Review: William Merritt Chase at MFA Boston


Museumgoers walk into the atrium of “William Merritt Chase” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. This exceptional gallery is the first full show of Chase’s work in over 30 years. CHLOE BARBER/SAGAMORE STAFF

Chloe Barber, Staff Writer

As one walks down the stairs to the dark lower level for the big exhibition at the art museum, a bright screen is seen, showing a sequence of Impressionist works, accompanied by a piano version of a waltz from the turn of the century. This sets the stage for the brilliant artwork of the same time period.

Between the large scale, dark oil paintings to the smaller, colorful oil pastel drawings, art critics would be given many reasons to praise the William Merritt Chase show at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Celebrating one of the most acclaimed American Impressionist artists of the late 19th century–yet often overlooked and forgotten nowadays–William Merritt Chase is currently showing at the MFA in Boston.

William Merritt Chase grew up in Indiana, but spent his adulthood in New York and travelling around Europe. Unlike many artists at the time, art was only a pursuit on the side, as he had a big family and had to support them by being a teacher. He was a distinguished artist of his time, accepted into many popular, exclusive art societies, but was somehow abandoned over time by art critics as they clung to big names like James McNeill Whistler and Mary Cassatt.

Similar to many other Impressionist artists, he thickly applied paint to his canvases and used small brushstrokes to portray his subjects.

One remarkable work is placed as literally the first thing you see when you walk through the exhibit’s doors: Portrait (The Young Orphan, An Idle Moment), 1884.

Portrait (The Young Orphan, An Idle Moment), 1884, by William Merit Chase. CHLOE BARBER/SAGAMORE STAFF
Portrait (The Young Orphan, An Idle Moment), 1884, by William Merritt Chase. CHLOE BARBER/SAGAMORE STAFF

This large painting shows an unknown young girl reclining on a big, red velvet chair as she gazes at the viewer. The red background complements the chair, while her stark black dress contrasts it. The blurriness that the brushstrokes creates makes the viewer want to be as lazy as the subject in the piece.

Another common trait of Chase’s artwork is paying homage to previous artists of other art movements.

An unforgettable piece at the exhibit was Ready for the Ride, 1877. A profile of a woman, though she is looking at the viewer, is fixing her gloves while holding a riding crop and wearing a dark brimmed hat with dark riding clothes, clearly ready to go. Only her brightly glowing face, white ruffles of her coat, and the green gloves show a clear distinction from the rest of the darkness of the work.

Ready for the Ride, 1877, by William Merritt Chase. CHLOE BARBER/SAGAMORE STAFF

Chase’s admiration of the dark 17th century Dutch and Flemish art is displayed in his own take on it, the pitch black background giving the piece an almost unfinished quality.

Chase frequently included his family in his artwork, often accompanied with nature.

Another memorable piece not to miss at the Chase show is The Open Air Breakfast, 1888. Here, the artist features his wife Alice, their infant daughter Cosy, Alice’s sister, and his own sister, everyone occupied with their own activity, whether it be lounging on a nearby hammock or feeding the baby.,

The Open Air Breakfast, 1888, by William Meritt Chase. CHLOE BARBER/SAGAMORE STAFF
The Open Air Breakfast, 1888, by William Merritt Chase. CHLOE BARBER/SAGAMORE STAFF

Although the painting is a substantial size, all of the people are concentrated in the center of the piece, possibly showing the unity of his family. Green is the main color, as trees, bushes, and grass surround the subjects, other colors are painted to represent patches of dirt that the grass didn’t quite cover, flowers in pots, and the white dresses of all four females.

“Modern conditions and trends of thought demand modern art for their expression” was the justification of his work, since Impressionist artists were viewed as radical for the time, using unlikely colors and uncommon techniques to portray the immediate impression of a scene or subject. But as the world changes as it goes through time, art shifts with it. William Merritt Chase was often named a “Modern Master” for his exceptional art and the MFA did a superb job of representing his preeminence.

The first full show on the artist in over 30 years, combining a detailed memoir of his life and the art that was inspired by it, William Merritt Chase is showing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston until January 16.