Cosmopolitanism and the Gilded Age

William Merritt Chase (1849–1916)
Spring Flowers (Peonies), by 1889
Pastel on paper, prepared with a tan ground, and wrapped with canvas around a wooden strainer, 48 x 48 in. (121.9 x 121.9 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.32

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.


Perspective

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.

Elsa Smithgall
Curator, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC


    William Merritt Chase (1849–1916)
    Spring Flowers (Peonies), by 1889
    Pastel on paper, prepared with a tan ground, and wrapped with canvas around a wooden strainer, 48 x 48 in. (121.9 x 121.9 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.32

    Cosmopolitanism and the Gilded Age

    Childe Hassam (1859–1935)
    Une Averse—rue Bonaparte, 1887
    Oil on canvas, 40 3/8 x 77 7/16 in. (102.6 x 196.7 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1993.20
    William Merritt Chase (1849–1916)
    Morning at Breakwater, Shinnecock, c. 1897
    Oil on canvas, 40 x 50 in. (101.6 x 127.0 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.30
    Edmund C. Tarbell (1862–1938)
    In the Orchard, 1891
    Oil on canvas, 60 3/4 x 65 1/2 in. (154.3 x 166.4 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.141
    Mary Cassatt (1844–1926)
    Summertime, 1894
    Oil on canvas, 39 5/8 x 32 in. (100.6 x 81.3 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1988.25
    John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)
    Breton Woman with a Basket, Study for “En route pour la pêche” and “Fishing for Oysters at Cancale”, 1877
    Oil on canvas, 18 1/2 x 11 3/4 in. (47.0 x 29.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1996.53
    John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)
    Breton Girl with a Basket, Study for “En route pour la pêche” and “Fishing for Oysters at Cancale”, 1877
    Oil on canvas, 19 x 11 1/2 in. (48.3 x 29.2 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.129
    John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)
    Girl on the Beach, Study for “En route pour la pêche” and “Fishing for Oysters at Cancale”, 1877
    Oil on canvas, 19 x 11 1/2 in. (48.3 x 29.2 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.131
    John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)
    Young Boy on the Beach, Study for “En route pour la pêche” and “Fishing for Oysters at Cancale”, 1877
    Oil on canvas, 17 1/4 x 10 1/4 in. (43.8 x 26.0 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.132
    James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903)
    The Zattere: Harmony in Blue and Brown, c. 1879
    Pastel, with traces of black chalk, on brown wove paper, 11 x 7 5/8 in. (27.9 x 19.4 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.162
    James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903)
    Note in Red: The Siesta, by 1884
    Oil on panel, 8 5/16 x 12 in. (21.1 x 30.5 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.149
    Joseph H. Boston (1860–1954)
    From Shore to Shore, 1885
    Oil on canvas, 27 5/8 x 35 5/8 in. (70.2 x 90.5 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.13
    George de Forest Brush (1855–1941)
    The Weaver, 1889
    Oil on canvas, 12 x 15 in. (30.5 x 38.1 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1988.23
    Theodore Wendel (1859–1932)
    Brook, Giverny, 1887
    Oil on canvas, 28 1/2 x 35 5/8 in. (72.4 x 90.5 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1987.13
    Irving Ramsey Wiles (1861–1948)
    On the Veranda, 1887
    Oil on canvas, 20 1/4 x 26 1/4 in. (51.4 x 66.7 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.152
    Charles Courtney Curran (1861–1942)
    Lotus Lilies, 1888
    Oil on canvas, 18 x 32 in. (45.7 x 81.3 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.35
    Dennis Miller Bunker (1861–1890)
    Brittany Town Morning, Larmor, 1884
    Oil on canvas, 14 x 22 in. (35.6 x 55.9 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1991.1
    John Singer Sargent (1856–1925)
    Dennis Miller Bunker Painting at Calcot, 1888
    Oil on canvas mounted on Masonite, 27 x 25 1/4 in. (68.6 x 64.1 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.130
    William Merritt Chase (1849–1916)
    Spring Flowers (Peonies), by 1889
    Pastel on paper, prepared with a tan ground, and wrapped with canvas around a wooden strainer, 48 x 48 in. (121.9 x 121.9 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.32
    Childe Hassam (1859–1935)
    Horse Drawn Cabs at Evening, New York, c. 1890
    Watercolor on paper, 14 x 17 3/4 in. (35.6 x 45.1 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.66
    John Leslie Breck (1860–1899)
    Garden at Giverny (In Monet's Garden), c. 1887–91
    Oil on canvas, 18 1/8 x 21 7/8 in. (46.0 x 55.6 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1988.22
    Guy Rose (1867–1925)
    Giverny Hillside, c. 1890–91
    Oil on panel, 12 7/16 x 16 1/8 in. (31.6 x 41.0 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.2
    Childe Hassam (1859–1935)
    Horticulture Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893
    Oil on canvas, 18 1/2 x 26 1/4 in. (47.0 x 66.7 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.67
    Theodore Robinson (1852–1896)
    Blossoms at Giverny, 1891–92
    Oil on canvas, 21 5/8 x 20 1/8 in. (54.9 x 51.1 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.130
    Lilla Cabot Perry (1848–1933)
    Self-Portrait, c. 1889–96
    Oil on canvas, 31 7/8 x 25 5/8 in. (81.0 x 65.1 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.107
    Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937)
    Les Invalides, Paris, 1896
    Oil on canvas, 13 1/8 x 16 1/8 in. (33.3 x 41.0 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.140
    John H. Twachtman (1853–1902)
    Winter Landscape, c. 1890–1900
    Oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 30 1/8 in. (76.5 x 76.5 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.136
    Willard Metcalf (1858–1925)
    Havana Harbor, 1902
    Oil on canvas, 18 5/16 x 26 1/8 in. (46.5 x 66.4 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.49
    Thomas Eakins (1844–1916)
    Portrait of Thomas J. Eagan, 1907
    Oil on canvas, 24 x 20 in. (61.0 x 50.8 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 1998.1
    Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851–1938)
    Portrait of a Lady Holding a Rose, 1912
    Oil on canvas, 21 1/4 x 16 1/4 in. (54.0 x 41.3 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.46
    Frederick Carl Frieseke (1874–1939)
    Lady in a Garden, c. 1912
    Oil on canvas, 31 7/8 x 25 3/4 in. (81.0 x 65.4 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1999.52