Portraits of Women Stepping Out Into the World : Notes on William Merritt Chase

Nov. 1 is the birthday of a painter of America’s Gilded Age (1870s-1900) who showed women of his time ready to claim their space in society.

William Merritt Chase (1849–1916) paid homage to one of his fellow portraitists in his painting “The Lady in Black,” but did so in a way that brought honor — and not infamy— to the subject.

John Singer Sargent, “Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau),” 1883–4. Chase, “The Lady in Black,” 1888. Both works owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Images in the public domain.

The painting on the left is John Singer Sargent’s Madame X, a beautiful and unforgettable image. This painting shocked Parisian art circles on its debut. The portrait initially showed its subject, the Louisiana-born wife of a banker, with one of her straps slipping on her shoulders. Sargent later painted the strap back in place, attempting to soothe ill feelings after the outrage this work cause.

Madame X’s head is turned to put on display her lovely neck. But she is posed in an odd and uncomfortable way, seemingly leaning on the table for balance, with a tight corset emphasizing her figure. Still, Madame X is magnificent. She is compelling. But let’s face it. She seems barely able to stand.

Madame X is not going far in that get-up, glorious as she is.

Now consider Chase’s portrait of a lady in a black dress.

This is a portrait of Marietta Benedict Cotton (1868–1947), who studied art with Chase and became a successful portraitist in New York and London. Cotton is dressed in a black dress that appears to have allowed a woman of the Gilded Age to go about her business. She seems steady on her feet.

In fact, Chase shows a little bit of Cotton’s shoe peeking out from the hem of her black dress, seen below to the left. Where Sargent shows us to the right a Madame X ungrounded, unstable, almost floating, easily toppled.

And Cotton looks directly at the viewer. She has no reason to avert her gaze.

This comparison is not intended as a slight against Sargent, whose work I adore. To make sure of being fair to him in this essay, I skimmed through the images of about 900 of his paintings posted at JohnSingerSargent.org. (There is a link at the end of this essay to a bibliography for materials cited here on Chase and Sargent.)

That time spent on JohnSingerSargent.org was quite a treat, a nice escape from what’s happening in the world these days. On that website, I got to “visit” for a minute with an old friend, Sargent’s “Breakfast in the Loggia,” which now is shut away from public view due to the pandemic. And I had not focused before on Sargent’s work done in Florida.

Sargent, “Breakfast at the Loggia,” 1910. Free Gallery of Art, D.C. “Muddy Alligators,” 1917, Worcester Museum of Art. Both images in public domain.

There are obvious similarities between the work of Sargent and Chase. They both left us beautiful visions of what’s known in the United States as the Gilded Age (1870s-1900), corresponding to France’s Belle Époque (1880–1914).

Chase, “Spring Flowers (Peonies),” c. 1889. Terra Foundation. Image is in public domain.

And, to me, it appears that they both treated their subjects in general with respect. Sargent tends to show both women and men as dramatic elegant creatures, even when depicting them tramping about in nature.

Sargent, “An Out-of-Doors Study,” 1889. Brooklyn Museum. Image in the public domain.

But the comparison of the Chase and Sargent paintings shown below strikes on a theme that Erica Hirshler of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) has explored beautifully.

Chase, “Ready for a Walk,” 1885, Terra Foundation, Wikiart copy of image in public domain. Sargent, “Morning Walk,” Wikimedia copy of image in public domain.

Chase champions women who are ready to strike out on their own, Hirshler said during a 2016 talk. Hirshler was one of the organizers of the 2016 in connection with the show, “William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master.”

In the United States of Chase’s time, women of means were starting to leave the home, even at times unaccompanied.

“Chase’s women are often out and about, responsive to changes in modern society that allowed them more freedom in public,” said Hirshler, who is senior curator of American paintings at the MFA.In the comparison of paintings above, we can see that Sargent’s subject is a vision. But again, as with Madame X, this lady might not get very far. It’s hard to imagine how that immaculate white dress even survived the trip out to what appears to be a pond, perhaps one on a private estate. In an 1882 painting, “Street in Venice,” Sargent also shows a woman walking alone, but she looks down. The viewer is drawn to the man watching the woman.

Sargent, “Morning Walk.” Sargent, “Street in Venice” c. 1882. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. Wikimedia copy of image in public domain.

In Chase’s “Ready for a Walk,” though, we get the modern American woman of the Gilded Age with a frank and steady expression, as Hirshler noted in her talk.

Hirshler also pointed out a Chase painting of a woman reading in Central Park.

Chase, “ Park Bench,” c. 1890, MFA. Image in public domain.

The book’s yellow cover signals this may be a novel She is comfortable enough in her city’s oasis to sit for a while, seemingly on her own.

Chase, Self-Portrait, c. 1915, Richmond Art Museum, Richmond, Indiana. Wikipedia copy of image in public domain.

Born in the marvelously named Nineveh, Indiana, to a shoe merchant and his wife, Chase did a stint of artistic training in Europe. He opted for Munich over Paris and then settled in New York. He enjoyed a particularly happy home life. He and his wife, Alice, had six daughters and two sons.

Chase, “Mrs. Chase in Prospect Park,” 1886. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image is in public domain.

Chase was noted for “theatrical self-promotion,” Stanley Meisler wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2016.

“He did not dress like an impoverished bohemian artist but like an eccentric grandee. He sported a walrus mustache, a high French silk hat, an expensive suit and a thick black ribbon for his pince-nez eyeglasses. He usually walked the streets of New York with a white Russian wolfhound. A servant in a fez and Turkish pantaloons sometimes followed them,” Meisler wrote.

Chase enjoyed teaching art and his students included Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keeffe. Another of Chase’s student was Lydia Field Emmet (1866–1952), who he painted in the portrait below. Emmet is shown as poised and confident.

Chase, “Lydia Field Emmet,” c. 1892. Brooklyn Museum. Image is in public domain.

Chase’s style fell out of favor in his later years. The famous Armory Show of 1913 introduced America to modern art.

“Americans could witness Cubism and the special coloring of Henri Matisse without traveling to Europe,” wrote Meisler in the Los Angeles Times. “But for Chase the Armory Show was a slap in the face. The sponsors did not ask for a single canvas from him.”

“Chase visited the show six times, and each visit seemed to increase his anger. In lectures he accused Matisse of `charlatanry’ and the sale of Futurist paintings as `a gold brick swindle’,” Meisler added.

Far more taken with modern styles was perhaps Chase’s most famous student, Georgia O’Keeffe. Still, she remembered Chase fondly, famously saying “There was something fresh and energetic and fierce and exacting about him that made him fun.”

Could there be a better compliment for a teacher? Exacting, yet fun.

Click here for my Artists of the Americas — bibliography to find details used in this essay. I highly recommend Hirshler’s 2016 lecture.

Journalist fascinated by art, food, architecture, justice, politics, history and business. Has visited museums on six continents, eaten in more than 60 nations.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store