Arts exhibit review

The American impressionist you’ve never heard of

A collection of works by William Merritt Chase is on display at the MFA

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Studio Interior (oil on canvas, about 1882) by William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mrs. Carll H. de Silver in memory of her husband. Brooklyn Museum photograph.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“William Merritt Chase”
Museum of Fine Arts
On view through Jan. 16, 2017

William Merritt Chase — does the name sound familiar? A late 19th century American impressionist, Chase painted everything from portraits to still life to landscapes. Right now, a collection of his work is on display at the Museum of Fine Art (MFA), and it has been over three decades since a collection of his work of this size has been presented. Stunning and extensive, the collection features works by Chase in a beautiful sequence, taking viewers from room to room, with paintings organized thematically.

Taken from public and private collections, the works in the exhibition were arranged by curators from the MFA, The Phillips Collection, the Fondazione Musei Civici Venezia, and the Terra Foundation for American Art. The intricately thoughtful organization was apparent throughout the exhibit, and during a preview event, the curators explained their reasoning behind the arrangement.

The first room focuses on Chase in the studio, with paintings of his 10th Street studio from varying points of view on display. The room is a beautiful introduction to Chase’s life, and the threshold to the next gallery is playfully adorned with May I Come In, a painting of a woman peering around the edge of a door.

A few rooms later, the visitor takes a step “outdoors” into a room dominated by landscape paintings. The Open Air Breakfast brings a refreshing breath of air into the room, depicting a quaint afternoon with a few figures situated around a table of food and drink. There’s a comforting casual feeling that accompanies this work, with a dog laying on its side, a woman lounging in a hammock, and a slightly overgrown garden that surrounds them all. While this painting was dominated by greenery, many of his other outdoor paintings tend toward a 50:50 sky-to-land ratio and their subject matter often revolves around his career as an instructor at his summer art school at Shinnecock in New York, which eventually became one of the most famous outdoor painting schools.

My favorite room of the exhibit is the dramatic gallery of Chase’s portraits and still-lifes. Dramatic and striking, the wall of portraits demands attention from viewers — Lydia Field Emmet is a portrait of one of Chase’s students, and she stands tall while peering back over her shoulder toward the viewer. Her hand is hooked on her hip, and a long, satin, pink bow falls from the top of her dress down to the floor.

One of my favorite paintings was Two of My Children, a depiction of two of Chase’s daughters, one of whom looks back at the viewer while she is tying the ribbon of her sister’s dress. It depicts a personal moment between his two daughters, and the bright red color of the ribbon draws the viewer’s eye to the action — this moment where one daughter is about to tie a knot.

Through this and other works, Chase brings his private life into the public light, offering glimpses into his personal experiences in his detailed brushstrokes. The journey through the thematically organized rooms is breathtaking, and I was amazed by the sheer volume of work produced by this painter I knew so little about.

“William Merritt Chase” is on view through Jan. 16, 2017 at the MFA.