Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 25, 2001
Barbara Dayer Gallati William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapist Harry N. Abrams in association with Brooklyn Museum, 2000. 192 pp.; 54 color ills.; 70 b/w ills. Cloth $37.50 (0810945584)
Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, May 26-August 13, 2000; The Art Institute of Chicago, September 7-November 26, 2000; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, December 13, 2000-March 11, 2001.

William Merritt Chase has long been considered a major American artist, if not a New York artist. Brooklyn Museum curator Barbara Dayer Gallati shows how Chase’s reputation first evolved, taking no aspect of his art or identity for granted. The catalogue for William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes, 1886-1890 (which initiated at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in May 2000, and ends at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston in March 2001) aims to reveal Chase’s importance as a modern artist and as a “New York artist” by focusing on a group of urban landscapes with figures produced over a four-year period in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Gallati’s exhaustive and thought-provoking analysis exposes a whole new side of Chase and his painting.

Taking a cue from Sarah Burns’s investigations of the artist in Inventing the Modern Artist (Yale University Press, 1996), Gallati sheds additional light on the intersections among Chase’s identity, activities, reputation, and artistic development. Like the exhibition, the book devotes primary attention to the artist’s paintings. An informative case study of the impact of urbanization upon one individual, the book has much to tell about newly-developed urban places—principally parks—as a motif in Chase’s work. Gallati adds texture to our image of the modernizing city as center of cultural activity and as locus of shifting modes of subjectivity and collective experience that found expression on canvas. William Merritt Chase is thus a valuable addition to the burgeoning literature on the arts and the New York metropolitan area. The monograph, which argues for the centrality of the concept of “place” as a means of understanding Chase’s landscapes, offers a investigative model that could well be applied to other artists and locales, and even be used to test Gallati’s own thesis.

The book concentrates on Chase’s Brooklyn and Manhattan landscapes as expressions of a “personal iconography of place,” but Gallati also makes a variety of claims about the works’ broader significance. Striving to transcend the view that Chase’s metropolitan pictures are the first to render American subjects in an “echt” Impressionist style, Gallati disputes the notion that Chase was essentially a formalist, regarded his subjects simply as vehicles for display of the new French techniques, and chose urban landscape views arbitrarily. Gallati carefully tracks Chase’s personal life, exhibition and sales activity, and the critical responses to his work in the years between his studies in Munich and his migration to Shinnecock in order to show that his choices were quite deliberate. According to Gallati, the urban landscapes with figures produced between 1886 and 1890 were part of a conscious effort to develop a new, modern mode of authentically “national” art; Chase hoped that this strategy would in turn revitalize his lagging artistic reputation. These claims initially struck me as a bit far-fetched, but Gallati sets out to prove her points very deliberately. The thoroughness of her research, combined with her astute analyses of individual paintings, generally make the case compelling.

After an introduction that positions the argument in relation to broader issues of memory and history (matters that are not really developed in the remainder of the text), Gallati examines Chase’s career from the mid-1870s to 1886. She examines the ways in which Chase’s early work was “European” in emphasis, thus setting the stage for discussion of his subsequent shift to a new style and subject matter. Chase was on the fast track after his return from Munich in 1878, but, Gallati observes, his reputation had waned by the mid-1880s as the dark, picturesque Munich style lost favor with American critics. Gallati argues that Chase the self-promoter, who was keenly attuned to critical response, may well have tailored his art and professional activities to capitalize on the latest artistic trends. She surveys Chase’s curatorial selections for the Pedestal Fund Loan Exhibition of 1883 and his involvement in the art scene in general to map out the possible influences that inspired his turn to modern urban subjects and to “Impressionist” formal devices.

Gallati is determined to show that these works were not merely offshoots of Chase’s professional and entrepreneurial concerns; nor were they painted because Chase just happened to be on the scene. Chase’s urban landscapes also had personal resonances. The Brooklyn paintings in particular were the outgrowth of complications in his private affairs. In one of the most intriguing sections of the book, Gallati shows how events of 1886—career and financial difficulties, an aging father, a newborn child and shotgun wedding—converged to produce a series of very personal, compositionally radical “homefront” urban scenes. They represented private spaces such as his parents’ Brooklyn backyard (as in Open Air Breakfast) and public places like Tompkins Park near his parents’ home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Gallati’s interpretations of the Brooklyn paintings as negotiations between the private and public spheres are engrossing. Her findings are the fruits of excellent detective work that resulted in several key reattributions. Drawing upon Sanborn insurance maps, photographs, postcards, exhibition records, reviews, correspondence, and other primary sources, Gallati proves incontrovertibly that several paintings thought to depict Prospect Park in fact represent Tompkins Park and the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Gallati’s discoveries bolster her larger arguments and are a highlight of the book and exhibition. By uncovering the crucial significance of Chase’s representations of the then-city of Brooklyn, she also offers a much-needed corrective to the predominantly “Manhattan-centric” historical views of artistic activity.

Arguing that Chase deliberately and routinely chose “institutional spaces set aside for the improvement of the people,” Gallati goes on to examine Chase’s paintings of Concert Grove (Prospect Park), the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Bath Beach, Gowanus Bay, and the Conservatory Pond in Central Park (among other locales), explaining in depth why those places and why those pictures, and comparing them to those of Chase’s European and American peers. Chase is positioned as an American-style flâneur, a “realist” committed to evoking a uniquely national vision of modern life by rendering urban scenes and experiences with seeming detachment. Gallati contends that Chase’s new mode of rendering American urban places in 1886 was unlike that of anybody else, and she painstakingly offers comparisons to back up her argument. She seeks to show that his formal treatment, derived from the radical methods of European Impressionists and Naturalists, meshed with Chase’s distinctive “American” subjects—Manhattan and Brooklyn places—to produce, in the view of Chase and his admirers, an innovative form of “national” painting. Mining art reviews, Gallati asserts that Chase’s experiments put his career on the upswing.

Gallati also mines both the paintings and contemporary criticism to reassess Chase’s subsequent reputation as an empiricist realist. She concludes that Chase was a realist in a vein similar to Winslow Homer. He sought to capture truths of modern American life in an unresolved, non-anecdotal fashion; his views, although circumscribed, were hardly superficial. Gallati probes the depths and the limits of Chase’s realism, attending closely to Chase’s modes of urban depiction and their political and gender dimensions. Taking into account such elements as fashion, pose, gaze, locale, and vantage point, she highlights the tensions between the “real” and the sanitized, the respectable and the rebellious, and the mundane and emblematic at play in Chase’s works. Detailed examinations of figure-in-landscape pictures like The Nursery (1890) and An Early Stroll in the Park (ca. 1890) reveal how they articulated and resisted broader pressures to enforce public order in Manhattan.

Historians of American visual culture will note with interest one salient feature of Chase’s work discussed in the book. According to Gallati, Chase, in contrast to many image-makers, resisted what we today would call the “tourist gaze.” He avoided the visual packaging or clichéd “landmark-ification” of locale that would shape the representation of place over the next century. Gallati contends that Chase’s urban scenes were more generic, fragmented, and less readily recognizable than those of his peers. Chase painted landmarks, but not icons. It is partly for this reason that urban landscapes like Tompkins Park were long misidentified.

Although extremely well-crafted and felicitously written, the abundance of lengthy descriptions and quotations is distracting, as are the frequent and somewhat outmoded discussions of possible artistic sources and influences. Although the book alludes to Chase’s sensitivity and complex intellect, and to the tensions between his “velvet-jacket” dandyism and his bourgeois gentility, the overall portrayal of Chase the individual is somewhat flat. Occasional lapses into a rhetoric of conspiracy, which accentuate the image of Chase as a trend-chaser and careerist, undercut the otherwise persuasive assertions about the emotional authenticity and semiotic richness of Chase’s work, purportedly imparted with deliberate intent.

These criticisms aside, Gallati’s William Merritt Chase is a solidly-researched, insightful, and rewarding contribution to the histories of nineteenth-century painting, and of art, urbanization, and modernity in the United States more broadly. Sadly and inadvertently, it also serves as a fitting tribute to the late Ronald Pisano, whose numerous important contributions to Chase studies paved the way for this book and future scholarship.

Michele Bogart
The State University of New York