Posts Tagged ‘ Peter Paul Rubens ’

“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.

chase-keying-up

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.

 

Notes

1“American Artists’ Annual Exhibition,” New York Times, Saturyday Review of Books and Arts, March 19, 1898, p. BR191 (clip online via newspapers.com). [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 newspapers.com). [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 newspapers.com); New York Times, February 16, 1881, p. 3 (clip online via newspapers.com); Chicago Tribune, February 26, 1881, p. 9 (clip online via newspapers.com). [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 newspapers.com), 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 newspapers.com). [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 newspapers.com). [Return to text.]

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

13Untitled paragraph, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 18, 1866, p. 4 (clip online via nespapers.com). [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 newspapers.com). 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 newspers.com). 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 newspapers.com). [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 newspapers.com). [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.]

Sources

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 Archive.org).

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 Archive.org).

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).

Van Rensselaer, M.G., “William Merritt Chase” [First Article], American Art Review, Vol. 2., no. 3 (January 1881), pp. 91-98 (PDF; open access via JSTOR).

Van Rensselaer, M.G., “William Merritt Chase” [Second and Concluding Part], American Art Review, Vol. 2., no. 4 (February 1881), pp. 135-42 (PDF; open access via JSTOR).

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

The Nude among the Habsburgs in Spain

The Body as Subject in Paintings from the Prado

1. Lot and his Daughters by Francesco Furini. Oil on canvas. ca. 1634. Museo Nacional del Prado (“Prado”), Madrid. (Clicking once of the illustrations here enlarges the image and clicking again frees the image from the frame.)

This summer’s exhibition at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, Splendor, Myth, and Vision: Nudes from the Prado (running until October 10, 2016), presents 28 paintings from the collection of the Spanish kings now in the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, 24 of which are said never to have been in the United States before. The theme that organizes this event is the nude in paintings collected by Philip II (r, 1556-98) and his grandson Philip IV (r. 1621-65), whose portraits (by Titian (#2) and Velázquez (#3), respectively) greet the visitor at the entrance. Both these men were voracious collectors. Philip II inherited the art of his great-grandmother Isabella I and his father Emperor Charles V (King Charles I of Spain), but he not only enormously increased the collection but also greatly stimulated art in Spain. After the reign of his son, Charles III, who showed interest in neither governing nor art collecting, Philip IV resumed the obsession of greatly expanding the royal collection of art.  He commissioned Rubens to deliver numerous works and underwrote the purchases that Velázquez made on his behalf during tours through Europe.  Both these kings preferred Italian (especially the Venetians) and Flemish paintings, and a handful of Titian, Tintoretto and Rubens works are the heart of the Clark exhibition. Flemish cabinet landscapes with mythological figure and few other Italian and Spanish painters (including Velázquez (#3)) make up the remainder of the show.

Collecting Nudes in Royal Spain

2. Philip II by Titian (Tiziano Vecelli). Oil on canvas. 1549-50. Prado, Madrid.

2. Philip II by Titian (Tiziano Vecelli). Oil on canvas. 1549-50. Prado, Madrid.

Philip II’s father, the emperor, was a patron of Titian, from republican Venice. His son (who would achieve no imperial crown even if he had aspirations) also became a patron of Titian, who met Philip in 1548 when the latter was still a prince and touring Italy and the Netherlands to inspect the lands he would inherit. Titan painted his portrait at the time. Philip thereafter engaged him regularly until the artist’s death more than a quarter of a century later. Unlike his father, however, Philip did not confine his acquisitions to Titian’s orthodox and conventional religious subjects. In 1553 Titian offered Philip three of what he called “poetical compositions”—mythological scenes involving nudes. One of these almost surely was the famous Danaë and the Shower of Gold, one of a series on Danaë that Philip specifically requested. Similar paintings followed, including in 1562 the Rape of Europa. Philip II also purchased numerous religious paintings from Titian, as well as “historical” paintings not involving nudes (such as Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist) and commissioned portraits. He also inherited works from his father and his aunt, Mary of Hungary. Philip’s collecting was not limited to Titian, but included masterworks by Bosch, Veronese and Tintoretto. The best estimate of the collection he amassed is 1,567 paintings.1

3. Philip IV by Diego Velázquez. Oil on canvas. ca. 1653–55. Prado, Madrid.

3. Philip IV by Diego Velázquez. Oil on canvas. ca. 1653–55. Prado, Madrid.

Velázquez was the painter most closely associated with Philip IV. A young Velázquez on his second visit to Madrid from his native Seville, got the opportunity to paint the young king in 1623. The king was so pleased with the result that he installed Velázquez in a court position and granted him the exclusive right to paint his portraits. Velázquez spent most of the rest of his career largely concerned with portraiture. He painted so many of Philip IV that Enriqueta Harris concluded that he “probably painted more portraits of Philip than any other artist has ever painted of a single patron.”2

Philip IV became closely acquainted with Rubens in 1628 when he was acting as a diplomatic agent for Philip’s aunt, the Infanta Archduchess Isabella Clara Eugenia, Regent of the Netherlands. Rubens had become engaged in diplomatic (and related spying) activity for the Habsburgs in efforts to establish peace between England and Spain. He impressed both courts so much that he was knighted by both Philip and Charles I. In 1628 he brought to Philip nine paintings, and during his nine months in Madrid he engaged in considerable painting, including many portraits of the King and royal family as well as several other notables. He also copied all the paintings of Titian in the royal collection. All of these paintings he he took back with him to Antwerp to use in his workshop (where copies of the royal portraits were made by Ruben and his students). Philip acquired some of the copies made by Rubens on the latter’s death. In all, Philip was so impressed with Rubens, both as an artist and a functionary, that he conferred on him and his son for their lives the office of Secretary to the Privy Council in the Brussels court. For his part Rubens found the king’s taste agreeable and he would produce a great number of paintings for Philip for the rest of his life. Philip engaged his brother, the Cardinal Infante Ferdinand, who was appointed governor of the Netherlands in 1634, as his purchasing agent not only of the works of Rubens but also of other Flemish painters. In 1638 Rubens dispatched 112 pictures to Madrid including many mythological works with nudes. Other Flemish painters also supplied cabinet landscapes some of which are also found in the Clark exhibition together with a large Flemish allegory (#4) which had been sent to Philip IV before the diplomatic mission of Rubens.

4. Sight and Smell by Jan Brueghel the Elder, Frans Francken II, Hendrik van Balen, Jan Brueghel the Younger, and others. Oil on canvas. ca. 1618-23. Prado, Madrid.

4. Sight and Smell by Jan Brueghel the Elder, Frans Francken II, Hendrik van Balen, Gerard Seghers, Joost de Mompe and Jan Brueghel the Younger, and others. Oil on canvas. ca. 1620. Prado, Madrid.

Philip’s collection was increased not only by commission and purchases from living artists but also by gifts, purchases from other collections and even at auction (such as from the collection auctioned after the execution of Charles I). By Philip IV’s death the collection of paintings that had been amassed by the Spanish monarchs was immense, filling several residences, a large monastery with royal chambers attached and other buildings.  Fires, invasion, revolutions and gifts would only reduce the holdings—the normal risks of an expensive art collection. The nudes in the collection had another risk. So their most Catholic Majesties took steps to prevent the nudes from being seen by those with less catholic tastes and more Catholic piety, at the same time that they publicly conformed to the morality policed by the Church and the Inquisition. So while Philip II erected the monastery of El Escorial as a demonstration of his piety, he also built nearby a private hunting reserve, La Fresneda, where the paintings considered lascivious were kept. He also had at least another private room for paintings; Titian wrote letters to him mentioning such a room. Philip IV also had private rooms for paintings that might be considered salacious. He had a special vaults for certain Titian works at the Alcázar Palace. He also greatly expanded another hunting lodge originally commissioned by Philip II, called the Torre de la Parada and located in the mountains of El Pardo outside of Madrid. An inventory in 1700 showed that the residence held 176 paintings, mostly by .Flemish and Spanish artists. The paintings included family portraits, hunting scenes, animal paintings and religious works for the chapel. Philip IV also commissioned Rubens for a series of large mythological works. Making small sketches on panel to plan the arrangement of the series, Rubens designed fifty two paintings (including Fortuna (#5)) which were executed by Rubens alone or together with members of his workshop and other Flemish painters, the last of which was delivered in 1639.

5. Fortuna by Peter Paul Rubens. Oil on canvas. 1636-38. Prado.

5. Fortuna by Peter Paul Rubens. Oil on canvas. 1636-38. Prado.

The Williamstown show begins with Rubens’s 6 by 3-1/3 foot painting of Fortuna (#5), which the portraits of the two monarch flank. The first of these two kings never saw the painting, but it is an apt painting to apply to the reigns of both kings, who experienced the fleeting attention of fortune, although both would have been surprised to see how unfaithful a mistress Fortune could be. Philip II presided over the largest extent of the Spanish empire and with the gold and silver mined by the pueblos indígenas Spanish conquerors had subjugated amassed a luxurious court filled with, among other things, sumptuous art. That empire and the wealth it commanded would reach its tipping point when the defeat of the armada sent by Philip II to bring down Protestant England (a land he once presided over through his late wife Mary) not only checked Spain’s European ambitions but also removed the last restraint to Anglo settlement of the New World. Philip IV, who commissioned Fortuna, found himself during the Empire’s war against Protestants involving in a war with Catholic France which Spain could not win. The peace treaty handed over ascendancy in Europe from Spain to France’s Louis XIV. Fortune would rarely smile on the Spanish monarchy again.

Fortuna also illustrates another theme of the show—the paintings survived intentional destruction by censors more staunchly Catholic than the Habsburgs. Some of Rubens’s work escaped the flames twice. On the painter’s death, his wife Helena Fourment wanted to destroy the nudes. She had posed for several of Rubens’s most famous mythological paintings (as well as several more conventional, clothed, portraits) and planned to preserve her modesty by destroying the nudes. She was talked out of the decision by her confessor, Cardinal Infante Ferdinand, who seemed less interested in ministering to his penitent than saving the works for his brother Philip IV.  All of the nudes in the royal collection escaped another threat, this one from Charles III (r. 1759-88), under the influence of his confessor Joaquín de Eleta, an archbishop so fanatically reactionary that he was appointed to the Supreme Council of the Inquisition. Charles was persuaded to relent by Mengs, the neoclassical painter who was a favorite of Joaquín. His son, Charles IV (r. 1788–1808), agreed to transfer the royal nudes to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts on the condition that the paintings be kept in a sala reservada with access to this private room limited to those with prior written authorization (presumably art students or visiting dignitaries). Soon in 1792 and 1797 37 works by 15 different artists were deposited. In addition to the Titian and Rubens works, Dürer’s important Adam and Eve and others were saved from the flames and also from public view. They were briefly shown after the Napoleonic invasion, but two important Titians (a Danaë and Sleeping Venus) disappeared. It wasn’t until 1827 that the works were integrated into a collection organized by schools of art and later exhibited to the public. The works in Clark exhibition come from these one time hidden paintings.

The Nude and the Nature of Desire

Even in a day awash in pornography and the objectification of women for even trivial ends, it is surprising to see that these kings selected and secretly displayed pictures whose essential purpose is to titillate and arouse. It is not simply the hypocrisy of men who donned titles like “the pious” or “the devout” that is so unexpected. A large part of it results from the realization that in a society where political, religious and economic systems were designed to strictly enforce the most oppressive and reactionary orthodoxy (not the least of which concerned “purity” and mortification of the flesh), a society which elevated the Virgin as the paradigm for female virtue, was presided over by men who acted outside of prevailing morality.  This was at a time when the forces of reaction outside the monarchy held the upper hand. (This post tells how Philip II, for example, was unable to intervene at the behest of his friend Theresa, when the Inquisition kidnapped John of the Cross. Such was the power of fundamentalist conformity that even the absolute monarch had to defer.)

The major Titian in the exhibition, Venus with Organist and Cupid (#6) exemplifies the nature of these erotic paintings. Like Sight and Smell (#4) and Fortuna (#5), the Titian canvas is part of a popular Late-Renaissance-Baroque category, the Allegory. In the Brueghel painting the two women represent the two senses. (The painting is a companion to another in the Prado, Taste, Hearing and Touch, another painting supervised by the elder Brueghel.) “Smell” is presented with a bouquet by a Cupid, while “Sight” is shown her reflection in the mirror by another. The dog to the left represents a keen sense of smell, and the abundance of flowers is for Smell’s delight. The painting has a variety of devices, like magnifying glass, telescope and various calibers to aid Sight, and the walls are covered by an abundance of paintings, subjects for this sense. Fortuna‘s subject is the fickleness, and the far-reaching consequences, of fate. Standing on a glass globe, Fortune surrounded by a churning sea is buffeted by winds which blow the fabrics she is holding and others swirling around her. The Titian work is an allegory concerning erotic desire, but, unlike th other two works, it really has no “symbolic” meaning or message; it is purely an erotic representation for its own sake.

6. Venus with Organist and Cupid by Titian. Oil on canvas. ca. 1550-55. Prado, Madrid.

6. Venus with Organist and Cupid by Titian. Oil on canvas. ca. 1550-55. Prado, Madrid.

Aside from the nude the supposedly allegorical elements are the cupid, a deer, and the lovers to the left in the garden. On the right is a fountain with a satyr (a lustful goat-like forest creature) and a living peacock resting no the edge (because of its use of its lush ornamental display in courtship rituals?). The reclining Venus dominates the picture, and her body is turned fully toward the viewer. She is considerably larger than the organist, who twists about to leer at her genitals. Her hair is in the style of a contemporary courtesan, but unlike a courtesan, it is she who is being entertained. She dominates the color scheme of the painting as well. Her skin seems luminous and stands out against more muted colors which comprise most of the rest of the canvas. The works of both Titian and Rubens in the exhibition show remarkable treatment of the female skin, and Rubens in particular seemed to revel in the way the play of light on curves and folds created different color mixtures and tints (e.g., #5).

The Titian nude has a remarkable background. While the sofa on which Venus reclines is covered with fabrics draped in a way to suggest luxurious pleasure, the background seen through the window is a rich, formal landscape with fountain and domesticated animals and rows of harmonious, ornamental trees. The rows open up to clouds that reveal traces of a beautiful blue sky. The combination of the nude, a musician and background landscape through a window was a popular series by Titian. In fact, the Prado has another, nearly identical, except that a dog replaces the Cupid. A curious detail is that the other Prado reclining Venus has a wedding ring on her right hand. Aside from these two Titian painted three other reclining Venus with musicians: Like the two in the Prado, the one in Berlin’s Staatliche Museen has an organist. The two others (one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the other in Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge) have a lutenist as the musician. This series is the culmination of Titian paintings of reclining nudes including Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, which Titian completed by painting the background landscape, the Venus of Urbino and the Danaë and the Shower of Gold (also in the Prado). The Roman masters were not attracted to these paintings by Titian. Michelangelo saw Danaë and the Shower of Gold when Titian had a temporary studio in Rome. That painting had the advantage of depicting an established mythological story and having a color scheme that impressed Michelangelo. Nevertheless, in private Michelangelo criticized Titian’s composition for failing to adhere to classical principles of depicting the human body (involving the distances between breasts, navel and separation of legs). The same “non-classical” body proportions is seen in the painting at the Clark.

7. Lady Revealing Her Breast by Tintoretto. Oil on canvas. ca 1580–90. Prado, Madrid.

7. Lady Revealing Her Breast by Domenico Tintoretto. Oil on canvas. ca 1580–90. Prado, Madrid.

Domenico Tintoretto’s Lady Revealing Her Breast (#7) is another case of pure eroticism. The work is the portrait of a courtesan. That her head is off to the side, possibly in embarrassment, convinced some that the picture shows the woman first being introduced into her profession. Like most paintings of the younger Tintoretto, this one is characterized by subtle use of unusual colors. The pale purple background softly enhances the shade of her flesh in much the way late nineteenth century painting might attempt. Originally, the Prado attributed this work to Domenico’s father, and others believed it was painted by Jacopo’s daughter Marietta, but Domenico’s specialty was portraiture and the work lacks the energy and emotional concentration of his father’s works.

The elder Tintoretto is represented by two biblical-historical works with nudes. One is the often painted story of Susannah and the Elders (of which more below). The other is the encounter between Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife. Both of these paintings, together with four others at the Prado (Esther and AhasuerusJudith and Holofernes, The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon and Moses Rescued from the Nile), were part of a frieze decorating a dome in a Venetian palace. Velázquez purchased the paintings for Philip IV while on tour in Italy. The paintings were mounted in the dome at a 45° angle and so the paintings have an unusual perspective. Philip IV arranged the paintings in a ceiling at the Alcazar palace, arranged around a central oval painting, possibly The Purification of the Midianite Virgins. This last painting, however, seems to be later than the horizontal paintings by the elder Tintoretto and painted by another, possibly his son Domenico.

8. Joseph and Potiphar's Wife by Jacopo Tintoretto. Oil on canvas. ca. 1555. Prado, Madrid.

8. Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife by Jacopo Tintoretto. Oil on canvas. ca. 1555. Prado, Madrid.

The six rectangular paintings are unlike other Tintoretto works. They are interrelated by color and pattern and appear designed primarily for decorative purposes. Five of the six paintings are about two feet tall. Three of those five (including both nudes at the Clark) are about four feet wide. The other two are 6¾ feet wide. The sixth, the painting of Judith with the body of the Assyrian general she had just decapitated, has dimensions of slightly over 6 feet by by just under 8¼ feet. This largest of the paintings thus was the central work of the paintings fixed in the frieze. Although they all portray scenes from the Old Testament, they have neither a devotional or didactic purpose. All of the paintings feature elegant costumes, opulent jewelry, stylish coiffure set against luxurious furnishings and drapery and often with background of gardens and modern buildings. The fabrics, clothing and foliage created a complex pattern with intricate design that connected the paintings around the frieze of the dome. Although all other aspects of the paintings related to modern Venice, the costumes appear Oriental and may give a clue to the dating of the paintings.3

The painting of Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife (#8) shows the crisis point of the story of the attempted seduction of Joseph by the wife of the Egyptian captain to whom he had been sold into slavery. The lust in this painting is not the male’s (Joseph), who is recoiling from the attempt. Rather, the (unnamed) wife, though naked and turned toward the viewer’s leering gaze, is in the midst of being rebuffed. Her face is heavily made up with black lines around her eyes. Her double chin makes her appear much older than Joseph and marks her as the predator, even though her body is rendered in a way to arouse the prurient interest of the viewer. She appears to have just thrown a robe or cloth to ensnare Joseph, but neither her body nor her overt appeal succeed. When viewed from straight on, as at the Clark, it looks like Joseph is leaning backwards. But given the angled mounting in the original dome, likely Joseph appeared upright with the captain’s wife reaching up towards him. Joseph will pay for insulting his master’s wife of course, but his innocence is demonstrated in this painting by his face, his feminine attire, posture and ornaments (including what looks like a necklace). The event takes place in the richly furnished bedroom and the characters seem swaddled in the drapery from the bed. While Tintoretto became known for his dramatic expressivity, here the moment is lost because the painting is only one of a series which highlights the ornamentation rather than the intensity of the moment. Nevertheless, despite its ornamental intent, the scene is rendered as a moment of dramatic narrative (however stylized), unlike the Titian (#6) and the one by Tintoretto’s own son (#7), whose works seem essentially about tantalizing rather than presenting a moment of drama with a delineation of character. These latter features were characteristic of both Tintoretto specifically and the Baroque in general.

9. Susannah and the Elders by Guercino (Giovanni Francesco Barbieri). Oil on canvas. ca. 1617. Prado, Madrid.

The apocryphal story of Susannah (a Greek addition to the Book of Daniel recognized by the Catholic, Orthodox and Syrian churches) is represented in the Clark exhibition not only by the panel by Tintoretto but also by an oil by Guercino (#9). The tale is a simple one. Two lecherous old men spy on the chaste Babylonian wife of a wealthy Israelite while she bathes in her own garden. Aroused, they confront her and threaten to testify that they witnessed her meeting a lover unless she submits to them. She refuses but unable to prove her innocence is sentenced to death. The execution is prevented by Daniel who has the men examined separately, which reveals inconsistencies, resulting in Susannah’s freedom and her accusers’ execution.

The Guercino Susannah shown at the Clark was originally purchased by Cardinal Alessandro Ludovisi. This version is relatively chaste as Susannah is shown in profile and face averted. Her right arm covers much of her breasts and a cloth covers part of her right thigh. Generally among the many paintings of this scene, the choice is to show the nude Susannah directly to the viewer. That was the choice made by Tintoretto in the panel at the Clark, and in that case Tintoretto adds the titillating detail of one elder grasping Susannah’s breast. In that painting the robes of the elders and the foliage of the tree Susannah sits under provide the design details for the overall frieze pattern. (The tree is key to the inconsistencies of the elders’ testimony.) Another early painting (ca. 1555-56) on the same subject by Tintoretto, now in Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum, also shows Susannah frontally, as does another by Guercino, a work in the National Gallery of Parma. The Guernico showing at the Clark is a more masterful rendering than these other three. It is formally composed with the leering elders to the left backed by the branches of the telltale tree and Susannah demurely in the right half, seated on a stone bench in front of a serene sky, her body in the pose of a classical Greek sculpture. The contrast of color makes a formal division of the painting and highlights the contrasting characters of those depicted. The chiaroscuro treatment of the men and their grotesque expressions and movements show the disturbing nature of their emotions, especially when contrasted with the innocent and calm depiction of Susannah.  One of the men points toward the viewer as though to warn us to remain silent, making the viewer complicit in their behavior. It is an odd point to be made by a painter who depends on patronage of the devout. The painting merges the emotional turbulence of the Baroque art to come with the deference to classicism of the Renaissance works of Michelangelo.

The Nude Among the Gods

9. Rape of Europa by Petter Paul Rubens (copy of †itian). Oil on canvas. ca. 1628-29. Prado, Madrid.

10. Rape of Europa by Petter Paul Rubens (copy of Titian). Oil on canvas. ca. 1628-29. Prado, Madrid.

Rubens is represented by three other large mythological paintings. One, Rape of Europa (#10), is one of the copies of Titians which Rubens made during his visit to Madrid in 1628-29. The copy is a faithful reproduction of the original (now at the Isabella Stewart Gardiner Museum in Boston) and shows the respect Rubens had for the Venetian master. By the time Rubens made this copy he was already celebrated for his scenes of violence, mythological paintings and nudes. But the Titian is a work of intense expressivity. The story told by the painting is how Zeus, transformed into a bull, tricks the young Europa, for whom he lusts, and is now abducting her against her will. Europa’s terror of the abduction is physically palpable, as she rides precariously on his back with a foreboding sea populated by two evil looking creatures in the front (and unknown terrors below). But it is not just a representation of physical and sexual violence (although it is that indeed), because cupids fly overhead apparently benignly and one is riding one of the creatures below. In ancient Greece and Catholic Europe during the Counter-Reformation, especially Habsburg Europe and very particularly Spain, the terror of an encounter with a god is also an occasion of frightening enthusiasm (in its original, etymological sense). To be possessed by a god is beyond one’s control and if one submits, the result is ecstasy. Bernini would brilliantly express the terror of the rapture 20 some years later in his sculpture of Saint Teresa (a contemporary of Philip II). Bernini portrayed the ecstasy of the Spanish mystic, when Ruben only emphasized the devoutness of the saint (not her experiential response) in his early painting. It’s tempting to think that Rubens’s encounter with Titian with this painting added to his palette both ardent passion and emotion pressed to its human limit.

10. Rape of Hippodamia (The Lapiths and the Centaurs) by Peter Paul Rubens. Oil on canvas. 1636–38. Prado, Madrid.

11. Rape of Hippodamia (The Lapiths and the Centaurs) by Peter Paul Rubens. Oil on canvas. 1636–38. Prado, Madrid.

The Rape of Hippodamia (#11) shows another aspect of Rubens. The picture is among the last set commissioned by Ferdinand for Philip IV, intended to decorate the 25 room Torre de la Parada, Philip’s hunting lodge near Madrid. For a year and a half Rubens produced 112 oil sketches of mythological scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Rubens was suffering from gout at the time and some of the paintings were completed by painters in his school although he did finish many himself. This painting comes from Book 12 of Metamorphoses. The epic is an intricate series of stories, sometimes within other stories, all of which lead, like a river, into the next, and all describing the cause, process and result of change. The story in the Rubens painting is one of the stories within a story. It is told after the Greeks had finished their first battle upon landing to lay siege to Troy. Achilles found himself unable to kill a Trojan warrior, whose skin was impervious to spear or arrow. He was therefore forced to strangle him with his own helmet strap. After the battle, the oldest of the Greek heroes, Nestor, as he often does in the Iliad, tells the Greek lords how he knew of a more remarkable fighter in the good old days, when he was young. And he tells the story of the warrior Caeneus, who like the Greek adversary had impenetrable skin. This was part of an earlier metamorphosis granted by Neptune (detailed by Nestor). What concerns the painting took place at the wedding feast of Pirithoüs and Hippodame to which Caeneus was invited as a guest. Also invited were the centaurs, half-brothers of the bridegroom (whose father, Ixion, the king of the Lapithae, mated with a cloud in the form of Juno and fathered the half-men, half horse creatures). The most savage centaur,  Eurytus, drunk and overcome with lust, abducts the bride Hippodame, setting off a lethal brawl, which Nestor, who claimed to have attended, details at great length with the blows given in all their gruesomeness in a parody of Homer’s battle descriptions. Eurytus is killed by a wine bowl broken over his head. Caeneus comes to the aid of the bride and is protected by his skin, but the centaurs bury him under so many rocks and trees that he is sent to the underworld. On being questioned after this account, Nestor reveals that he has not told the tale quite accurately. In short, Ovid is satirizing Homer with this burlesque of a battle in the wedding hall. I think Rubens is also presenting a burlesque battle.

Beside being a diplomat and artist, Rubens was something of a classicist. Son of an Antwerp lawyer, Rubens was educated classically, learning Latin and possibly Greek, and read the classics, especially Virgil, until his early teens.4  His early “pocketbook” (a sketchbook that was largely destroyed by fire but partially reconstructed from copies and descriptions) arranged sketches of poses and emotions with appropriate quotes from Latin texts (particularly Virgil). His single-sheet annotated sketches show that he deeply contemplated classical texts (including Ovid), sometimes adding details or combining events or characters to more acutely render the underlying meaning. “Classical texts were for Rubens sources of inspiration, liberating rather than confining and restricting.”5 Surely, Rubens both consulted the text and understood the burlesque treatment Ovid gives the wedding hall battles.

The Hippodamia work is unlike his earlier battle scenes (of which Rubens was something of a master). Those scenes emphasize the contortions and agony of conflict and death. Viewed from a distance they seem a writhing mass of chaos. They seem to owe something to Michelangelo’s Battle of the Centaurs, which Rubens made two chalk sketches of: one in the Boijmans Collection in Rotterdam and the other in Frits Lugt collection in the Institut Néerlandais, Paris. Michelangelo’s relief, though on a rectangular stone panel, is not composed as though the figures were on that single plane. Rather the characters occupy several planes, seemingly in three dimension. Rubens’s chalk sketches not only study of the bodies and their movements but also, by shadowing, the relative depths of the carvings of the high relief.

The composition of Rape of Hippodamia is quite a contrast. In fact, with the two parallel planes that the figures inhabit, it is more like a relief than a painting (just as Michelangelo’s relief is more like a painting, or sculpture, in composition). The movement is all from left to right with the Lapiths chasing the centaurs. But the chase is somewhat cartoonish, and there is something emotionally distant about the moment. The figure with the dagger on the left (Caeneus?) has both feet well off the ground, leaping far higher than seems normal in that space. The disorder of the banquet is emphasized with bowls, jars and furniture toppling over. Hippodamia herself, in the grasp of Eurytus, has a stylized expression, quite unlike the terror or agony which we would expect and which Rubens excelled at painting. And the clothing (aside from Hippodame’s which is partially ripped from her) hardly seems what wedding guests would normally be clad in.

Whether or not the intent of Rubens is what I suggest, it is clear that the painting creates a sensation of great rushing tumult partially resulting from the rhythmic placement of heads. (I simply happen to believe the tumult is over the top.) The contrast of skin colors between Hippodame and the combatants makes her the central figure. And her horizontal placement among the mostly upright men shows that she is object of the tumult. The complimentary color tones which surround her makes the painting highly decorative, and given the subject matter, appropriate for the men’s lodge for which it was intended.

12. Marriage of Peleus and Thetis by Jacob Jordaens. Oil on canvas. 1636-38. Prado, Madrid.

12. Marriage of Peleus and Thetis by Jacob Jordaens. Oil on canvas. 1636-38. Prado, Madrid.

The large painting (nearly 6 feet (h)  x nearly 9.5 feet (w)) Marriage of Thetis and Peleus (#12) by Flemish artist Jacob Jordaens was a later example of a situation (the gods coming together to feast) executed by numerous painters of the Spanish Netherlands, often several times by a single painter. The popularity of this setting arose around the turn of the seventeenth century at the height of the Mannerist movement in Northern Europe. The scene allows for bravura treatment of the human form, permitted the use of nude figures and freed the artist from the constraint of High Renaissance formalism: an assembly of Olympic gods, after all, was not the Last Supper. Jordaens himself began as a Mannerist, but by the time of this painting had fully imbibed the influence of Rubens.  The Jordaens feast is for the wedding of Thetis and Peleus arranged by Zeus. The feast would ultimately result in the Trojan War owing to the refusal to invite Discordia (Eris in Greek, the god of Discord). In pique, Discordia flies into the banquet and tosses a golden apple with the inscription “To the fairest.” Each of three goddesses immediately assume the apple belongs to her—Venus, Juno and Minerva (in their Roman names). Paris will be invited to judge the contest. When he renders judgment in favor of Venus, she (as she promised him beforehand) delivers to him Helen (wife of Greek warlord Menelaus), and the Greek fleet was soon off to retrieve her and lay waste to Troy. The marriage has another connection with the later contest: their offspring would be Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, who would himself die before the walls of Troy. (Do not concern yourself with trying to correlate the time lines of the Judgement of Paris and the birth, adolescence and eventual participation in the Trojan War by Achilles; they do not correlate well. Perhaps this is why Homer only indirectly alludes to the Judgment of Paris because the backstory is problematic.)

The painting features the three goddesses. The central nude is Venus with Cupid at her knee. Behind her is Minerva, in full battle gear. Across the table is Juno, whose hand is outstretched for the apple. Discordia flies overhead, having just dropped the apple which is visible in the middle of the table. I suppose it is Thetis and Peleus at the far right.To the right of June is Zeus, her husband, and behind him is Mercury, one of his sons. As goddess of love, Venus is is entitle to sit naked at the nuptials. The painting was used by Philip IV as part of his redecoration of the Torre de la Parada. The work is elegantly composed, competently executed, contains the requisite nude per wish of the patron and displays the requisite opulence to decorate one of the palaces a specifically redesigned palace. Yet it is neither a work of Renaissance perfection nor Baroque passion. But when a patron like Philip IV commissioned works in bulk, he probably did not expect every one to be a masterpiece.

The Nude as Decoration

13. Abundance with the Four Elements by Jan Brueghel the Elder. Oil on panel. 1615. Prado, Madrid.

13. Abundance with the Four Elements by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Hendrick van Balen. Oil on panel. 1615. Prado, Madrid.

In the Flemish cabinet landscapes, represented in the exhibition by four works, the nudes are ornamental features among lush scenery. While each of the four works are interesting in their own right, my favorite is Abundance with the Four Elements (#13). This is another of the allegory class of paintings. The four elements are represented here by female nudes: earth, fire and water on in the midground with air flying above to the left. When this canvas was painted, the elder Brueghel was the most important painter in northern Europe. His fame allowed him to run a studio on something of an industrial model. The master would design the work but his students and other Flemish collaborators (including the young Rubens) would assist. In this genre the landscape was the essential design element, and the nudes were the feature desired by the clientele. This particular allegory was used over and over, both the elder Brueghel and his son painted more than one. The general pattern of landscape with nudes seems to have been immensely popular among Brueghel’s clients and it influenced many Flemish painters. Today we think of Brueghel as the painter of radical works of peasant life. But what funded the art was the studio which catered to patrons with specific tastes, and the Flemish cabinet landscapes with nudes was a popular decorative item that funded the art that lasted. Philip IV and his grandfather may have been shrewd  connoisseurs and patrons, but it is the artist, not the buyer or the broker, who changes the way we see things. And that was as true 400 years ago as it is now. And today, Brueghel’s peasant paintings are probably more indelibly imprinted in the modern mind than anything that the Habsburg collectors most treasured.

Nakedness as the Mystery of the Human Condition

Perhaps it’s an unreasonable idea that we, in our age, should expect “meaning” in our terms from artists 400 years ago. And of course Titian, Rubens and Tintoretto did not expect to be judged on the basis of a handful of nude paintings they made at the request of (or second-hand purchase) of a couple of immensely wealthy collectors. But that was the premise of the Clark exhibition, and so let us see if we can glean meaning from the selection. Notwithstanding their superiority as the front rank of the post-Renaissance painters, it is not Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens or Brueghel that suggests an underlying drama and mystery to human nakedness. It is true that they, particularly Titian and Rubens, were unmatched in creating luminous flesh, mixing pigments in such a way that the color itself is more real than all the surroundings, and indeed more “real” than actual flesh. Moreover the texture and movement of this color expresses a surface not seen since, not even by Renoir.6 These masters achieved (or nearly so) for the surface of the body what the ancient and Hellenistic Greeks achieved for its form, and they did it by a similar technique—by idealizing and slightly exaggerating certain components to trick the viewer into thinking he has seen a naturalistic representation.

But this breakthrough by these masters was used largely for ornamentation and for the kind of eroticized remake of traditional subjects that they believed the patron class demanded. It would be the lesser Baroque artists who used the nude to attempt to achieve effects beyond mere titillation. Furini’s Lot and his Daughters is perhaps the best example in this exhibition.

14. Detail of Furini's Lot and his Daughters (#1 above).

14. Detail of Furini’s Lot and his Daughters (#1 above).

Genesis 19 tells the disturbing story of the last day of Sodom. Lot, sitting at the city gate, meets two angels (מלאכים) arriving to retire for the night in the center of the city. Lot urgently prevails on them to stay at his house, but shortly, the men of the city, young and old, arrive and demand that Lot turn over the strangers so that they can rape them. Lot begs with them to desist and offers his two virgin daughters instead. They refuse and try to force entry, but the angels blind them. The next day the angels instruct Lot to gather his kin to leave the city to escape the destruction that god intends to deliver. Lot attempts to persuade his sons-in-law to accompany him, but they think he is joking. On their exit the angels tell Lot, his wife and daughters not to look back on Sodom, an injunction Lot’s wife disobeys, and she is turned into salt as a result. When Lot and his daughters reach the mountain cave which is their sanctuary the daughters realize that they will remain barren unless they seduce their own father. They twice intoxicate him so that each can couple with him, unions that will impregnate both, and allow the seed of their father to live on.

The painting is the first seduction of their father. It is profoundly unsettling. The figures are in an uncomfortable mass, standing in front of a dark bluish void, a color that dominates the composition (including Lot’s face) and contrasts with the green drapery which cover the lap of the daughter on the right. The daughter on the left, whose buttocks is covered by a diaphanous robe, holds a wine jug in her left hand. Both daughters are naked as they face their father. Most of the intimate details are shown in the section contained in figure #14. We see the hair of both daughters, each with a jeweled headband of sorts. The daughter on the left also has a red ribbon which accents her own red hair. The daughter on the left (the elder one, whose idea it was) is pulling down her father’s robe with her left hand. A tress of her hair falls on her left cheek, a detail that makes the scene even more intimate. Lot tentatively touches both daughters on the shoulder. The scene is entirely non-judgmental, as is the ancient text it is based on. And yet, it also allows the viewer to contemplate the incest taboo which makes the story noteworthy in the first place. Naked flesh is unsettling, the source of moral corruption, but also what is responsible for the race surviving.

The treatment of the figures, which does not exalt in the flesh that made Rubens famous, is nonetheless more “modern” to viewers of today. The composition is designed to convey a moment not a bravura technique nor sensuality. It is perhaps that choice that makes it more memorable than the works of Furini’s betters.

15. Hercules Defeats King Geryon by Francisco de Zurbarán. Oil on canvas. 1634-35. Prado, Madrid.

15. Hercules Defeats King Geryon by Francisco de Zurbarán. Oil on canvas. 1634-35. Prado, Madrid.

Francisco de Zurbarán, the Spanish master of chiaroscuro who mainly confined himself to religious paintings and still lifes, is represented by two works from a series of 10 paintings illustrating the labors and death of Hercules. Zubarán was not a natural to portray the demigod, and it seems that attribution to him was not certain until the mid-twentieth century when the record for payment for the works was discovered. The commission was for Zurbarán to supply 12 such paintings (later reduced to 10) to decorate the newly built Hall of Realms at another of Philip IV’s pleasure houses, Buen Retire Palace outside Madrid. The identification of the works remains somewhat clouded. The work called Hercules Defeats King Geryon (#15) in the Clark Exhibition was entitled Hercules Kills Eryx when the attribution to Zubarán was first made.7 Indeed, two things compound that confusion. First, the online Prado collection does not contain or identify the work. But more importantly, the defeated figure does not resemble Geryon or Geryones, who is consistently referred to in ancient sources as “three-bodied” and depicted in ancient iconography with three heads (and other features). Whether the slain figure represents Eryx or Geryon is probably of little importance since both are figures in the tenth labor of Hercules and both are slain by him (see Apollodorus, Library, ii.5, for the story). The painting does not rely much on the narrative of that tale, instead showing Hercules from behind standing over a corpse. We would perhaps not call this painting a “nude,” showing only the buttocks of Hercules (and, unusually the anus of the corpse, which can be seen more clearly in the painting than the reproduction here). This is true also of the other painting from this series shown at the Clark, Hercules and the Hydra (#16). (The latter however may have show frontal nudity, with a loin cloth painted later, since the stance of Hercules is quite odd, unless it was intended solely to display his genitals.)

The treatment of Hercules in this series is quite different from that of Hellenistic artists. The Hellenistic kings identified with Hercules, just as the Habsburg rulers did, but the former emphasized his youth and beauty (unabashedly showing full frontal nudity and the body in three dimensions in action). The depiction of Hercules by Zubarán, however, is not one of idealized beauty. Hercules is both stolid and largely static. His body does not show sleekly rippled muscles but rather unusual muscular architecture, with tube-like features that don’t look anything like classical depictions. Nor are the scenes done with the wit and flair of Rubens, who was much more comfortable with mythological scenes than probably any other Baroque artist.

16. Hercules and the Hydra by Francisco de Zurbarán. Oil on canvas. 1634-35. Prado, Madrid.

16. Hercules and the Hydra by Francisco de Zurbarán. Oil on canvas. 1634-35. Prado, Madrid.

But the paintings seem to serve their purpose. They were hung above the ten large windows in the very long Hall of Realms with their bottoms more than 10 feet off the ground. Between those windows and below the scenes of Hercules were battle scenes. The room (which was the ceremonial throne room of the palace) was designed to show the virtues, accomplishments and duties of the Catholic King.8 The martial aspects went back to Charles V; the allegorical representations were more recent. In addition to the other reasons why kings identified with Hercules, Philip IV’s image handlers wanted him associated with an ineluctable force that defeats Discord. The goddess Discordia (who we encountered in the Jordaens painting in her traditional setting, above, #12) was a topic on the mind of politicians, writers and artists in Habsburg Europe at least from the beginning of the 17th century.9 A few years before the commission to Zurbarán, Rubens himself had completed the dramatic ceiling of the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall in London under commission of Charles I. One of the corner ovals consisted of a painting, Hercules as Heroic Virtue Overcoming Discord, an oil planning sketch of which can be seen at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Like Zurbarán’s depiction, Hecules is excessively muscled, and Discordia, like Eryx/Geryon, is defeated in a grotesque position. Years later an elderly Calderón del la Barca tackled Discordia in a nuanced way (after Philip and his efforts against the goddess were over) in his comedia famosa entitled La estatua de Prometeo (Prometheus’s Statue) (written in 1669; first published, posthumously, in 1715), but a discussion of that treatment must await a future post. The Habsburgs, however, saw no nuance behind Discord, only Lutheranism (or other heterodoxy), rebellion or succession dipsutes. The latter two would come later. Now Philip IV was assisting the empire in defeating Discord by setting Europe on fire and waging a war that already lasted a generation and that would devastate and depopulate Germany. Zurbarán was not asked to create visually interesting work or works filled with devotional or spiritual meaning, both of which Zurbarán specialized in. He was only asked to create a mythology to justify the monarchy in its brutal and grim work, and Zurbarán complied. From the floor, where the dignitaries had audiences with the king or viewed the many productions that were staged in the room, the unrealistic musculature and postures of the figures were not apparent. Only the atmosphere, which the dark palette also contributed to, was necessary to communicated the implacable force meted out to those who defied Habsburg Order and their inevitable destruction. The final picture in the Hercules series, which showed a dying hero wearing the poisoned robe of Nessus seeking the pyre that would end his torment, showed the reward at the end of the King’s labors—apotheosis.

17. Saint Sebastian by Guido Reni. Oil on canvas. 1617-19. Prado, Madrid.

17. Saint Sebastian by Guido Reni. Oil on canvas. 1617-19. Prado, Madrid.

The final three paintings in the Clark exhibition are works that would customarily (or perhaps better, a priori) be considered as filling the role that certain nudes did in Hellenistic art: depictions of intense human suffering. We saw this in the Dying Persian in the Metropolitan Museum exhibition earlier this year (fig. #14 in that post). Other examples form the Hellenistic age include the flaying of Marsyas, such as the 2nd century B.C.E. version now at the Musee Capitole Palazzo Conservatori in Rome. The representation of Marsyas would foreshadow all later representations of the Passion of Christ. The most famous and influential Hellenistic work in this genre, however, is the Laocoön Group, now in the Vatican. This sculpture profoundly influenced Italian artists from the time it was excavated in Rome in 1506. Renaissance and Baroque painters applied the conceptual framework to four more familiar mythological figures, who were repeatedly drawn on to signify suffering: Tityos, Sisyphus, Tantalus and Ixion. (The later was the father of the centaurs in Rubens work above, #11). These (nude) figures could be painted in the throes of agony because they were condemned to Hades by the gods. Early on the Habsburgs endowed them with political meaning. Mary of Hungary commissioned Titian to paint these tormented figures as a symbol of the punishment inflicted on the German rebels by Emperor Charles V. See, for example, Titian’s treatment of Sisyphus. Of course the figures were seen as deserving to suffer, but some of the renderings were quite gruesome (even according to Habsburg taste for vengeance). See, for example, Titian’s Tityos. By politicizing the stories (and casting the Habsburgs in the role of Olympian deities), the symbols became unmoored from their ancient meanings, and in the Baroque these stories became excuses for something close to sadism. We would expect depictions of saints, on the other hand, to be handled with pathos of the Hellenistic originals (which the Hellenistic kings, unlike the Habsburgs, even accorded to their political opponents).

18. Saint Sebastian by Jusepe de Ribera. Oill on canvas. 1636. Prado, Madrid.

18. Saint Sebastian by Jusepe de Ribera. Oill on canvas. 1636. Prado, Madrid.

The three works that end the Clark show are treatments, with the usual iconography, of the first martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, done by by Guido Reni (ca. 1617-19) (#17), Jusepe de Ribera (1636) (#18) and Juan Carreño de Miranda (1656).  Sebastian, according to legend, was a captain in Emperor Diocletian’s Praetorian Guards. When it was discovered that he was a Christian, Diocletian (who was in the midst of a campaign to exterminate Christians) ordered that he be executed by being tied to a tree and having archers fill him with arrows. Although he was left for dead, Irene of Rome collected his body, nursed him back to life and healed his wounds. Sebastian, once recovered, proceeded to denounce Diocletian in person, who had him seized and clubbed to death. It is the scene of an arrow-punctured Sebastian that was routinely rendered.

Despite what we might expect, in contrast to the Baroque treatment of tormented mythological beings, none of the three renderings of the saint seem to attempt to elicit feelings of pathos or express the agony of the torture. Indeed, although each has received multiple arrow punctures, they all seem unnaturally tranquil. This is not how El Greco treated his subject, in a painting in the Prado collection. The earlier work, like all of Greco, is an intellectualized, expressionistic treatment of suffering and shows the saint yearning for release. The three in the Clark exhibition seem, by contrast, highly stylized, more a reason to show the male body than a contemplation of the suffering, or indeed the devotion, of Sebastian. A Prado curator, Pablo Pérez d’Ors, who helped organized a Masterpiece showing of Prado works in Puerto Rico in 2012, even suggested that the Ribera painting disproved criticism’s of Spanish art as reflective of inherent cruelty in Spanish culture.10 But it was only three years later that Ribera showed that he could paint a scene of a saint tortured before an uncaring audience with his Martyrdom of Saint Philip, which seems an eminently more sensible way of portraying a martyrdom, however much it also reminds one of the practices of the Inquisition in Spain.

19. Saint Sebastian by Juan Carreño. Oil on canvas. 1656. Prado, Madrid.

19. Saint Sebastian by Juan Carreño. Oil on canvas. 1656. Prado, Madrid.

If one puts aside the purported setting of the pieces and treats each work not as a depiction of a martyrdom or an object to be venerated, then they can be seen as studies of the male body in two dimensions, much as the ancients treated the male nude in three dimensions. All three show the careful study Italian artists had made of classical models for nearly a century, not only in terms of proportion but more importantly how the male torso was designed (both geometrically and in terms of muscular architecture). But the Reni (#17) and the Carreño (#19), which show the orientation of the pelvis, also display the counterpose posture (contrapposto) which was the first great classical innovation in the portrayal of the human body. Reni especially is able to give his subject’s body a rhythm that suggests discomfort and perhaps yearning to be released. (Reni’s attempt to relate his subject’s body language to his predicament in this case seems not to have been attempted in another of his paintings in the exhibition, Cleopatra, who appears to be eating figs as she exposes her breast to the viewer and the small serpent who will kill her.) Carreño’s subject has the most individualized physiognomy, perhaps based on a real person. His painting is the one with the most non-Italian influence—the sky and landscape seem to owe more to Rubens and other Flemish painters than to Roman ones. In short, all three portraits contain the key features of classic Greek and Italian Renaissance art, but Carreño also has more contemporary coloring.

Yet both classical Greece and Renaissance Italy celebrated the male nude as part of a philosophy that exalted in the belief that man was the center of all thought and the measure of all things. This was decidedly not the philosophy of Habsburg Europe. While the Habsburgs themselves, and their courtiers, were not constrained by the oppressive morality they imposed on their subjects, they required the illusion that they, like their subjects, served higher powers. So the celebration of the male body had to be packaged into a context where it clearly did not belong and which diminishes it as a work of imagination.

Final Thoughts

The nude was an integral part of Greek culture. It was not just art. Spectators watched naked athletes compete. Philosophers celebrated the beauty of the human body. In fact, gods were made in the image of man because there could be no higher beauty. Over several hundred years classical artists explored the body and created rules for representation that to this day seem to define human beauty, at least in representational art.

No Western culture since then celebrated nakedness as much as the Greeks. The Romans were shocked by the rampant nakedness of the Greeks and their art, but they recognized how the Greeks had discovered a beauty that they could only copy, not invent. For nearly a millennium Western art hid the body. (Greek respect for the body may have been exported to Buddhist lands, where it thrived while Europe rejected it.) When the Italians rediscovered the classical reverence for the body, it was part of  the general acceptance by Italian intellectuals of most of the “new” ideas they were learning form the ancients. The Spanish Monarchy never fully accepted the humanism of the ancients and certainly not the concept that a human, qua human, was the highest good.

On the basis of this (admittedly small) sample, it appears that Philip II and Philip IV understood that the nude provided a delight to those who could afford them. Women of course provided carnal delight, so they could populate expressly erotic works and populate “poetical” compositions in which they played figures subject to or fleeing from sexual assault. In any event, the female nude was mainly an object of lust or given over to it.

The male nude was not an object of lust so he is seen only in exceptional circumstances. Oddly those circumstances were either to delight in physical torment (something near bloodlust) or to display religious devotion. By far the most frequent male nude in the royal collections was the Savior. Next his most devoted followers, suffering torments for their devotion.

It is difficult to leave this exhibition without meditating more on the collectors than the artists. This is in part due to the fact that the artists the Spanish kings patronized (with few exceptions) worked in narrow, often trod, paths acceptable to their clients. The power of the artistic imagination, his ability to shock, the primacy of his vision, concepts that existed earlier and later than this period, were unknown. But the impression is mainly due to the particular subject of the exhibition, which only was a small part of the collecting activities of these two kings. If the exhibition were of royal family portraits, scenes of the life of Christ or other biblical narratives, ancient persons, historical works, still lifes, etc., all of which are much more amply represented in their collections, the viewers’ rumination would be on the works and not the society that consumed them. But the curators chose to examine the nude in the collection of rulers who enforced a highly conservative and religiously dominated social order.  That fact cannot be separated from the works themselves, even if some would be considered masterworks in other contexts.

Notes

1Sanchez Canton, F.J., The Prado trans. by James Cleugh (New York: Harry M. Abrams, Inc., c1959), p. 21. [Return to text.]

2Harris, Enriqueta, The Prado: Treasure House of the Spanish Royal Collections (London, New York: The Studio publication, [1940]), p. 29. [Return to text.]

3Based on stylistic evidence Renaissance art historian Mary Pittaluga (Il Tintoretto (Bologna, N. Zanichelli [1925]) assigned the panels to ca. 1655, while Rodolfo Pallucchini (La Giovinezza del Tintoretto (Milano: D. Guarnati, [1950]) thought they were painted ca. 1544. They attributed the costumes to the influence of the Mannerist painting of Parmigianino. Stella Mary Pearce has argued, however, based on a fashion book published in 1590 that the costumes reflect the dress of peoples from Rhodes and Persia, who were not uncommon in Venice, given its status as a maritime trading center. She concludes that the paintings were painted around 1588 but certainly within the last 10 years of Tintoretto’s life (1584-94). For a discussion, see Stella Mary Pearce, “Dating on the Evidence of Costume and Hairdressing” in Newton, Eric, Tintoretto (London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1952), pp. 228-31. [Return to text.]

4Jaffé, David and Elizabeth McGrath, Rubens: A Master in the Making (London: National Gallery Co., 2006) (“Jaffé & McGrath”), p. 11. [Return to text.]

5McGrath, Elizabeth, “Words and Thoughts in Ruben’s Early Drawings” in Jaffé & McGrath pp.29-37, at 35. [Return to text.]

6You can evaluate this assertion yourself at the Clark, which has more than 30 Renoirs on permanent display, including an early and late self portrait. [Return to text.]

7Caturla, Maria Luisa, “Zurbaran at the ‘Hall of Realms’ at Buen Retiro,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 89, no. 527 (February 1947), pp. 42-45. [Return to text.]

8For a reconstruction of the Hall of Realms as it existed when redesigned for Philip IV, see Brown, Jonathan and J.H. Elliott, A Palace for a King: The Buen Retiro and the Court of Philip IV (New Haven [Connecticut]: Yale University Press, 1980), pp. 141-92. A drawing of the placement of the paintings on the long walls is found at p. 144-45. A discussion of “Hercules Hispanicus,” the authors’ construct for how the monarchy in 17th century Spain viewed Hercules, is found at pp. 156-61. [Return to text.]

9See, e.g., DiPuccio, Denise M., Communicating Myths of the Golden Age Comedia (Lewisburg [Pennsylvania]: Bucknell University Press, 1998), pp. 175-76. [Return to text.]

10See the description of Ribera’s Saint Sebastian in the Museo de Arte de Ponce’s catalogue, Hartup, Cheryl and Pablo Pérez d’Ors (eds.), Del Greco a Goya: Obras Maestras del Museo del Prado ([n.p.:] Museo de Arte de Ponce, [2012]), p. 116 (English version) (PDF file). The defense of Spanish culture is odd for two reasons. First, Ribera’s treatment owes more to the influences of Italy (where he studied and was then livving) than his original Spanish roots. And second, a single painting is hardly evidence to contradiction the religio-political institutionalized intolerance, repression and cruelty evidenced by such things as the 1492 Alhambra Decree, Spanish treatment of native Americans, the Inquisition, the auto-da-fé, the Habsburg war policy during the Thirty Years War and such bizarre symptoms as the Hermanos Penitentes. This religious-tinged dalliance with reacton was not eliminated with the Habsburgs but remained only slightly below the surface of Spanish society until the explosion of the 20th century. [Return to text.]

The incorrupt and esoteric passion of John of the Cross: “Llama de amor viva” (Oh, white hot flame of passion)

Llama de amor viva

Canciones que hace la alma en la íntima unión en Dios (1584 or 1585)

by Juan de la Cruz (1542-1591)

¡Oh llama de amor viva,
que tiernamente hieres
de mi alma en el más profundo centro!
Pues ya no eres esquiva,
acaba ya si quieres;
rompe la tela de este dulce encuentro.

¡Oh cauterio suave!
¡Oh regalada llaga!
¡Oh mano blanda! ¡Oh toque delicado!
que a vida eterna sabe, y toda deuda paga;
matando, muerte en vida la has trocado.

¡Oh lámparas de fuego,
en cuyos resplandores
las profundas cavernas del sentido,
que estaba oscuro y ciego,
con estraños primores
calor y luz dan junto a su querido!

¡Cuán manso y amoroso
recuerdas en mi seno
donde secretamente solo moras,
y en tu aspirar sabroso
de bien y gloria lleno,
cuán delicadamente me enamoras!

White Hot Flame of Passion

[translated by DK Fennell]

Oh white hot flame of passion,
how carefully you scorch me
in the center of my soul’s deepest part!
No longer are you distant
attain it if you wish now,
rip the curtain for our sweet rendevous.

Oh cautery so pleasant!
Oh medicated ulcer!
With a delicate, soft hand and light touch
that endless life it knows of
and every debt it pays back,
And by killing, you have changed death to life.

Oh lambent flaming lanterns
in whose resplendent flickers
the deep underground caverns of my soul
that once were blind and sullen
with exquisite strange beauty
to their lover shine warm, glorious light.

So lovesome and so peaceful
you call within my bossom
where in secret isolation you reside;
and in your fragrant breathing
so full of glorious virtue
with such splendor you enkindle my love.

Juan de Yepes Álvarez was a child of passion, in an Age that despised it.

Church at the birthplace of Juan de la Cruz in Fontiveros, Ávila, Spain. (Photograph by Cruccone. In Wkimedia Commons.)

Church at the birthplace of Juan de la Cruz in Fontiveros, Ávila, Spain. (Photograph by Cruccone. In Wkimedia Commons.)

Juan’s father, Gonzalo de Yepes, had been born into an eminent family of Spanish conversos, ethnic Jews who converted to Catholicism. (There were no open, unconverted Jews in Spain after the Edict of Expulsion in 1492.) Over the years, despite being part of the Universal Church, they suffered any number of legal and social disabilities. Even when they weren’t under some restraint, they were generally under suspicion. So they tended to live together, work in the same lines, assist each other in advancement, and in their dealings with non-Jews remain wary and distrustful. Some even entered the Church, usually a generation or so removed from the conversion, and often with a fervor all the greater, as though to make up for their heritage. Despite the efforts of the Spanish monarch, who needed both the expertise and money of the conversos, however, they never fully integrated.

As for Juan’s father, Gonzalo was orphaned at an early age and taken in by uncles who were wealthy silk traders. (This was a trade monopolized by conversos.) The family was so eminent that despite being conversos, they had numerous high church functionaries.  Four of their brothers were canons of Toledo Cathedral, another the Archdeacon of a collegiate church and yet another an inquisitor. Gonzalo could have looked forward to a respectable and comfortable life, but before he could be established as a silk merchant, he made a serious mistake. On his way to the Medina del  Campo Fair, he stopped in Fontiveros and met a silk weaver, Catalina Álvarez, and he fell in love. If this had been Italy, his condition might have been the subject of a madrigal. But in Spain frivolities were not celebrated. He must have known the consequence; either because she was a peon or perhaps because she was a gentile, or both, she was unacceptable to the family. His decision nonetheless to marry her condemned himself, Catalina and their future children to a life of poverty. After the uncles disowned him, he was forced to settle with his wife, learn the weaving trade, and toil away for 12 years in Fontiveros, where he died after a long and debilitating illness, shortly after Juan was born in 1542. He left his wife with three boys, one of whom is said to have been mentally retarded. (Gerald Brenan, St John of the Cross: His Life and Poetry (Cambridge: 1973), pp 3-4.) Located in the middle of a sun-baked plain, Fontiveros is still a small town filled only with ermitas, conventos and iglesias, not farming, trade or industry. Juan would grow up in grinding, but pious, poverty. His mother could get no help from her children’s great uncles, despite making a grueling foot trip to beg them. An early biographer, Jerónimo de San José, in 1641 credited the poverty of Fontiveros for giving Juan his lifelong preference for mortifications of the flesh. (Robert A. Herrera, Silent Music: The Life, Work, and Thought of St. Johnof the Cross (Grand Rapids: c2004), at 24-35.) With this attitude Jerónimo demonstrated one way in which the Church justifies poverty and why it was so fiercely supported by the wealthy in Spain.

Physicians treating syphilis (the "Great Pox) with mercury. (Woodcut. Vienna, ca. 1498.)

Physicians treating syphilis (the “Great Pox) with mercury. (Woodcut. Vienna, ca. 1498.)

After one son died from privations, Juan’s mother decided they had to move to seek better opportunity. But Spain was not ripe in that commodity. The family first went to Arevalo, then to Medina del Campo. Medina at least offered the opportunity to give Juan over to an orphanage, where he was probably better fed and clothed. But he was unsuited for the trades they tried to make him for. He eventually found a position at a hospital in Medina. The grim nature of his ministrations there are conveyed by the name, el hospital de las bubasbubas being the tumors or granulomas that appear on the body as a result of leprosy or in the tertiary stage of syphilis. (Both arose in Spain about the same time, were transported to the New World from there, and were not clearly distinguished by medical science then.) He was also required as part of this position to beg for alms to support the institution. His diligence, tender succour, and disingenuousness (for which he was known his whole life) allowed him a small but significant preferment. He was accepted into a Jesuit school, where he would learn Latin reasonably well and discover that his life’s calling was to be a friar in a mendicant order. (It is not surprising that depending on the charity of others would be his career; he knew nothing other.) So in 1563, when he was 21, he took the habit of the Carmelites, who had a house in Medina. (See his entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1913).) A hagiography by a modern Carmelite, Michael Dodd, notices a parallel between Juan and his father, both having given up everything for love, in Juan’s case for the Virgin. Of course Juan had considerably less to sacrifice than his father. In one respect, however, there was a similarity. Just as Gonzalo had married against the wishes of his uncles, Juan left the hospital secretly to enter the order; the hospital administrator had hoped he would study for the priesthood to become a chaplain of the hospital (Brenan at 6.) When he made his profession a year later, Juan took the name Juan de San Matías.

The Carmelites recognized the proficiency he had developed in Latin at the Jesuit school and sent him to study for the priesthood. They had a very small college at the University of Salamanca. The Carmelites did not share the Jesuits’ view of the importance of education. But it was nonetheless at the oldest and most prestigious university in Spain, one of the major centers of learning in Europe. Although speculative inquiry or humanities was not prized in Spain, Salamanca had become the source of bureaucrats and functionaries for the Empire. Even earlier it often provided technical expertise for the Court of Ferdinand and Isabel, who were interested in rationalizing administration. Columbus, for example, argued the case for his first expedition before a panel of geographers from the University.

Friar Luis de León by Francisco Pacheco (ca. 1599) from Libro de descripción de verdaderos retratos de ilustres y memorables varones (Pedro M Piñero Ramírez & Rogelio Reyes Cano, ed.) (Sevilla: Diputación Provincial de Sevilla: 1985).

El Maestro Frai Luis de León by Francisco Pacheco (ca. 1599) from Libro de descripción de verdaderos retratos de ilustres y memorables varones (Sevilla: 1599).

Although Juan spent the usual three years at Salmanca, he appears not to have been involved or even influenced by the intellectual life of the University. In fact there is no evidence that he even met the famous converso Luis de León, who would become, next to Teresa and Juan himself the most lyrical mystical poet of the Spanish language. The later case of Luis would also go unheeded by Juan. Although a man of impeccable orthodoxy himself, and indeed a protégé of the grim and duplicitous Mechor Cano (a man who would arbitrate orthodoxy for the Inquisition), Luis de León would run afoul of the anti-Luther hysteria about to grip Spain and ended in prison for 5 years, solely for having translated the Song of Songs into Spanish. Mysticism, religious fervor and expressive, joyous faith were about to become heretical in Catholic Spain. But Juan was not attuned to grand politics (it was above his station) and his goal was to withdraw from the world, not to understand its rules. Others who knew him at the University left records. He is said to have studiously read in his dark cell and spent much of every night in prayer. He flagellated himself and fasted diligently. He upbraided the few fellow Carmelites in his college for the slightest breach of rules, which he found lax enough. In short, he was earnest, severe and friendless. (Brenan at 8.)

Saint Teresa of Avila's Vision of the Dove by Peter Paul Rubens. (Oil on canvas. 1612-14. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.)

Saint Teresa of Avila’s Vision of the Dove by Peter Paul Rubens. (Oil on panel. 1612-14. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.)

When after three years Juan returned to Medina a priest, he was about to leave the Carmelites owing to their laxity. And then a coincidence that set the course for the rest of his life happened. Teresa of Ávila was in Medina to found an order of “reformed” Carmelites (Discalced, that is “barefoot,” for their primitive, severe rules), and she literally collected him for her project by her power of will. She was 52, no longer doubtful as to the source of her mystical experiences; in fact, her autobiography was already written (it was the history of her quest to perfect prayer and union with God). Now she was ardent to set up not only new reformed Carmelite convents but also priories with friars to hear the confessions of the nuns she trained in her way of prayer.

Mysticism and the erotic in Theresa's passion. The head of Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. (Marble sculpture. 1652. Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome.)

Mysticism and the erotic in Theresa’s passion. The head of Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. (Marble sculpture. 1652. Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome.)

Juan could no more resist her than artists through the ages have. Bernini sculpted her in meditation as he imagined his most ardent mistress. George Eliot found traits in her that would make up Dorthea in Middlemarch. Juan was not an artist or a thinker and he was probably not expansive enough to see her other than as the opportunity to withdraw into the kind of strict, primitive faith, with severe self-mortification, that he was looking for. He became Juan de la Cruz. So Juan with two other men opened the first reformed Carmelite monastery (it was a shack) at Duruelo. (Teresa describes the event in chapters 12 & 13 of the Book of the Foundations, the book in which she celebrates the monasteries and convents she established. ) She grew to trust Juan, and he became her confessor. But she always treated him wryly; she found him much too single-minded in his spiritual fixedness. She described him as half a friar to her nuns when she first recruited him. (He was under 5 feet tall.) She once told him, “God deliver us from people who are so spiritual that they want to turn everything into perfect contemplation.” And she said of him: “If one tries to talk to Padre Fray Juan de la Cruz of God, he falls into a trance and you along with him.” He in turn always held her to the same strictness he held everyone. (Brenan at 24-25.) His consistency was child-like, his faith was not weathered by doubts and searchings as Teresa’s was.

But when the time came, and he was spirited away in the dead of night to prison, Teresa was inconsolable. The unreformed Carmelites rigged an election for prioress and obtained (arguably) the legal right to eject Juan. When he refused, they came with the constable at their head. He and a fellow friar disappeared without a trace on December 2, 1577, just like any victim of the Inquisition. And to be accused before the Inquisition was punishment in itself. (Luis de León had just been released after 5 years; he had no trial; he was neither convicted nor acquitted.) Teresa immediately wrote to Philip II and requested his intervention; she feared their enemies capable of anything:

“I quite sympathize with the sufferings of this servant of God, which he endures with such patience and perfection; and this induces me to beseech your Majesty, either to take him under your protection, or to remove the cause of these dangers, for he belongs to a family that is extremely attached to your Majesty: independent of this consideration, he has great merits of his own. I consider him to be a man sent by God and our blessed Lady, for whom he has such a tender devotion. Our Lord conducted him to our order, that he might be of assistance to me: for as I have now laboured alone for more than seventeen years, my weak health will not allow me to endure much more.” (No. I.)

Fray Gerónimo Gracián by José López Enguidanos. (Intaglio print. 1791. Retratos de los españoles ilustres, Real Imprenta de Madrid.

Fr. Gerónimo Gracián by José López Enguidanos. (Intaglio print. 1791. Retratos de los españoles ilustres, Real Imprenta de Madrid.) Jerónimo Gracián was Teresa’s superior and a poet and mystic in his own right.

She then wrote the Archbishop of Evora (later King of Portugal) about Juan’s imprisonment: “Brother John of the Cross, is considered by all to be a saint, and this opinion is not without a good foundation; in my judgment he is a great treasure.” (No. X.) Then she worried about all the letters she wrote and how they might be used against Juan and her. She unburdened herself of her great despair to her intimate friend, Jerónimo Gracián: “I am deeply distressed about Fray Juan and afraid they may bring some further accusation against him. God’s treatment of his friends is terrible, though really they have nothing to complain of since he did the same to his own Son.” (Brenan at 29.)

Her fears were not misplaced. On the night they abducted him they beat him without mercy. They then hauled him blindfolded to Toledo where a mock court was convened. Theresa’s enemy Friar Jerónimo Tostado presided. When Juan refused to recant, he was found guilty of  rebellion and contumacy and sentenced to imprisonment of unfixed duration. He was held in an ordinary cell, until the friar he was arrested with attempted an escape, and then Juan was confined to a 6 by 10 foot latrine. It offered only enough light to read at midday (he would have to stand on a step and hold the book as high as he could) and provided no protection from the freezing winter or the intense heat of summer. He was given no change of clothing and so he was infested with lice. And when he was permitted out on fast days, he was subjected to mocking by the prior, and caning on his shoulders by the friars while the Miserere was recited. They made him eat his bread on his knees. (Brenan at 29-31.)

Juan was taken from AVilla to Toledo for trial and imprisonment. The city was ancient then and has never escaped the grip of the medeival.

Juan was taken from Ávilla to Toledo for trial and imprisonment. The city was ancient then and has never escaped the grip of the medeival.

Despite the beatings Juan preferred the fast days, because on all others he was left alone without companionship, even his gaolers refused to talk to him. And in his loneliness he began to doubt whether he was not acting sinfully in refusing to recant. Perhaps he would die in mortal sin, because with his dysentery, the infections, the worms growing over his skin, his imminent death seemed likely. His spiritual crisis deepened until, according to Jerónimo de San José, he had a startling awakening prompted by an unlikely source. He heard a lovesick swain singing a popular song, the point of which was: “I am dying from love. What shall I do?” and his lover answers him: “Die.” The way out of his spiritual crisis started to become clear to Juan: Dying to live, darkness to light, prison to freedom — all the mystical contradictions began to make sense to him. Soon he had a new gaoler to add to his new fortune. He was now given scraps of paper and a pen, and Juan began to write. He composed poems, part of the Cántívo espíritual and many others, and he started his spiritual treatises, Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul. (Brenan at 30-32.)

In August 1578 he devised and carried out a daring escape plan. He daily wore out the fasteners to the lock on the door until one night (August 14, significantly the eve of the Assumption, an important day for one who for so long relied on the Virgin) he believed he could force it. He did. He sneaked through the priory, let himself down with torn strips of the rugs he slept on, narrowly landed on a wall on the side of a precipitous river bank, and made his way through the city to the Carmelite convent. The next morning they let him in. He told his story, and soon he breathlessly dictated some of the poems he wrote in his small prison cell.

View from the monastery El Calvario in Andalusia.

View from the monastery El Calvario in Andalusia.

Like Bunyan or Dostoevsky or Cervantes or even Oscar Wilde, prison gave him the inner room to work through his thoughts and to discover the language to express them in. But it also gave him an audience. Those who saw him after the experience were shocked by his condition. “He was like a dead man …,” said Ana de Jesús. He would collapse if he remembered his ordeal and salvation; on hearing the line of a song, penas son el traje de amadores (“pains are the dress of lovers”), he broke down weeping and could not move for an hour. (Brenan at 41.) Friends of reform provided him protection. He was sent to a hermitage, El Calvario, hundreds of miles from Toledo, in the forested mountains of eastern Andalusia. Here he dwelt in almost primitive paradise, and here he completed almost all the poetry he would ever write.

He left that retreat after eight months. Then he founded a college in 1579, the same year the attempts to destroy the Discalced faction was resolved by Philip II, who arranged a petition to the Pope to separate the order into two provinces. 1580 brought a severe influenza epidemic to Spain which killed his mother and greatly debilitated Teresa. He would see Teresa only one time more, for one evening in November 1581. It was the first time they had met since before the imprisonment. There is no record of what transpired. She died the following October.

Juan grew more paternal; he lightened the severity to novices; he completed his prose commentaries on his poems (which were designed for spiritual enlightenment). In 1785 he wrote “Llama de amor viva,” and finished his career in poetry. He would live long enough to see the Discalced Carmelites enjoy the petty squabbles and political infighting that comes with any spiritual group’s “respectability.” And Juan flirted with disaster with the Inquisition.

There is some evidence that Juan was denounced not once but as many as four times to the Inquisition late in life. The Inquisition was in the phase of its career of treating “heresy,” which was usually called Lutheranism. Melchor Cano had performed the religious office for the first auto de fé for heresy, which was conducted in the Plaza Mayor of Spain’s capital Valladolid on Trinity Sunday (May 21), 1559. After Cano read his sermon, the sentences were read: 14 were condemned to death including five women. Most showed sufficient signs of penitence that they were granted the relief of being garroted before burned, although one, who had believed in saving grace rather than the intercession of priests, was burned alive. Burnings for heresy would proceed apace. Sometimes burnings took place singly; other times with all the formality of a day-long auto de fé complete with sermon and multiple victims, as took place in Toledo in 1571. (W. Ward, G.W. Prothero, S. Leathes (ed.), The Cambridge Modern History: Vol II: The Reformation (NY: 1904), p407-08.) Luis de León was imprisoned in Valladolid during his inquisition from 1572 to 1576. In heresy the Inquisition focused on any signs of Lutheranism. That meant any showing of religious fervor, teachings of a personal relation with the divine, or demeaning even in the slightest the role of the priesthood or its rituals. When prompted the Inquisition would target even the most respectable of clergymen. Melchor Cano spearheaded and doggedly pursued the destruction of his rival Bartolomé Carranza, a doctor of theology, envoy to the Council of Trent in 1546, who was so orthodox that he had the duty of examining and condemning books for heresy while in Flanders and England. Nevertheless he was no match for the cunning of Cano, who engineered his arrest in 1559. He would remain imprisoned in Spain for seven years and then be taken to Rome, where he would be confined for another 10. He was eventually released, and there was no finding of heresy but he was suspended from his see and required to abjure, which he did and then soon after died. (The story of how Cano stalked Carranza is told in vivid style with great detail in Henry Charles Lea, History of the Inquisition of Spain, Vol II (NY: 1906), pp51ff.)

Auto-da-fe on Plaza Mayor, Madrid by Francisco Rizi. (Oil on canvas. 1683. Museo del Prado, Madrid.)

Auto-da-fe on Plaza Mayor, Madrid by Francisco Rizi. (Oil on canvas. 1683. Museo del Prado, Madrid.) The painting depicts an auto de fé in 1680 before Charles II.

Juan had serious cause for concern. His writings, which had been copied extensively, had all the earmarks, not necessarily of Lutheran theology, but equally as heretical, the fervor of an enthusiast. He was associated with Teresa, who had written extensively on prayer — a subject on which it was impossible to remain strictly orthodox (as orthodoxy was viewed in Spain). She and Juan were both conversos. Teresa’s grandfather had even been convicted by the Inquisition of relapsing to Judaism. And Juan was now a leading figure of a group who had serious disputes within the Order — and being a fomenter was itself a dangerous sign.

The Inquisition apparently bided its time. In 1591, however, the new vicar-general of the Discalced Carmelites, Nicolás Doria, began something of a campaign against Juan. He saw to it that Juan was not reappointed  to the offices he held. And more alarmingly, Doria had an inveterate enemy of Juan’s begin to collect evidence against him. Among other things he threatened witnesses, destroyed evidence and used other means generally accepted in theological disputations. Juan was so alarmed that he destroyed his papers.

Juan would not live long enough to endure the anguish of an inquisition; he would have to endure another, shorter one. By September he developed an inflammation of his right foot. For the next three months tumors would develop all over his body. Surgeons opened his body and tried to cauterize the ulcers, but his condition worsened so that he could not stand being touched. On December 14 he died.

*  *  *

Having gone on at such length about the biography, I will limit my comments on the poem properly to a few observations.

First, Juan de la Cruz wrote a very extensive commentary on the religious symbolism of the poem. It has been translated by a sympathetic expert, and so I won’t address the religious “meaning.” One thing is fairly apparent on first reading of the commentary. Juan’s use of scripture is completely different from Bunyan’s. Juan can develop extended metaphors based on a single Biblical image. Bunyan’s use of scriptures is much more psychological and less visual, and Bunyan is more of a compiler of verses, than analyzer.

Second, the poem is highly structured metrically and with respect to it rhyme scheme. The first two and fourth and fifth lines of each stanza contain 7 syllables and the third and sixth have 11. In Spanish a syllable beginning with a vowel sound is elided with the vowel ending of a previous word. Thus the sixth line of the first stanza is scanned as follows:

rom / pe / la / te / la / de es /te / dul / ce en / cuen / tro for 11 feet.

This metrical pattern, hendecasyllable, was one originated in Italy and introduced into Spanish poetry by Garcilaso de la Vega, who was very influential in the middle of the Sixteenth Century (when his poems were published after his death). In Italian poetry and in that of Garcilaso and Juan, this metrical scheme requires that one accent must be on the tenth syllable. (In Italian there does not even have to be 11 syllables, notwithstanding that “hendeca” comes from the Greek word for eleven.) I have used a line of only 10 syllables, because having the lines end in unaccented syllable sounds odd in English.

The rhyme scheme is abcabc and is quite effective. In English, however, it would sound quite forced.

I purposely did not translate the first line as it is commonly known (“Oh living flame of love”) because I did not want the religious associations to override the poem and because I think my rendering better approximates the urgency of the line. Garcilaso, to whom Juan was evidently devoted to in his student days, brought with the Italian meter the Italian Renaissance sensibilities — longing, unrequited love, pastoral images, and overly refined language. There is no doubt that he is overtly referring to Garcilaso, not only because he says so in his commentary, but also because he borrows three phrases from Garcilaso’s poems. (He does so in other works as well.) But Juan does not use all the conventions that Garcilaso borrowed. Juan’s language, for example, is the language of common speech. But it is evident that Juan is attempting to convey the urgency of earthly amorous love in his spiritual poem. (In fact, except for the prologue description, the poem could be read as purely secular.)

The image in the Second Stanza has always troubled me. The overtly medical references do not seem to fit the extended metaphor of the rest of the poem. The “hand” is the hand of the flame. And it is the flame that seems to have the healing ability. The methods he is thinking of are perhaps reminiscent of scenes he saw in the hospital in his youth. And they are eerily reminiscent of how he died. But even granting that a cautery extends the image of the flame, the final three lines of the stanza seem to make the metaphor mixed. Given the “simplicity” of the poem, the difficulty of the images is perhaps a mistake.

—Finally, it’s well known (mainly because he said so) that T.S. Eliot was influenced by John of the Cross in writing “East Coker.” While it’s undeniable that Eliot’s poem has some highly effective language and images, unfortunately, Eliot’s borrowings from John of the Cross were not among them. It really is hard to understand how lines like the following are passed off as profound, even granted that they were written over 70 years ago, before our culture had become over-run with imitation mysticism:

And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

Even without a knowledge of the biography of either, it is easy to see who earned the right to describe mystical experiences and who is simply recounting another’s.

Periodic Poetry: Bradstreet, “Before the Birth of One of Her Children”

While we are wallowing in American Puritanism these twelve days of Christmas (starting here), it might be a good time to look at a different aspect of the Puritan experience.

Anne Bradstreet was the daughter of  Thomas Dudley. Dudley was a self-made man in a society not designed for self-advancement. His father, Capt. Roger Dudley, was a soldier who died in battle when Thomas was a child. What battle that was is a matter of dispute. He had a commission in the militia of Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester. (It is unknown whether the Earl was related to Roger, Bradstreet’s grandfather.) Robert Dudley himself had risen from the disaster that befell his own father who supported Lady Jane Grey’s fatal claim to the crown. The Earl of Leicester became a close confidant of Queen Elizabeth in those heady days of intellectual ferment and romantic Protestant adventurism. His relation with the Queen, however, became a matter of public scandal, but his own ambition (notably in his botched stratagems in accepting of the position of governor general of the United Province, then in a war of independence from Spain) led the queen to publicly rebuke him.

The Battle of Ivry by Peter Paul Rubens. (From Wikipedia.)

It was long thought that Bradstreet’s grandfather fell under the Earl of Leicester in the great Huguenot victory at Ivry in 1590. The defeat of the Catholic League by Henry of Navarre was celebrated throughout the Protestant world. (Unable to take Paris by force, however, Henry would betray Elizabeth three years later by renouncing Protestantism. Paris vaut bien une messe (“Paris is well worth a Mass”), he explained.)

There is some contrary evidence (namely the will of Roger Dudley’s father-in-law in 1588) that suggests that Bradstreet’s grandfather died before Ivry. It is possible that instead of giving his life in a great victory, he died under Leicester in the dismal defeat by the Spanish at Zutphen in 1586. Leicester had laid siege to the city under Prince Alexander of Parma, but was unable to intercept a relief force and after a skirmish was forced to retire.Whenever and wherever he died, Roger Dudley left his son Thomas,  Bradstreet’s father, orphaned at an early age.

Thomas Dudley, father of Anne Bradstreet and four-time Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony. (From Wikipedia.)

If Thomas’s father was related to the great favorite of the last of the Tudors (which some claim without much good proof other than similarity of Leicester’s name), his mother was in fact connected to the first of the Plantagenets, being a descendant of Henry II. But it was Thomas Dudley’s ambition and self-discipline (in common with all the Dudleys at that time and later in America) that got him noticed. He became steward to Theophilus Clinton, 4th Earl of Lincoln. Clinton (also known as Theophilus Fiennes) would fight on the Protestant side in 1624 in the Thirty Years War. Later he would side with the Parliament against Charles I. He became Speaker of the House of Lords during the first time Charles I was in Parliament’s custody. Clinton must have had remarkable political skills because 13 years later, at the darkest time for English Puritans, Charles II of the restored House of Stuart, appointed Clinton Commissioner for the Colonies. He would thus begin the process of taking back the liberties formerly granted the American colonies, a process first signaled by the Navigation Act of 1660.

Thomas Dudley became a Puritan in the 1590s, long before he met Clinton. He remained an adherent to his view of the Elizabethan Settlement, even as Anglicans, while Elizabeth was still alive, planned introducing rituals less distinct from Catholicism. Given Clinton’s later history, which included imprisonment in the Tower of London for opposing King Charles I’s forced loan, his service in the Regiment of Foot, Parliamentarian Army (he was commissioned Colonel), and his acting as Resident Commissioner for Parliament with the Scottish Army, it is likely Dudley’s religious profession helped recommend him to Clinton.

Simon Bradstreet. Two-time Governor of Massachussets Bay Colony, including during the beginning of the bewitchings in 1692. “My love is such that rivers cannot quench,” his wife Anne wrote.

While Clinton concerned himself with affairs of state and military adventures, Dudley worked to straighten out his finances. In 1622 he hired Simon Bradstreet to help him. Bradstreet had attended Emanuel College in Cambridge in 1617. Bradstreet was 19 when he began work for Dudley. At the time Dudley’s daughter, Anne was 10. Six years later, in 1628, Bradstreet and Anne Dudley would marry.

Anne had advantages that most English girls did not. She was taken seriously (Puritans took everything seriously). She had access to libraries of the world’s great books. And she received some training in Greek, Latin, French, and Hebrew. She grew to love literature, while at the same time remaining devout. She was able to marry an educated man, who, as an added benefit, was only nine years older than she. But it seemed that God never intended Puritans to enjoy peace on this earth, so after Charles I ascended to the throne, religious intolerance became their lot. The glove was finally thrown down in 1629 when the king dissolved Parliament to rule as absolute king. A corrupt king at the head of a corrupt church meant that this was not the land for the Elect.

So in 1629 Dudley with four others became officers in the Massachusetts Bay Company that received a charter from the king for the colony. In 1630 Dudley, John Winthrop, Simeon Bradstreet, Anne Bradstreet and a select group of saints set sail on the Arabella for New Jerusalem. The Cambridge Agreement among the shareholders, signed the previous year, ensured that the treasures this company would lay up were not on earth.

Arrival of the Winthrop Colony, by William F. Halsall

The voyage was harrowing. John Winthrop was able to envision a City upon the Hill when they landed; Anne Bradstreet had a different experience. She told her children in a book “that I leave for you when I am dead” that she “came into this Country, where I found a new world and new manners, at which my heart rose. But after I was convinced it was the way of God, I submitted to it and joined to the church at Boston.” (“To my Dear Children” in John Harvard Ellis (ed.), The Works of Anne Bradstreet in Prose and Verse (Charlestown: Abram E. Cutter 1867), p 5.)

Goodwife that she was, Anne would also learn to submit to living in a wild forest far from the world of literature and books that she grew up in. They moved from Salem, where they landed on June 14, 1630, first to Charlestown and then to Boston. They would soon move to New Towne, where Anne had her first child. New Towne would become Cambridge, where her father chartered the first college in North America–in fact the first corporation. Thomas Dudley would describe the history of that first year in a letter to Lady Bridget, Countess of Lincoln (Clinton’s wife, now an investor in the company). The letter would be anthologized at the end of the century with other accounts in Massachusetts: or New-England, The first Planters of  New-England, The End and Manner of their coming thither, and Abode there:  In several Epistles (Boston: B. Green & J. Allen: 1696).

After Cambridge, Anne Bradstreet would again move further into the wild, first to Ipswich and then to North Andover, where their house would burn down in the middle of the night on July 10, 1666, leaving her family near destitute. Anne was sick but not broken; she would see this too as a matter of great indifference:

And, when I could no longer look,
I blest his Name that gave and took,
That layd my goods now in the dvst:
Yea so it was, and so ’twas jvst.
It was his own: it was not mine;
far be it that I should repine.

(See the poem “Copyed out of a loose Paper” beginning at p 40 in the Ellis edition linked above.)

The American history of Anne’s father and husband was recorded in laws and charters and diaries. Anne’s history, like that of all Puritan women, was necessarily more interior. Women were not permitted to take part in public affairs. If Anne Bradstreet needed any lesson in this regard, the treatment of Ann Hutchinson would have graphically provided it. But Ann did not need any such lesson. The Dudleys and the Bradstreets were not the Mathers. They didn’t have the overweening hubris that leads to personal (and social) calamity. Anne was always conscious of her role, and whenever she felt unfairly treated she would eventually ascribe it to a benevolent God’s plan to make her soul better. She told her children in her written autobiography to be read after her death:

“Among all my experiences of God’s gratious Dealings with me, I have constantly observed this, that he hath never suffered me long to sitt loose from him, but by one affliction or other hath made me look home, and search what was amisse – so usually thus it hath been with me that I have no sooner felt my heart out of order, but I have expected correction for it, which most commonly hath been upon my own person, in sicknesse, weaknes, paines, sometimes on my soul, in Doubts and feares of God’s displeasure, and my sincerity towards him, sometimes he hath smott a child with a sicknes, sometimes chasstened by losses in estate, – and these Times (thro: his great mercy) have been the times of my greatest Getting and Advantage, yea I have found them the Times when the Lord hath manifested the most Love to me. Then have I gone to searching, and have said with David, Lord search me and try me, see what wayes of wickednes are in me, and lead me in the way everlasting: and seldome or never but I have found either some sin I lay under which God would have reformed, or some duty neglected which he would have performed. And by his help I have layd Vowes and Bonds upon my Soul to perform his righteous commands.” (Ellis edition, pp 5-6.)

Her poetry, which she never intended for publication, is filled with the kind of submission that reminds one more of Zen than Mather. Watching her house burn down she could see the workings of a kind God, not a vengeful one. Yes, society was then organized in such a way that a brilliant woman like Anne Bradstreet could not demonstrate her mastery of letters or otherwise express her mind and person the way she might be expected (or permitted) now. But it is difficult when reading her writing not to have a vague suspicion that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, it might all–all of it–be for the best.

Before the Birth of One of Her Children

from Several Poems Compiled with great variety of Wit and Learning, full of Delight (Boston: John Foster: 1678)

by Anne Bradstreet

All things within this fading world hath end
Adversity doth still our joys attend;
No ties so strong, no friends so dear and sweet,
But with death’s parting blow are sure to meet.
The sentence past is most irrevocable,
A common thing, yet oh, inevitable.
How soon, my Dear, death may my steps attend,
How soon’t may be thy lot to lose thy friend,
We both are ignorant, yet love bids me
These farewell lines to recommend to thee,
That when the knot’s untied that made us one,
I may seem thine, who in effect am none.
And if I see not half my days that’s due,
What nature would, God grant to yours and you;
The many faults that well you know I have
Let be interred in my oblivious grave;
If any worth or virtue were in me,
Let that live freshly in thy memory
And when thou feel’st no grief, as I no harmes,
Yet love thy dead, who long lay in thine arms,
And when thy loss shall be repaid with gains
Look to my little babes, my dear remains.
And if thou love thyself, or loved’st me,
These O protect from stepdame’s injury.
And if chance to thine eyes shall bring this verse,
With some sad sighs honor my absent hearse;
And kiss this paper for thy dear love’s sake,
Who with salt tears this last farewell did take.