William Merritt Chase at the MFA and Other Exhibits

William Merritt Chase
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Through January 16, 2017

The Young Orphan
William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) is a hard painter to pigeonhole. He's often listed as an American Impressionist, but the painters he most resembles in style (and often, content) are James Abbott McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent. In his protraiture,  Chase unabashedly borrowed poses from Old Masters such as Hals, Velásquez, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, and Rubens. An exhibit at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts displays 80 of Chase's works and when you leave, you've no better idea how to label him than before you entered. Chase frustrates art scholars seeking consistency or a signature style, though his versatility might ultimately be his chief virtue. Or is it his command of color and mood?

Hide and Seek
One can't help but think of Whistler when gazing at The Young Orphan (1884), except Chase poses his languid figure in a blood red chair set against an orange-red wall instead of bathing her in shadows. He saves the dark shadows for works such as Hide and Seek (1888), a work highly reminiscent of Sargent, albeit imbued the sort of innocent sweetness that skirts the boundaries of sentimentality. His portraits make one wonder why he's considered an Impressionist—a work such his portrait of Lydia Field Emmet is more Old Master in style.

Lydia Field Emmet
The Emmet canvas departs from European Impressionists in other ways as well. Unlike them, Chase was never a struggling artist. Like Sargent (1856-1925), he came  from a middle-class background and supped at bourgeois tables. He was famed in his lifetime, sold numerous canvases for handsome prices, and had an equally lucrative teaching career. He was the founder of the Chase—now Parsons–School of for Design. Among his students: Georgia O'Keefe, Edward Hopper, and the aforementioned Ms. Emmet. He did, however, paint en plein air and some of his waterscapes are evocative of Impressionists such as Gustav Loiseau or Alfred Sisley. One of his more outstanding Impressionist ventures, in my view, is "Wash Day," an everyday subject in which Chase captures the chaotic/serene dual nature of the ordinary.

Therein lies a tale; Chase was all over the artistic map. He created in oils, watercolor, and pastels and his subject matter included the haute bourgeoisie and plebeians, formal portraits and casual seascapes, the banal and the enigmatic, landscapes and still life. His tastes were catholic, but he never feared repetition. Of his dabbling in still life, he once joked that he would be remembered as a "painter of fish" for the number of plattered piscatorial delights he depicted. Chase was said to possess a big ego but I enjoyed his flourishes of self-deprecating humor. Unlike many of contemporaries who painted their studios as if they were advertising cards with works in sharp display in the background, Chase puckishly shows his own work as doodles and mess. 

Wash Day

Chase reminds you of a lot of other artists; add Manet and Monet to those already mentioned. I understand the raps against him, but I left the MFA more enamored of him. I can't say I liked everything on the wall, but his eclecticism made it easy to while away an hour and leave the gallery satisfied.

Rob Weir

Other MFA Notes;

"Satisfied" is not an adjective I'd use to describe my experience in the MFA's exhibit "Uh-Oh: Frances Stark 1991-2015." Stark (born 1967) is a contemporary writer/artist whose work left me cold and bored. Maybe it was how the art was displayed—the venerable MFA simply doesn't 'get' contemporary art and I wish it would stop trying–but Stark's work also falls into a category I find dull: compositions that mix shapes, words, and symbols. Much of what was on display was loaded with words that I suppose blur the lines between assemblage and poetry. Sorry, but if I want to read poetry I'm not going to strain my neck to read 10-point type on a museum wall. Other works struck me as seeking provocation as a junior high school boy might do by dropping F-bombs. Stark has been described as the "visual poet laureate of the Internet age." I don't know enough of her work to evaluate that, but the MFA exhibit did not make me wish to linger long enough to form any opinion other than, "I'm done here."

Far more successful is a small photography exhibit featuring Imogen Cunningham (1883-1976), with heavy emphasis on her botanical subjects. Cunningham captured in black and white the sort of sensuality that Georgia O'Keefe captured on canvas. There are also several fine portraits, including one of Martha Graham off stage and in street clothing–something one seldom sees. There is also the wickedly funny 1974 shot Imogen and Twinka that was snapped by one of her assistants. Great stuff!   

The MFA's recent Frida Kahlo purchase, Dos Mujeres, has been cleaned and restored and is the centerpiece of a poorly named exhibit titled "Kahlo and Her Circle." The small exhibit is sublime, as is the Kahlo, but it's a bit of museum switch-and-bait as it's the only Kahlo in the gallery and should have more properly been named "Diego Rivera and His Circle," as his is the work most prominently on display. I'd be the first to say that Kahlo deserves more attention and Rivera less, but where is the line between being politically correct and false advertising?

If you've not already, see the small display that pairs Picasso and Jackson Pollock. It's just over a handful of paintings that, in their unique ways, show how Modernism shattered the way we perceive subject, line, color, and texture. And make sure to watch the small video in which side by side films show each creating a work on glass, which we view from the underside. Call it Picasso the effortless genius versus Pollock the cyclonic soul.

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