Cosmopolitanism and the Gilded Age
Object-William Merritt Chase, Spring Flowers (Peonies)
One of America’s most influential artists and teachers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, William Merritt Chase embraced new approaches to art-making, breaking ground not only in oil painting but also in the use of pastels. In this pastel, a woman holding an Asian fan and wearing an orange dressing gown made of Japanese fabric leans gracefully on a table that supports a large pot of peonies in full bloom. Highlighting the composition’s formal qualities, the light shade of the flowers contrasts with the flaming color of the dress, while the tapestry hanging in the background offsets the pot’s glossy surface. The woman’s face is gracefully turned away from the viewer. Spring Flowers (Peonies) conveys an ideal of purely visual beauty that illustrates the influence of Japanese aesthetics on Chase’s work. An unusually large work for the delicate technique of pastel, it demonstrates the artist’s mastery of the medium.
Learn more about this pastel on the Terra Foundation website.
William Merritt Chase’s exquisite pastel Spring Flowers (Peonies), created around 1889, is commanding in its size, its bold jewel-toned coloring, and its subject: an alluring female in a Japanese gown. Featured in the artist’s 2016–17 retrospective, the four-by-four-foot pastel dazzled many visitors who mistook it for an oil painting.William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master was co-organized by the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Phillips Collection (Washington, DC), the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Fondation Musei Civici di Venezia (Venice, Italy). The pastel appeared in the first two venues. The exhibition’s curatorial team (myself, Katherine Bourguignon, Erica Hirshler, and Giovanna Ginex) was eager to shed light on Chase’s daring experiments in pastel and to study their global context, exploring other novel approaches to the medium across the Atlantic.
One innovative practitioner who offered an inspiring example to Chase was the Italian painter Giuseppe de Nittis (1846–1884). Widely celebrated for his large-scale, luminous pastels, de Nittis was known for his profound interest in, and collection of, Japanese art. Chase too was swept up in the mania for Japan (Japonisme), which peaked in the 1880s after displays of Japanese art in the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition and the 1878 Paris Universal Exposition. A cosmopolitan artist with a voracious appetite for diverse cultural traditions, Chase amassed an extraordinary collection of non-Western objects, including many Japanese prints and items of decorative art and clothing. Like de Nittis (see for example Orange Kimono, 1883–84, private collection) and other contemporaries such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), Chase enjoyed dressing his models in Japanese costume. Spring Flowers (Peonies) is one of over 25 works he made between 1882 and 1908 featuring women in kimonos or Japanese-inspired gowns. The art of the esteemed Belgian painter and fellow collector Alfred Stevens (1823– 1906) offered Chase other variations on the theme, including The Japanese Robe (c. 1872), a work that in 1887 entered the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Less obvious but equally compelling sources for Spring Flowers (Peonies) are tied not to the figure but the flowers—the subject for which the picture is named. Chase has orchestrated a virtuosic performance of glistening strokes of white and pink in a shimmering brass pot—a veritable masterpiece. Among the compositional precedents are peony still lifes by the Japanese ukiyo-e print artists Hiroshige (1797– 1858) and Hokusai (1760–1849) as well as those by their French admirers Édouard Manet (1832–1883) and Henri Fantin Latour (1836–1904).
Though Chase himself never traveled to Japan, many of his American friends enjoyed firsthand contact with Japanese culture that influenced the American view of Japan through widely circulated articles in illustrated art journals: in 1885, his former student Theodore Wores (1859–1939) was one of the first American artists to travel there; John La Farge (1835–1910) went the following year; and Robert Frederick Blum (1857–1903) made the journey in 1890.
By threading together the wide network that shaped Chase’s interest in Japonisme we can gain a deeper understanding of its significance to his art. According to his biographer Katherine Roof, Chase’s dying wish was to show his friend Irving Ramsey Wiles (1861–1948) a Japanese hanging recently received from his wife. The words of La Farge ring true: “a man’s likings are his important self.”John La Farge, “Bric-À-Brac, Nikko, August 12,” in An Artist’s Letters from Japan (New York: Century Co., 1903), 149.
Curator, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC