., 1903), Vol. 4, Part II, p. 15 [“AAA”].) The Pennsylvania Association of Fine Arts awarded him Temple gold medal at its 1895 exhibition, and the same year the Society of American Artists awarded him its Shaw prize.. (AAA.) In 1900 two paintings were shown at the Paris Salon. Roland Strong, “American Art. Pictures Shown at the Paris Salon,” New York Times, Saturday Review of Books and Art, June 2, 1900, p. BR364 (clip online via The same year he silver medalled in the Paris Exposition. (Gallatti 1995, p. 101.)  In 1901he received the gold medal at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and in 1902 he gold medalled at the Charleston Exposition. (AAA.) In 1904 he received a gold medal at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis as well as the Corcoran Prize of the Society of Washington Artists. In 1910 he received the grand prize of the International Fine Arts Exposition in Buenos Aires. And the National Academy of design awarded him its Proctor Portrait Prize in 1912. (Bryant, at 225.) In 1915 a gallery was devoted to his work at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. (Gallatti 1995, at 135.)  [Return to text.]

19“Great Collection of Paintings,” New York Times, November 5, 1895, p. 5 (clip online via [Return to text.]

20At the end of 1897 the Art Institute of Chicago displayed 71 paintings, mostly portraits and scenes from Shinnecock at a time when Chase giving a life class at the school. [Return to text.]

21In 1903 M. Knoedler’s in New York had a one man showing of his works. In 1905 he had a solo exhibition at McClees Gallery in Philadelphia. The Herron Institute of Indianapolis organized a travelling exhibit in 1909. In 1910 the National Arts Club held a retrospective in 1910.  [Return to text.]

22Benjamin Northrop, “Great Artist’s Struggle: How Chase Painted His First Successful Pictures,” Iandianapolis News, January 14, 1899, p. 9 (clip online via [Return to text.]

23Greta, “Art in Boston,” Art Amateur, Vol. 16, no. 2 (January 1887), p. 28 (onlline via JSTOR; open access). [Return to text.]

24“The Exhibition of the Society of American Artists,” Art Amateur, Vol. 30, no. 5 (April 1894), p. 127. [Return to text.]


Benjamin, S.G.W., “The Present Tendencies in American Art,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (March 1879), pp. 481-96 (online; subscription required).

Bolger, Doreen, In Pursuit of Beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; Rizzoli, 1986).

Bryant, Keith L.,William Merritt Chase: A Genteel Bohemian (Columbia, Missouri, University of Missouri Press, c1991).

Chase, William Merritt, “The Two Whistlers: Recollections of a Summer with the Great Etcher,” The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Vol. 80 (June 1910), pp. 219-26 (online via Hathi Trust).

Cikovsky, Jr., Nicolai, “William Merritt Chase’s Tenth Street Studio,” Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 16, no. 2 (1976), pp. 2-14.

Cox, Kenyon, “William M. Chase, Painter,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (March 1889), pp. 549-57 (online; subscription required).

Francis, Henry S., “Portraits by Whistler and Chase,” Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Vol. 52, no. 1 (Jan., 1965), pp. 19-23.

Frey, Elizabeth Vose, “The Renaissance of Pastel Societies,” International Association of Pastel Societies (n.p., n.d.) (PDF, open access).

Gallati, Barbara Dayer, William Merritt Chase (New York: Henry N. Abrams Inc., 1995).

Gallati, Barbara Dayer, William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes, 1886-1890 (Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum of Art in association with H. Abrams, c1999).

Gerdts, William H., American Impressionism (New York: Abbeville Press, c1984).

Hiesinger, Ulrich W., Impressionism in America: The Ten American Painters (Munich: Prestel, c1991).

Kent, Rockwell, It’s Me, Oh Lord: The Autobiography of Rockwell Kent (New York: Dodd, Mead, [1955]).

Larkin, Oliver W., Art and Life in America (Rev. ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1964).

McSpadden, J. Walker, Famous Painters of America (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1916) (online at

Marling, Karal Ann, “The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman: Miss Dora Wheeler,” Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Vol. 65, no. 2 (February 1978), pp. 47-57.

Merrill, Linda (ed.), After Whistler: The Artist and his Influence on American Painting (Atlanta: High Museum of Art; Yale University Press, c2003).

Pisano, Ronald G., William Merritt Chase (New York: Watson-Guptill, 1979).

Pisano, Ronald G., Summer Afternoons: The Landscape Paintings of William Merritt Chase (Boston: Bulfinch Press, Little, Brown, c1993).

Pisano, Ronald G., The Complete Catalogue of Known and Documented Work by William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) (New Haven: Yale University Press, c2006).

Roof, Katharine Metcalf, The Life and Art of William Merritt Chase (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1917) (online via

Schaffner, Cyntia V.A. and Lori Zabar, “The Founding and Design of William Merritt Chase’s Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art and the Art Village,”  Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 44, no. 4 (December 2010), pp. 303-350.`

Speed, John Gilmer, “An Artist’s Summer Vacation,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (June 1893), pp. 3-14 (online; subscription required).

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Whistler, James Abbott MacNeill, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies ed. by Sheridan Ford (New York: Frederik Stokes & Brother, 1890) (online via


What Nature Meant to Van Gogh

1. Studies of a Dead Sparrow. 1889-90. Chalk on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

1. Studies of a Dead Sparrow. 1889-90. Chalk on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The numbered illustrations to this post were each part of the exhibition and can be enlarged by clicking on them.

The surest bet in the museum world (other than, I suppose, animatronics dinosaurs) would be to mount a show of four dozen or so of the major works of Vincent van Gogh. This summer the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts cashed in on such a bet with its “Van Gogh and Nature” exhibition. The two weekdays that I visited the exhibit saw the museum overflowing with visitors, the fields around the museum crammed with cars like a state fair, and the single country road that leads to the museum lined with parked cars for a half mile or so in each direction.

2. The lawns surrounding the sprawling campus of the Clark Institute were unable to accommodate the parking needs of visitors this summer.

The lawns surrounding the sprawling campus of the Clark Institute were unable to accommodate the parking needs of visitors this summer. (Photo: Jonas Dovydenas.)

What was remarkable about the crowds is that Williamstown is far from any major urban center: more than three hours from Boston and New York by car, two from Hartford and an hour from Albany. And the trip is not particularly easy. The last half hour has to be driven on narrow single lane (in each direction) country roads with no passing the tractors or slow delivery trucks that also have to use the roads. (This is at least my conclusion relying on my GPS and google maps. I was unable to find a limited access highway anywhere near Williamstown.) I suppose that vacationers in the Berkshire resorts made up a good number of the visitors, but they could hardly provide the immense crowds that the event attracted. Many families brought (clearly bored) children, and not a few of the adults walked about aimlessly with glazed eyes. So many must have come with a sense of duty. What is it about van Gogh that produces this response?

The Attraction of van Gogh

3. Hospital at Saint-Rémy. 1889. Oil on Canvas. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

2. Hospital at Saint-Rémy. 1889. Oil on Canvas. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

Van Gogh’s powerful attraction to the modern mind, not just those interested in art history, is such that even children know of him. On a superficial level many of his well-known oils are easily remembered owing to their idiosyncratic design, their bold colors and their dramatic brush work. But it is van Gogh’s struggle with his circumstances and with his personal demons that most strongly engages us. Van Gogh endured grinding poverty almost all his adult life. He had only one adult relationship and that was with Sien Hoornik, a prostitute who was pregnant when he began living with her.

9. Wheatfield with Reaper, Auvres. 1890. Oil on canvas. Toledo Museum of Art.

3. Wheat Fields with Reaper, Auvers. 1890. Oil on canvas. Toledo Museum of Art.

She proved to be less mentally stable than he was, which brought their relationship to an end, but her threats of suicide proved prophetic (she drowned herself just as she claimed she would die). Van Gogh himself showed symptoms of a variety of mental disorders and spent much time in severe depressions. He was even involuntarily committed to an asylum, which proved to be relatively enlightened (in one of the few breaks fortune dealt him). And when he finally achieved the artistic breakthrough that he alone thought himself capable of, he killed himself, following a logic that was personal to himself alone. Legends surround romantic geniuses that shared only one of those afflictions. Van Gogh carried them all on his back and forged a new art all within ten years of his beginning to study to the very end. If that weren’t enough his new art emphasized yellow fields, open skies and the light of the sun, so the myth of van Gogh follows that of Icarus, but van Gogh populated his own journey with reapers. If van Gogh had not existed, modernity would have had to invent him.

Van Gogh as his Best Interpreter

Marsh with Water Lillies, Etten. Ink on paper. 1881. Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Richmond.

4. Marsh with Water Lillies, Etten. June 1881. Ink on paper. Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Richmond.

Van Gogh, however, was something other than merely a tortured artist. He was also an obsessive self-analyst, and he recorded his attempts to understand his inner driving impulses and their obstacles. His letters were revelatory, especially those to his younger brother Theo. Theo was not only Vincent’s confident, but also an art dealer. For many years Theo was an employee of a major art trading house Goupil & Cie with offices in many cities, which both Theo and Vincent worked for at the recommendation of an uncle who had an interest in the firm. It was that uncle who had helped transform Goupil & Cie from a firm that mainly dealt in prints of artworks to one that also sold paintings and drawings. Theo was also, perhaps most importantly, Vincent’s chief (and often only) patron, supplying him with funds to live on, money for oils and canvases and other equipment. Theo’s funds were also a psychological prop for the increasingly unstable Vincent. All told, we would not have the great works of Vincent van Gogh without Theo. From Theo’s point of view, his support of his older bother was probably the most significant thing in his life. He died at 33, six month’s after Vincent’s suicide, from (syphilitic?) dementia, ruled to have been caused, in part, by sadness.Thanks to the Van Gogh Museum, the Huygens Institute and the Vincent van Gogh Foundation, English readers have access to van Gogh’s letters in English translation with scholarly annotations and the sketches he enclosed (and much other material) on the web-hosted Van Gogh Letters Project.* The letters are the are the best companion to any showing of van Gogh’s works.

Works in the Clark Institute Exhibition

5. Montmartre: Windmills and Alotments. 1887. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

5. Montmartre: Windmills and Allotments. 1887. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

The pieces in the Clark exhibition were arranged in nearly strict chronological order and separated into rooms for each of the locations where the works were produced (Holland (1881-1885), Paris (1886–1888), Arles (1888–1889), Saint-Rémy (1889–May 1890), Auvers (May–July 1890)). Selection was guided by a notion of how the work revealed or was influenced by van Gogh’s sense of Nature. The notion of Nature in the show (and to a lesser extent also in van Gogh’s letters) is expansive. It included not only

6. The Sower. 1888. Oil on canvas. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterloo, Netherlands.

6. The Sower. June 1888. Oil on canvas. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.

landscapes and several studies of bird life and insects, but also still lifes (although none of the famous sunflower or iris works), pictures of parks, gardens and farm lands, as well as buildings in rural settings. In most of the pieces humans are part of the landscape. In one, van Gogh’s homage to Millet (#6) the figure not only occupies central place, he is in fact the “subject” of the work, although a distant one. The show did not include the night skyscapes, and the selection principles excluded the formal portraits, including the self-portraits, which in retrospect are the major direct pictorial depiction of van Gogh’s inner life.

Nature and Van Gogh’s Early Spiritual Views of Nature

9. Winter Gardens. 1883. Ink on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

7. Winter Garden. 1883. Ink on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Van Gogh’s landscape also reveals his inner life, but one that is deeper, older and less articulate; van Gogh’s superego to the portraits’ id. When he first begins to draw, the landscapes appear dreamlike, perhaps allegorical. People, when present, are generally dominated by the natural surroundings, and they usually have almost ritual functions. When they are not simply traveling (as in ##8, 11, 15, 21), they are toiling (e.g., harvesting in #3, gathering wood in #7) and occasionally grieving (as, e.g., in the 1883 drawing Melancholy). Traveling and toiling are what people do, according to van Gogh’s deepest beliefs, for he was raised as a pietistic Dutch Reformed evangelical. His father and grandfather, both ministers, sprang from the so-called Groningen movement, a back-to-fundamentals version of experiential fundamentalism which emphasized modeling one’s behavior after the conduct of Christ rather than dogma. It was, according to a contemporary observer,

8. Winter Garden. 1884. Pencil and ink on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

8. Winter Garden. 1884. Pencil and ink on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The work is not part of the Clark show.

“a living, progressive movement, striving for a new development, which is to rest on a Christian basis, mingling the interests of church and science, treating the doctrines, which lie at the foundation of the Christian life, with spirit and learning; while, by means of evangelical freedom which it has strenuously defended, it seeks to clothe these doctrines in new, higher and more vital forms.”†

Chief among the doctrines of this school “was that God had revealed himself in all of creation and supremely in Jesus Christ so that humankind may be conformed to his image.”‡ Our natural surroundings were an important clue to the creator and our purpose.

It would be difficult enough to judge one’s life against the model of Jesus of the Gospels, but the van Goghs were something of an island. The Groningen movement was a faction within the Dutch Reformed Church (one that rejected much of the dogma of the church), and the Dutch Reformed Church itself was a minority among the Catholics of the Brabant province of southern Netherlands where the van Goghs lived. And as evangelists, they were expected to spread the faith. All of this could be calculated to impose a burdensome responsibility on a sensitive youth, and Vincent was uncommonly sensitive.

9. The Parsonage Garden in the Snow. 1884-85. Oil on canvas. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

9. The Parsonage Garden in the Snow. 1884-85. Oil on canvas. Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

Whatever combination of disorders, syndromes, awkwardness and social maladjustments van Gogh experienced as a child (his sister-in-law later described him as “of a difficult temper, often troublesome and self-willed”),  his mind proved a fertile plot for the seeds of this theology which would later flower in grotesquely exaggerated conduct. Pietism and asceticism seemed to grow rapidly when he was away from home. In England in his early twenties he discovered Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which became a central metaphor for him, and he warmly recommended it to his brother (to Theo, November 25, 1876). In his first stay in London he also discovered George Henry Boughton, whose Pilgrims Going to Church, which he admired and led him to the pilgrim poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Courtship of Miles Standish and Evangeline, which he considered “beautiful” (to Theo, July 20, 1773; to Willem and Caroline van Stockum-Haanebeek, sometime around October 16-31. 1873). His identification with English sectarian dissenters became his defense against worldly commerce: When he was later installed as a clerk in a bookstore in Dordrecht, he dressed in Quaker garb and affected asceticism. That position lasted only a few months, and from thence he was able to launch his desired career as a pastor-missionary. This embarrassing, failed and ultimately degrading detour in van Gogh’s career, famous enough that it need not be picked over again, is noteworthy here, mainly for the first sermon he gave on October 29, 1876, in which he expands on his pilgrimage metaphor, relates it to a painting and reveals other aspects of his personality, such as alienation, grim determination, a mystical view of life, and other features that help explain his art. Even those casually interested in van Gogh ought to read it. It goes a long way to explain why the people in his landscapes are traveling or toiling. Vincent thought so highly of the sentiments that he sent it to his brother (to Theo, November 3, 1876).

Going to Church for the Last Time (The Funeral in the Cornfield) by Jacob Jan van der Maaten. 1862. Lithograph. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Going to Church for the Last Time (The Funeral in the Cornfield) by Jacob Jan van der Maaten. 1862. Lithograph. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

“Heard the Rev. Laurillard on Sunday morning in the early sermon on ‘Jesus went through the cornfields’. He made a deep impression on me–he also spoke in that sermon about the parable of the sower and about the man who cast seed into the ground, and he should sleep, and rise day and night, and the seed should spring and increase and grow up, he knoweth not how, he also spoke about the funeral in the cornfield by Van der Maaten. The sun shone through the windows—there weren’t that many people in the church, mostly labourers and women” (to Theo, June 12, 1877).

Van Gogh’s Christianity was not simply contemplative; it drove van Gogh to minister to miners in the Borinage in Belgium because of the social conscience it instilled in him.  His sense of empathy drove him to live in abject poverty, an eccentricity which led them to reject him as their minister. Despite the snub, van Gogh never lost his empathy for the poor.

10. Giant Peacock Moth. 1889. Chalk and ink on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

10. Giant Peacock Moth. 1889. Chalk and ink on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

But van Gogh would eventually abandon his primitive religious obsessions (or rather the gate-keepers to his desired profession barred him and he stopped following it). Less than a decade after he was dismissed as a missionary in the Borinage, he endorses the sentiment that his friend Émile Bernard wrote in a sonnet, but van Gogh restates it so firmly that he comes across nearly as clear-thinking as a Camus or, maybe, as wise as a Sophocles:

“Now for idea and sentiment it’s perhaps the last one that I prefer: ‘For hope has poured its neurosis into my breast,’ but it seems to me that what you want to evoke isn’t stated clearly enough: the certainty that we seem to have and which anyway we can prove, of nothingness, of emptiness, of the treachery of desirable, good or beautiful things, and despite this knowledge we forever allow ourselves to be deceived by the spell that external life, things outside ourselves, cast over our 6 senses, as though we knew nothing, and especially not the difference between objective and subjective. And fortunately for us, in that way we remain ignorant and hopeful” (to Émile Bernard, April 19, 1888).

11. Pine Trees at Sunset. 1889. Oil on canvas. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.

11. Pine Trees at Sunset. December 1889. Oil on canvas. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.

Van Gogh, however, was never able to uproot entirely his religious instincts and whatever fears, longings and half-understood meanings they held for him welled up, more extreme, a year later, in the midst of the mental crisis that lead to his hospitalization. He confided to his brother:

“I’m astonished that with the modern ideas I have, I being such an ardent admirer of Zola, of De Goncourt and of artistic things which I feel so much, I have crises like a superstitious person would have, and that mixed-up, atrocious religious ideas come to me such as I never had in my head in the north” (to Theo, September 20, 1889).

For van Gogh, life would remain a struggle, a pilgrimage, not, however, “to the very end,” as the Angel of God said in his sermon, but until he could no longer force himself to go on.

Landscape vs. the Human Form

Detail of Man Digging and a Landscape with Cypresses. February-March 1890. Pencil on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Not included in Clark show.

Detail of Man Digging and a Landscape with Cypresses. February-March 1890. Pencil on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Not included in Clark show.

Van Gogh’s subconscious, primitive metaphysics might explain what the human figures are doing in his natural landscape works, but they don’t explain how they look. After one walk-through of this chronological arrangement, one conclusion was inescapable to me:  Painting did not come easily to van Gogh; his career as an artist was propelled by intense drive and incremental improvement rather than natural talent and easy inspiration. Van Gogh essentially proclaimed as much to his brother at an early crisis:

“It’s precisely because I have a draughtsman’s fist that I can’t keep myself from drawing and, I ask you, have I ever doubted or hesitated or wavered since the day I began to draw? I think you know very well that I’ve hacked my way through and am obviously ever more keen to do battle” (to Theo, April 23, 1882).

12. Men Digging. 1882. Pencil on paper. Enclosed in letter to Theo van Gogh, ca. April 23, 1882.

Men Digging. April-May 1882. Pencil on paper. Enclosed in letter to Theo van Gogh, ca. April 23, 1882. Not included in Clark show.

Beginning fairly late in life (at 28) and without ever receiving much formal training, van Gogh throughout his short career struggled, especially, with the human figure. Not only are body parts out of proportion with each other, figures are often out of proportion with their surroundings (e.g., #5). His letters to Theo frequently enclose sketches of landscapes and buildings (where proper proportions are observed) (e.g., to Theo, May 31, 1876; to Theo, November 25, 1876; to Theo, ca. November 13, 1878). By contrast the sketches of people he sends to Theo look awkward, mechanical and stilted (e.g., to Theo, August 20, 1880; to Theo, January 1881; to Theo, September 1881; to Theo, April 6, 1882). Van Gogh’s draftsmanship, particularly of immoveable, large objects, improved once van Gogh obtained a perspective frame (thanks to a sum from his brother beyond the monthly stipend that supported the artist) (to Theo, August 5 and August 6, 1882). But this and other drafting equipment could not help with the drawing of the human figure, which requires detailed anatomy study, careful observation and above all models, an almost impossible expense for van Gogh, at least if van Gogh confined himself to respectable, bourgeois models as his instructors wanted.

Sorrow. 1882. Pencil and ink on paper. The New Art Gallery Walsall, England. The caption is a quotation from Michelet, translated as:

Sorrow. April 1882. Pencil and ink on paper. The New Art Gallery Walsall, England. The caption is a quotation from Michelet, translated as: “How can there be on earth a woman alone, deserted?” Not included in Clark show.

Van Gogh thought he hit on a solution to this by hiring models from the proletariat and living among them. This also finessed the problem that van Gogh’s antisocial behavior, ragged dress and crude impulsiveness made working with “proper” models impossible. It was by this way of employing models that van Gogh hired the prostitute Sien Hoornik, and through a combination of pity, loneliness and his own peculiar sentimentalism, he took her and her daughter in and later also supported her baby when she delivered. The scandal that ensued caused a break with his father and the termination of the lessons given to him by his idol (and second cousin), Anton Mauve. The story is told between the lines of his letter to Theo ca. May 7, 1882. (Van Gogh’s sister Lies has a different, and less plausible, explanation.**) The violation of bourgeois decorum was probably as much at the heart of the matter as the sin. (“You have a vicious character!” Mauve told van Gogh.) The breach deeply affected Vincent. But rather than discourage him (even though Hague Goupil dealer Tersteeg used the occasion to remind van Gogh that he had failed at everything he tried—school, commerce, the clergy—in his three decades of life), van Gogh promised his brother that he would persevere and even used his sketch of Men Digging (above right) as evidence that he was improving.

Roots or Study of a Tree. 1882. Pencil, chalk, ink, watercolor. Kröller-Müller Museum.

Roots or Study of a Tree. April 1882. Pencil, chalk, ink, watercolor. Kröller-Müller Museum. Not included in Clark show.

The fact of the matter, however, was that van Gogh was never going to attain the kind of romantic verisimilitude that Mauve perfected, such as in his Shepherdess with a Flock of Sheep, at the Rijksmuseum. Van Gogh was not attempting to portray something that could be seen, he was attempting to show what the thing meant. He described the approach to his brother in connection with two drawings: One of Sien, sitting in despair, titled Sorrow; the other a study of aerial roots in sandy soil, called Roots or Study of a Tree.

People Waiting for Ration Tickets in Paris by Edwin Buckman. From The Graphic, November 19, 1870. Van Gogh referred to the print as ≤i>In front of the shelter and seems to have gotten a reprint in an 1882 magazine (see to Theo,<a href=

People Waiting for Ration Tickets in Paris by Edwin Buckman. From The Graphic, November 19, 1870. Van Gogh referred to the print as In front of the shelter and seems to have gotten a reprint in an 1882 magazine (see to Theo, ca. October 24-27, 1882). Not included in Clark show.

Sorrow represents both a culmination and a path-not-taken for van Gogh. By far his most successful drawing, it was masterfully composed and executed. As for the subject matter, the work exudes the pathos that guided van Gogh’s life, revealed not only in his ministration to the coal miners in the Borinage (undertaken with abject humility) but also in his collection of prints, which included Buckman’s People Waiting for Ration Tickets in Paris (see to Theo, ca. October 24-27, 1882), Fildes’s Homeless and Hungry (see to Theo, January 9, 1882), Doré’s Exercise Yard at Newgate Goal (see to Theo, February 12, 1890), among others. Van Gogh’s own drawings, however, were so outside the English-French tradition (it was more German than anything else) that he could hardly have been encouraged to continue (and perhaps even learn engraving or etching). If he did, however, he might have pioneered the kind of socially-informed expressionism that Käthe Kollwitz turned into a powerful weapon. But Kollwitz grew up inside a radical tradition, whereas van Gogh’s compassion arose from his bourgeois liberal Christian roots and withered when he hacked off the limbs of that faith.

What van Gogh was attempting was neither a social revolution, nor the aesthetic one he in fact helped usher in. He explained to his brother that he was trying to portray the emotion or metaphysic he saw beneath the surface:

“I’ve tried to imbue the landscape with the same sentiment as the figure.

“Frantically and fervently rooting itself, as it were, in the earth, and yet being half torn up by the storm. I wanted to express something of life’s struggle, both in that white, slender female figure and in those gnarled black roots with their knots. Or rather, because I tried without any philosophizing to be true to nature, which I had before me, something of that great struggle has come into both of them almost inadvertently. At least it seemed to me that there was some sentiment in it, though I may be mistaken, anyway, you’ll have to see for yourself” (to Theo, May 1, 1882).

12. Birds' Nests, Late September-early October 1885. Oil on canvas. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.

12. Birds’ Nests. Late September-early October 1885. Oil on canvas. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo.

It was at this time that Sien was expected to deliver, and van Gogh, though not fooling himself concerning her temperament, decided that he would marry her. He promises his brother what he will confine himself to if granted a small stipend:

“You know what I’m seeking, the barest essentials, but anything more rather leaves me cold. What I’d like to have is a weekly wage like any other labourer, for which I’d work with all my might and powers of reason. And being a labourer, I belong to the working class and shall live and put down roots in that sphere more and more. I can’t do anything else and I have no desire to do anything else, I can’t imagine anything else” (to Theo, May 10, 1882).

13. Vase with Honesty. 884-85. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

13. Vase with Honesty. 1884-85. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Somehow in the midst of this turmoil van Gogh began serious work. He took up painting for the first time, was pleased with the results and began to think in terms of color. “I feel that things with colour are becoming apparent in my painting that I didn’t use to have, things to do with breadth and strengths” (to Theo, August 14, 1882). Working with oils van Gogh began to see “colour effects which I only rarely see depicted in Dutch paintings” (to Theo, September 3, 1882). Van Gogh became obsessed with achieving exact colors:

“Yesterday evening I was occupied with an area of woodland with a slight upward slope covered in rotting and dead beech leaves. The ground was lighter and darker red-brown, all the more so because of the cast shadows of trees that threw bands across, weaker or stronger, half blotted out. The problem, and I found it to be most difficult, was to get the depth of colour — the enormous strength and fixity of that area—and yet it was only while painting that I noticed how much light there still was in that darkness. To keep it light and yet keep the glow, the depth of that rich colour, for there’s no carpet imaginable as splendid as that deep brown-red in the glow of an autumnal evening sun, although tempered by the wood” (to Theo, September 3, 1882).

Van Gogh would spend three more years in the Dutch provinces.†† During that time van Gogh thought deeply about both color and composition. His letters to Theo are filled with descriptions of his ventures into heaths and deciduous forests with the kind of detail that one expects from academic art critics. Oils presented a challenge to van Gogh, and he responded with meticulous attention to the appearance and physical characteristics of the paint. He even experimented with modeling oils squeezed directly onto the canvas (see Letter to Theo, September 3, 1882. His 1885 study Bird’s Nests (#12, above), also shows evidence of experiments in “molded” oils, direct from the tube.

14. The Swamp. 1881. Ink and pencil on paper. Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Richmond.

14. The Swamp. 1881. Ink and pencil on paper. Virginia Museum of Fine Art, Richmond.

Van Gogh seemed to have done most of his experimental self-teaching with landscape. The Clark show had two drawings of marshlands from his time in Etten in Brabant (##4 & 14). Both have natural water life in the foreground with signs of village life only on the far horizons. Both show that van Gogh took meticulous care to render the plant and bird life true to nature. Two drawings at the exhibition from van Gogh’s return from Antwerp, painted in Drenthe (although at the other end of the Netherlands, the area was considered by van Gogh to resemble the Brabant countryside) (##7 & 8). These two later drawings depict gardens in town, rather than wild lands far away. People work and move among the natural objects. But what is more striking is that the tree branches, stripped bare in winter time, seem formed to express a mood, perhaps the gloominess when natural life is reduced to its barren minimum.

Le départ du conscrit (

Le départ du conscrit (“The Conscript’s Departure”) by Charles Camille Auguste De Groux. ca. 1869 or 1870. Oil on canvas. Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels. Not included in Clark show.

Van Gogh’s initial breakthroughs in color experiments, begun just before he left The Hague, also are part of this movement towards something like proto-expressionism in van Gogh’s view. The description to Theo in his September 3, 1882 letter (quoted above) of leaf mold and composted forest litter evoked in van Gogh a mood, one which he tells his brother is the same as that evoked by the Belgian artist Charles De Groux in his painting The Conscript’s Departure. Clearly van Gogh was saying that nature expressed anthropomorphic feelings in an artist’s hands. Van Gogh could feel, and wanted to express, the heart-break and tenderness in Nature.

14. Poplars near Nuenen, 1885. Oil on canvas. Museum Boijmans Van Beunigen, Rotterdam.

15. Poplars near Nuenen, 1885. Oil on canvas. Museum Boijmans Van Beunigen, Rotterdam.

And yet while landscapes were taking up most of his thinking about technique and expression, van Gogh still believed “the figure must remain the chief concern” (to Theo, July 28, 1882). He struggled on at The Hague with figure drawing, even though he believed application to landscapes might produce saleable works (to Theo, February 13, 1882).

When he returned to the Brabant to live with his parents in 1883 he began studies of local peasants and craftsmen. He managed to alienate these objects of his pity, just as he did the miners in the Borinage, but before he did he was able to create a figure composition which he believed expressed his understanding of their lot. Before painting the picture he sent a lithograph of The Potato Eaters to his brother as well as to fellow artist and friend Anthony van Rappard. Van Rappard’s evaluation was scathing (from van Rappard, May 24, 1885): “I myself was shocked by it,” wrote van Rappard, offering that “such work isn’t intended seriously.” He criticized van Gogh’s lack of conception of how figures move. He attacked the poses: the “coquettish little hand of that woman at the back” and the lack of connection between “the coffeepot, the table and the hand lying on top of the handle.” Most brutally he asks if the man on the right is missing “a knee or a belly or lungs? Or are they in his back? And why must his arm be a metre too short? And why must he lack half of his nose?” His conclusion cut deeply into van Gogh’s pretension as an artist: “Art is too important, it seems to me, to be treated so cavalierly,” he lectured van Gogh.

The Potato Eaters. April 1885. Lithograph. Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

The Potato Eaters. April 1885. Lithograph. Museum of Modern Art, New York City.

Van Gogh responded defensively, claiming that modern art was more than technique (to Anton van Rappard, July 13, 1885), but the exchange damaged their friendship. Still van Gogh must have realized the justice of the remarks, inasmuch as he painted the final work in oil in a way to meet each of the criticisms. And he attempted no major painting on figures again, until a month before his death (and that was almost a portrait, its situation outside merely provided background). Figures would remain supporting characters in his landscapes. It was as though he had more understanding of natural landscapes than people in action. It seemed he needed to see people acting naturally through other artists’ eyes, and the works focusing on figures in action are more homages to other artists than original compositions (e.g., #6, after Millet; Raising of Lazarus, after Rembrandt; and Pietà, after Delacroix; even Young Girl in White was an homage to Puvis de Chavannes). Whatever its representation defects, The Potato Eaters also seems to me to fail in its purpose. It neither evokes empathy for the peasants nor shows their nobility.  Both of these qualities were far better evoked in the landscape of a peasant’s house which he painted two years before (#16).

15. Landscape with a Stack of Peat and Farmhouses. 1883. Watercolor on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

16. Landscape with a Stack of Peat and Farmhouses. 1883. Watercolor on paper. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

17. Sheaves of Wheat. July-August 1885. Oil on Canvas. Króller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands.

17. Sheaves of Wheat. July-August 1885. Oil on Canvas. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands.

What makes this watercolor so evocative is the subtle coloring of the sky and river which are made up of several shades of yellow, reddish-brown and blue, something that the illustration above does not capture adequately. Van Gogh’s ability to combine and mix watercolors in the way he was doing with oil is another example of his meticulous self-education through experiment, something he was able to do with color, but unable to do with the human form. It was for this reason he spent three months in Antwerp for instruction, before moving to Paris.

Until then Van Gogh responded to van Rappard’s criticisms by returning to landscapes exclusively. Sheaves of Wheat (#17), painted in the summer of 1885 when he returned to Brabant, completely lacks any figures. In fact the stacked sheaves seem to be a stand in for a figure in the work. The painting itself uses much brighter colors than he used in Drenthe. The lightening of his palette would continue in Paris and reach spectacular results when he left Paris for the south of France.

Color, Paris and the Impressionists

16. Tulip Fields at Sassenheim by Claude Monet. 1886. Oil on canvas. Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

18. Tulip Fields at Sassenheim by Claude Monet. 1886. Oil on canvas. Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

Van Gogh arrived in Paris to live with his brother March 1885. His goal was to continue his studies, the Academy in Antwerp having decided that van Gogh was insufficiently talented to continue. Given that the two years in Paris separates his largely somber-toned works made up of related dark colors from the bright, light-filled paintings of often clashing colors which characterize his work in southern France, a justifiable hypothesis would be that van Gogh changed in response to his first serious encounter with the Impressionists.

18. The Hill of Montmartre with Stone Quarry. 1886. Oil on canvs. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

19. The Hill of Montmartre with Stone Quarry. 1886. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

After all, as late as April 1885, van Gogh admitted he didn’t “know much about” Impressionism (to Theo, April 21, 1885). He had earlier treated them dismissively; he said he liked the “bright fellows” (the Impressionists who sought maximal light) well enough, but “it goes too far,” paraphrasing French critic Paul Mantz that “those who are always dreaming of the maximum of bright colours everywhere will find [even] Mr Harpignies’ greens of a rather blackish intensity” (to Theo, June 28, 1885). Van Gogh would first see a full display of Impressionism some time in May-June 1886, during the Eighth (and last) Impressionist exhibition in Paris. He also viewed the Fifth International Exhibition of Painting and Sculpture at George Petit’s gallery. At the latter show he saw Monet’s striking Tulip Fields (#18) now part of the Clark Institute’s own permanent collection. One would have expected the Monet to have elicited some specific response from van Gogh. For not only is it a breath-taking (and very advanced) use of bright-colored oils which make seas of pastels overtop green fields, but also it was done in Holland. His only written reaction, however, was to English painter Horace Mann Livens (ca. September-October 1886): “In Antwerp I did not even know

19. Trees in a Field on a Sunny Day. Oil on Canvas. 1886. P. & N. de Boer Foundation, Amsterdam.

20. Trees in a Field on a Sunny Day. Oil on Canvas. 1887. P. & N. de Boer Foundation, Amsterdam.

what the Impressionists were, now I have seen them and though not being one of the club, yet I have much admired certain Impressionist pictures–DEGAS, nude figure–Claude Monet, landscape.” Van Gogh still had no funds to hire models so he could not show any influences from Degas, at least until he studied with Cormon, and even then his nudes did not show the influence of Degas. Monet was a different story. Van Gogh always appreciated him. Three years later (a year before he died) he  wrote: “Ah, to paint figures like Claude Monet paints landscapes. That’s what remains to be done despite everything, and before, of necessity, one sees only Monet among the Impressionists” (to Theo, May 3, 1899). But van Gogh always remained skeptical of the school as a whole (which he once called “the French Japanese”—to Theo, July 15, 1888), and while he would eventually grant certain credit for influencing positive developments to the school (“Certainly colour is making progress, precisely by the Impressionists, even when they go astray”), yet he withheld credit for the innovation (“But Delacroix was already more complete than they are,” to Theo, May 3, 1889). As van Gogh became more sure of his own approach, he was able to articulate what he found insubstantial in Impressionism. Van Gogh was not looking to reproduce a fleeting visual impression; his goal was to get to the essence of things, their meaning. As he wrote Bernard:

“I sometimes regret that I can’t decide to work more at home and from the imagination. Certainly — imagination is a capacity that must be developed, and only that enables us to create a more exalting and consoling nature than what just a glance at reality (which we perceive changing, passing quickly like lightning) allows us to perceive.

“A starry sky, for example, well—it’s a thing that I’d like to try to do, just as in the daytime I’ll try to paint a green meadow studded with dandelions” (to Émile Bernard, April 12, 1888).

Either because he was not much impressed by them, was slow to understand the implications of their experiments or already was set on pursuing his own course (and the last seems the most likely), van Gogh’s work in Paris showed very little influence of the Impressionists, especially at the beginning.

Van Gogh, Terrace in Luxembourg Gardens

21. Terrace in the Luxembourg Gardens. 1886. Oil on canvas. Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

21. Undergrowth. 1887. Oil on canvas. Centraal Museum, Utrecht.

22. Undergrowth. 1887. Oil on canvas. Centraal Museum, Utrecht.

His landscape of the Luxembourg Gardens (#21), undertaken around the time he viewed the Impressionist shows, is not substantially different from a landscape in Nuenen a year before (#15). The earlier one is darker mainly owing to the time of day depicted. The treatment of the trees in both is nearly identical. The later work shows none of the brushwork techniques of Impressionists (notably the short strokes), nor uses any Impressionist treatment of light or movement. Perhaps the only influence of the Paris avant-garde was in the stylization of the figures, which are rendered long and thin, something like the figures in Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte). For the next year van Gogh would continue painting landscapes the same way (seee.g.Wheat Field with a Lark completed in the summer of 1887), whether of suburbs (##5 and 19) or of parks (##20 & 21). He even continued his interest in the undergrowth around tree trunks (#22).

Vase of Flowers by Adolphe Monticelli. ca. 1875. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Not included in Clark show.

Vase of Flowers by Adolphe Monticelli. ca. 1875. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. Not included in Clark show.

Perhaps more surprising than the lack of immediate impact Impressionism had on his landscapes is that it had no influence on his choice of subject matter. Rather than streetscapes or high society or night life or riverscapes or flowered gardens, van Gogh took up with still lifes of floral vases. This was decidedly not the subject matter of any of the current leaders of the Parisian art scene. Van Gogh’s model in this study was Adolphe Monticelli, a painter of the previous generation (who died around the time that van Gogh first saw the Impressionists in Paris), worked in Marseille and was no longer in fashion in Paris (if he ever was, although the young Cézanne befriended him two decades before). Theo and Vincent (whose tastes were not swayed by prevailing fashions) purchased six of his works (including Vase of Flowers) and in 1890 Theo paid to have a book about him published. Van Gogh identified with Monticelli’s situation, under-appreciated, slandered as an alcoholic and uncouth, and affected by mood disorders. He even foresaw his own emotional collapse in how Monticelli “overtaxed his brain”
(seee.g., to Theo, ca. July 1, 1888). Monticelli himself had briefly dabbled in Impressionist experimentation but, like van Gogh, was repelled by the physicality of the emphasis at the expense of inspiration.

22. Still Life with Bouquet of Daisies. 1885. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

23. Still Life with Bouquet of Daisies. 1886. Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

23. Still Life with Carnations and Other Flowers 1886. Oil on Canvas. The Kreeger Museum, Washington, D.C.

24. Still Life with Carnations and Other Flowers 1886. Oil on Canvas. The Kreeger Museum, Washington, D.C.

Van Gogh wrote extensively about Monticelli in his letters. In Paris he embarked on a series of still lifes with floral arrangements as part of the study of color he had been undertaking since his last stay in Brabant. These works show a progression from muted harmonious colors, punctuated by occasional bright flowers against a neutral background (#23) to one with a boldly colored vase and brightly colored flowers against bright background of several different colors (#24), to an arrangement with a metallic base on a boldly brushed table with an arrangement of a single type of flower against a boldly expressed, background wall painted with dashes and dots to break up the solid ground by flecking a bright colors against a deep green (#25). The Paris still lifes show a marked advance and confidence in the use of colors, compared, for example, with his still life with honesty (Lunaria annua) (#13). The earlier painting, from his time in Nuenen, is largely painted with analogous colors as fitting for the autumnal  mood and especially for the depiction of the plant’s seedpods. The picture of the vase of Fritillaries, by contrast, boldly uses complementary colors.

24. Impreial Crown Fritillaries in Copper Vase. 1887. Oil on canvas. Musée d'Orsay, ,Paris.

25. Impreial Crown Fritillaries in Copper Vase. 1887. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, ,Paris.

The second of the show’s three Paris still lifes of floral arrangements (van Gogh painted many others not shown at the Clark) (#24) shows a step closer to dramatic use of complementary colors with red against bluish green. Unlike the muted dark background of Monticelli’s still lifes, the carnations still life has a bright, lively background with an odd outline around the arrangement, possibly suggesting (although looking nothing like) a shadow. This outline or halo is an idiosyncrasy that will become somewhat frequent in his paintings from the south of France, especially around figures and occasionally around other objects like flowers (e.g., #28). The effect is that of a drawing and highlights the non-representational nature of the image.

It is the picture of the Fritillaries arrangement (#25) that fully shows treatment of colors and his new confidence. The setting of he orange against the bluish background is the same juxtaposition of complementary colors he used in self-portraits of slightly later (see the one of September 1889, with the orange of his hair set against a blue background; or the one just before leaving Paris in January 1888 where his orange beard is contrasted with his blue frock).  Van Gogh advised Livens that his flower paintings were designed to “seeking oppositions of blue with orange, red and green, yellow and violet, seeking THE BROKEN AND NEUTRAL TONES to harmonise brutal extremes.” The purpose was “to render intense COLOUR and not a GREY harmony” (to Horace Mann Livens, ca, September-October 1886). As he became more comfortable with color composition his brushwork also became sure. The flowers are literally swept with a stroke of paint and the leaves are made by a single stroke.

The last still life (#25) brought van Gogh’s color studies as far as he felt he could go in the city. As early as his 1886 letter to Livens van Gogh revealed his plans to move south to “the land of the blue tones and gay colours.” Strain between the brothers, from Vincent’s refusal to charge for his portraits and from assorted bouts boorish behavior, made his departure inevitable but by February 1888 the time was right from Vincent’s point of view and he moved to Arles, near Marseille, where Monticelli had lived.

The South of France and the New Van Gogh

His move to Provence marks the beginning of his last period—he would die less than two and a half years later. But it released a burst in self-expression beyond what the work-driven artist had ever done before. It was not just the number of paintings, it was their daring and revelation. Van Gogh seems to have found his center in the south of France because not only is his art an outpouring of his imagination, so are his letters, which are filled with confident discussions about art, insights into literature and self-analysis, the mystical musings of a now thoroughly materialist-minded man. Away from Paris, he was now able to see flower gardens much as Monet did in Holland (seee.g.Garden in Bloom completed in July 1888). He even undertook a scene of night life, one of the Impressionists’ favorite subjects (see The Café Terrace at Arles at Night). And he painted figures enjoying a city park (#26).

26. Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles. 1888. Oil on canvas. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

26. Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles. 1888. Oil on canvas. The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.

Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles seems vibrantly alive because van Gogh unleashes a variety of complementary colors much more freely than he did in Paris, and certainly something he wouldn’t have done when studying color instructions books in the Dutch provinces. The vanishing point of the picture plane is high on the canvas and together with the sky seen behind the tree foliage in front cuts the trees into two sections but their branches meet forming something of a tunnel for the park-goers. The trees themselves are sub-tropical, not the kind he had painted before. The figures are heavily outlined showing that van Gogh is making no effort at visual verisimilitude. The entire scene is bursting with life, but the park goers seem oblivious to it.

27. Farmhouse in Provence. 1888. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

27. Farmhouse in Provence. 1888. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The longer van Gogh lived in the south the brighter his canvases became, the livelier the impression the landscapes conveyed simply from classing colors. In Farmhouse in Provence (#27), the grasses, grains and flowers seem to burst from the canvas as stacks, houses and trees recede into a light blue sky that appears to slowly circulate the clouds. He became enamored with the sunshine and the yellow of the south, which ignited his imagination:

“Yesterday, at sunset, I was on a stony heath where very small, twisted oaks grow, in the background a ruin on the hill, and wheat fields in the valley. It was romantic, it couldn’t be more so, à la Monticelli, the sun was pouring its very yellow rays over the bushes and the ground, absolutely a shower of gold. And all the lines were beautiful, the whole scene had a charming nobility. You wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see knights and ladies suddenly appear, returning from hunting with hawks, or to hear the voice of an old Provençal troubadour. The fields seemed purple, the distances blue” (to Theo, July 5, 1888).

28. Dandelions. 1889. Kunstmuseum, Winterthur, Switzerland.

28. Dandelions. 1889. Kunstmuseum, Winterthur, Switzerland.

His wheat field pictures began darkly with a large sower (#6) and ended with bright fields and a small reaper (#3), much like the small reaper to the right of the procession of mourners in van der Maaten’s Going to Church for the Last Time (The Funeral in the Cornfield), above. Van Gogh himself was aware how his reaper related to his sower:

“I’m struggling with a canvas begun a few days before my indisposition. A reaper, the study is all yellow, terribly thickly impasted, but the subject was beautiful and simple. I then saw in this reaper – a vague figure struggling like a devil in the full heat of the day to reach the end of his toil – I then saw the image of death in it, in this sense that humanity would be the wheat being reaped. So if you like it’s the opposite of that Sower I tried before. But in this death nothing sad, it takes place in broad daylight with a sun that floods everything with a light of fine gold” (to Theo, September 5-6, 1889).

28. Olive Trees. 1889. Oil on canvas. Scottish National Museum, Edinburgh.

29. Olive Trees. 1889. Oil on canvas. Scottish National Museum, Edinburgh.

Behind his fields the sun keeps getting bigger. Preoccupied as he was by his own death, van Gogh became like the character in Leonid Andreyev’s “Lazarus.” who, having once been dead, obsessively chases the sun.

Van Gogh fixed on other physical features which he painted over and over. Irises and sunflowers are among his most well-known visual tropes. The olive tree resonated with van Gogh: “the murmur of an olive grove has something very intimate, immensely old about it”, while the oleander “speaks of love”, the olive tree is “something else, it is, if you want to compare it to something, like Delacroix” (to Theo,April 28, 1889). His 1889 Olive Trees also exhibited the swirling effects that he indulged in just at the time of his self-mutilation and commitment to the asylum in Saint-Rémy (see also #2).

29. Starry Night Over the Rhone. 1888. Oil on canvas. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. Not included in the Clark show.

Starry Night Over the Rhone. 1888. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Not included in the Clark show.

And of course his most famous visual trope is the starry night, which welled up from van Gogh’s early fascination with the color of the sky before sunrise and after sunset. At Arles he painted outdoors at night, and, alone, he allowed his mind to wander back toward his early mystical yearnings, but this time transfigured by modern materialism. In a long letter to Émile Bernard in his first summer in the south, van Gogh unburdened himself on such topics as Jesus, the artist in words, and his own alienation. The Earth was so hostile to artists, he said quoting Jean Richepin, that “love of art makes one lose real love.” What was his consolation? He speculated that an artist is like a caterpillar on earth but destined to be a butterfly elsewhere. 

“That existence of painter as butterfly would have for its field of action one of the innumerable stars, which, after death, would perhaps be no more unapproachable, inaccessible to us than the black dots that symbolize towns and villages on the map in our earthly life. Science — scientific reasoning — seems to me to be an instrument that will go a very long way in the future.”

The Starry Night. 1889. Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Not included in Clark show.

The Starry Night. 1889. Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York City. Not included in Clark show.

After all, he continued, the earth looks flat, but science has proved it round and nobody denies that now.

“Now at present, despite that, we’re still in the position of believing that life is flat and goes from birth to death.

“But life too is probably round, and far superior in extent and potentialities to the single hemisphere that’s known to us at present.

“Future generations—probably—will enlighten us on this subject that’s so interesting—and then science itself—could—with all due respect—reach conclusions more or less parallel to Christ’s words concerning the other half of existence” (June 26, 1888).

29. A Wheatfield with Cypresses. 1899. Oil on canvas. The National Gallery, London.

30. A Wheatfield with Cypresses. 1889. Oil on canvas. The National Gallery, London.

The Starry Night, painted from his asylum and swirling with the terrors of his illness, is nevertheless grounded by another visual trope—the cypress. Repeatedly painted by van Gogh in the south, it nevertheless is a reminder of the north and his childhood. In the fall of 1888 van Gogh painted a large canvas for his bedroom, Reminiscence of the Garden at Etten. He described it his sister Willemien and even sketched it for her (November 12, 1888).

Reminiscence of Garden at Etten. 1888. Oil on canvas. State Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg. Not included in Clark show.

Reminiscence of Garden at Etten. 1888. Oil on canvas. State Hermitage Museum. St. Petersburg. Not included in Clark show.

The woman against whom “a bunch of dahlias, some lemon yellow, others variegated pink and white, explode” is his mother. Willemien is to her right. Both walk in front of a cypress, next to a maidservant tending flowers in front of an orange, winding sandy path, which is bordered on one side by cabbages behind the cypress and on the other by geraniums. “I know it isn’t perhaps much of a resemblance, but for me it conveys the poetic character and the style of the garden as I feel them.”

Memories would haunt him before, during and especially after his hospital stays. And although he medicated himself with alcohol and sought his own treatment in brothels, the cure he always wrote about was Nature. When Theo was experiencing lassitude (or worse) as dealer at Goupil & Cie in Paris, Vincent diagnosed his ailment as soul sickness: “Don’t take it amiss if I say now that your soul is sick at this moment—it really is—it isn’t good that you aren’t part of nature—and I think that No. 1 now is for you to make that normal again” (October 12, 1883). From his very first time away from home when he was 19, van Gogh prescribed himself walks in the woods or dale or hedge to restore his health and mental well-being. In retrospect, his many works showing small figures on journeys seem like meditations on this form of soul healing. In December 1889, half a year from his death, he painted Fir Trees at Sunset (#11). In the bottom right a small figure, probably a woman, travels in heavy wind, shown by her tilted parasol and the bending trees in the background. The towering trees in the foreground are all wind flagged 0n the left side by strong, persistent wind, likely the famed mistral of Provencal. (Paul Signac visited van Gogh in the hospital after his after his self-mutilation. Signac thought that the mistal had enervated him.) Three birds can be seen in the sky soaring on the wind beneath an orange sun whose light is emphasized by the orange strokes on the yellow sky. Seven years earlier when van Gogh was at The Hague (where Mauve and others remarked on his crudeness as an artist) he defended his manner of art to Theo: “[T]there are also people who, just as it is sometimes pleasant and invigorating for a healthy constitution to go for a walk when a strong wind is blowing, so there are also art lovers, I say, who aren’t afraid of the harsh” (June 3, 1882). Van Gogh, braced by that strong wind, had now gone all in on that bet.

30. ,i.Giant Peacock Moth. 1889. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

31. Giant Peacock Moth. 1889. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Although van Gogh seemed to have finally perfected his mature style in Provence, he took up an entirely new style, reminiscent of his days as a child in Brabant and later when he painted the nests (#12). It involved close studies of natural history objects—not to express a mood or their inner essence, but their actual physical appearance, the way they were illustrated in natural history journals. In Paris he had sketched certain birds after graphic representations he had seen, such as the barn owl and flying swifts. In Provence he drew dead birds (#1, probably from life) and moths (#10, possibly from a magazine or print), the weed known as tassel hyacinth (Leopoldia comosa), drawn, as was the moth, duirng his stay in the asylum (see to Theo, May 23, 1889). From these studies he made a painting of the peacock moth (#31) and another of butterflies among red poppies. Perhaps van Gogh was attempting something of an homage to Japanese art that was so much in vogue in those days. Perhaps he was intending to set off on a new direction. It would have been a radical departure, because aside from pairs of strokes to indicate birds far off in flight, van Gogh’s art is utterly devoid of animals. This could not be said of his models like Millet, Mauve, Delacroix and Monticelli. Even Puvis de Chavannes occasionally painted animals. If he planned a new departure, he never followed through (although he made many sketches of farm animals while institutionalized). Instead he continued in the same heightened proto-expressionistic style even when he moved to Auvers for the last months of his life (e.g., #3, 32 and 34).

Van Gogh, Green Wheat Fields

32. Green Wheat Fields, Auvers. 1890. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

32. Undergrowth. 1889. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

33. Undergrowth. 1889. Oil on canvas. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Most likely, his “naturalist” studies were exercises in nostalgia. Sister Lies recorded how the young Vincent would wander off alone to the streams, collect beetles, even the ones with “terribly long feelers” and equally long names, yet Vincent “knew them all.” He sought out “the woods and fields, watching and studying the life of the underbrush and the birds. The birds he knew intimately; knew where they all lived and had their being, and if he saw a pair of larks descend among the rye, he knew how to watch them closely, without even breaking one fine stalk of grain.” She summed up his childhood devotion to Nature lyrically: “With a thousand voices Nature spoke to him while he listened, but his time had not yet ripened into action.”‡‡ The nature studies in the asylum at Saint-Rémy may have been driven by his desire to return to the land of his youth. After all he confessed to Theo from there that “I have a terrible desire that comes to me to see my friends again and to see the northern countryside again” (September 10, 1889). As for “the life of the underbrush,” he once again painted Undergrowth (#33).

Cottages at Sunset (Reminiscene of Brabant). 1890. Oil on canvas on panel. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Cottages at Sunset (Reminiscence of Brabant). 1890. Oil on canvas on panel. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

Van Gogh’s sketches in the asylum recalled the peasants of Brabant: Snow Covered Cottage with FiguresA Sketch of the Potato EatersDiggers and Other FiguresDiggers and Other FiguresPeasants Eating and Other FiguresSheet with a Figures at a Table, a Sower and ClogsSeveral Figures on a Road with TreesInterior of a Farm with Figures at the FiresideFour Men on a Road with Pine Trees and many more. The themes and shapes and atmosphere of Brabant all returned. And he painted three “Reminisces of Brabant” (e.g.Cottages at Sunset, right).

In May 1890 Van Gogh got part way to Brabant, transferring to Auvers, a north-eastern suburb of Paris. There he was treated by a sympathetic physician who also painted. But here he died in July. He did not make it to Brabant. The closest he got was one of his last paintings, Rain-Auvers (#34), where one bird, not a pair, and probably not a lark is seen to “descend among the rye” and as when he was a child, “he knew how to watch … closely, without even breaking one fine stalk of grain.”

33. Auvers-Rain. 1890. Oil on canvas. Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, Cardiff.

34. Auvers-Rain. 1890. Oil on canvas. Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, Cardiff.


*A printed version edited by Leo Jansen, Hans Luijten and Nienke Bakker is available in six volumes published by Thames & Hudson.

†B.B. Edward, “Condition of Theology in Holland, Especially in the Reformed Church,” 2 Bibliotheca Sacra and Theological Review 141 at 158 (1845). The article is essentially a translation of the observations of “Dr. Ullman of Heildelberg” and “Julius Wiggers of Rostock.”

‡”Groningen Theology” in Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology at 528 (2d ed.) (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001).

**According to Elisabeth Huberta van Gogh, Vincent’s younger sister by 6 years and called “Lies,” attributed the end of her brother’s relationship to Mauve’s “nervous and excitable” disposition, with the decisive event Vincent’s tossing a cast to the floor in Mauve’s studio when Mauve suggested he paint it in artificial light. She claimed he “could never see anything but the humorous side” of this event, and “as often as he would tell it, he would laugh over it …” Elisabeth Huberta du Quesne-van Gogh, Personal Recollections of Vincent van Gogh (translated by Katharine S. Dreier) (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1913), pp. 29-30 [“Personal Recollections“].

††In September 1883 van Gogh left the Hague (as well as Sien and her two children) for Drenthe Province. In December he moves to Nuenen in the Brabant, where his parents had moved. In November 1885 he moved to Antwerp where he stayed for three months until he moved to Paris in March 1886.

‡‡Personal Recollections (see note  **), pp. 5-6.

Other Sources

Charles Chetham, The Role of Vincent van Gogh’s Copies in the Development of his Art (NY: Garland Publishing, 1976).

Jane Clark, From Monet to Cézanne: Late 19th-Century French Artists (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2000).

Abraham Marie Hammacher, Genius and Disaster: The Ten Creative Years of Vincent van Gogh (NY: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1968).

Abraham Marie and Renilde Hammacher, Van Gogh (NY: Thames and Hudson, 1990).

Richard Kendall, Sjraar van Heugten, Chris Stolwijk, Van Gogh and Nature (Williamstown, Mass.: Clark Art Institute, Distributed by Yale University Press (New Haven, Conn.), 2015).

Joseph Masheck (ed.), Van Gogh 100 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996).

Stephen Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, Van Gogh: The Life (NY: Random House, 2011).

Cornelia Peres, Michael Hoyle, Louis van Tilborgh, A Closer look: Technical and art-historical studies on works by Van Gogh and Gauguin (Zwolle: Waanders, ©1991).

Ronald Pickvance, The English Influences on Vincent van Gogh (2nd ed.) (London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1974).

Wilhelm Uhde, Van Gogh (with notes by Griselda Pollock) (NY: Watson-Guptil Publications, 1990).

Evert van Uitert (ed.), Van Gogh in Brabant: Paintings and Drawings from Etten and Nuenen (translated by Patricia Wardle) (Zwolle: Waanders,©1987).

Sjraar van Heugten, Joachim Pissarro, and Chris Stolwijk, Van Gogh and the Colors of the Night (NY: Museum of Modern Art, 2008).