|William Merritt Chase Gallery
|William Merritt Chase (1849-1916)
William Merritt Chase was born in Willamsburg, Indiana. He established an art school of his own, after teaching with success for some years at the Art Students League.
A worker in all media – oils, watercolor, pastel – etching and painting with distinction the figure, landscapes, and still lifes, he is best known for his portraits, his sitters numbering some of the most important men and women of his time.
Did You Speak to Me?, 1897
Oil on canvas, 38 X 43" (96.52 x 109.22 cm.)
Signed, lower left
Museum purchase, 921-0-102
Shortly after Chase's death, the prominent American art collector, Duncan Phillips, reflected on the particular appeal of Chase's interiors, describing them as having an "immediate charm." "It is more than a trick of cool light on reflecting surfaces, mahogany table-tops and hard wood floors," he explained. "It is the hint of once familiar moments long forgotten, a sentiment of the quiet dignity of a patrician home."' Although Chase deplored the poetic, storytelling nature of Victorian art, his interiors do possess a nostalgic quality and do engage the viewer as a participant in the scene. This is especially true in his painting, Did You Speak to Me?. Both in its compositional devices and its title, the work solicits a response from the viewer. While the painting clearly focuses on the girl's implied movement as she has turned to face him, the rest of the composition is sketched in more loosely. Although Chase is not known to have used the camera as a direct aid in composing his works (unlike his fellow American artists, Thomas Eakins and Theodore Robinson), he was well aware of how it could be used to highlight and emphasize an image, and he put this knowledge to good use. "You can have only one focus in a picture," he advised his students, ". . . be like a camera, and as you focus one spot the others lose in distinctness."
The setting of, and attitude conveyed by, Did You Speak to Me? reflects Chase's patrician life as a gentleman artist. Most likely painted the summer of 1897, the model for the painting is Chase's first child, Alice Dieudonn6e, at age ten, seated in the artist's studio at his summer home at Shinnecock Hills, Long Island. Alice is surrounded by her father's paintings in various states of completion. Clearly, the setting is the studio of a successful practicing artist. The genteel milieu and the graceful attitude of Alice, wearing silver bracelets and a gold hair band, underscore a sense of prosperity. The painting also captures a moment in time. One distinctly feels Alice's movement as she turns to face the viewer, her left foot slightly turned behind the neoclassical stool, indicating her previous position, in which she was most likely viewing the landscape balanced on the chair on the right. Furthermore, the scene suggests a happy, carefree life, unencumbered by financial concerns or other personal problems. In reality, the image was to some extent a facade, or at the very least, a tenuous rendition of the artist's true situation at the time.
Just a year before painting Did You Speak to Me?, Chase was forced to give up his celebrated studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building, and auction off its contents due to financial difficulties. Although recognized as an important American artist of international acclaim, Chase was unable to support his somewhat extravagant style of living on the sale of his paintings, even when augmented by income earned as a teacher. Commenting on Chase's personal misfortune, and the disappointing results of the auction, one critic lamented: 'Altogether it was a sad affair, and made one heartily ashamed of our so-called patrons of American art, who by their lack of appreciation of the productions of one of the best painters on the continent, make such a result possible. Mr. Chase has long been recognized as the head of the profession. Contrast the beggarly recognition accorded him outside of the profession with the splendid treatment of men occupying a similar position in London, Paris, or Berlin." In response to the dismal result of the sale, Chase threatened to relocate abroad where he believed he would attain greater stature as an expatriate artist. However, after spending the spring of 1896 in Madrid, he returned to America to carry on as best he could. Whatever bitter feelings Chase harbored in his heart, his art continued to celebrate the gentle, carefree life of an important member of the American art community and to chronicle the life of his growing family.
Did You Speak to Me? was first exhibited in a one-man exhibition held at The Art Institute of Chicago (November 23-December 26, 1897, no. 3). Included in this exhibition were five paintings lent by the Potter Palmers, important patrons of the French Impressionists. The fact that Chase was represented in the Palmer collection was of great significance to him; not only did it place his work in an international context, it signaled his status as a world class artist. It is not unreasonable to speculate that one of the artistic forces behind Did You Speak to Me? was to create a work which could directly compete with work by the French Impressionists. Although Chase never fully adopted their principles, considering them to be too scientific, he did adjust his approach to incorporate those practices he thought were effective.
In particular, he mastered the ability to create a casual image of life suspended in time which, while looking effortless and unpremeditated, was actually carefully composed to reflect the movement of real people in real life situations. This is, of course, one of the most appealing aspects of Did You Speak to Me?. The work is, however, not merely a charming painting in which the artist set out to engage the viewer; it is a tour-de-force of American Impressionism, bold in color and compositional devices. It also attests to the enduring belief that Chase had in his own genius as an artist; in spite of his personal financial problems and lack of support by American collectors at the time, he continued to paint pictures with all the verve and mastery at his command. Did You Speak to Me? is an elegant testament to his faith in American art and in himself as one of its most eloquent practitioners
RONALD G. PISANO
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