- William Merritt Chase, American, 1849-1916
- Born: New York
- Work Locations: New York
About the Artist
William Merritt Chase was born in Williamsburg, Indiana, and began his formal art training in New York before heading to Germany, where he studied at the Munich Royal Academy for six years. While Chase identified himself as a realist, painting realistic still-lifes and portraits, others classified him as one of America’s best artists painting in an impressionistic style. His body of work spans a wide range of subject matter: still-lifes, portraits, landscapes, and impressionistic views. He always championed skillful technique over distinguished subject matter, and delighted in turning humble or inelegant common objects into pleasing images. In Chase’s words, “If you can paint a pot, you can paint an angel.”
Chase taught for over 38 years and was very proud of his role as a teacher. His teaching career included the Art Students League in New York and his own outdoor art school on Long Island. Chase would tell his students, “Be in an absorbent frame of mind. Take the best from everything.” One of his well-known students, Georgia O’Keeffe, once described him: “There was something fresh and energetic about him that made him fun…To interest him, paintings had to be alive with paint and a kind of dash and go.” Even though he received recognition and honors throughout his career, Chase relied on teaching to support his family and to give him the financial stability to avoiding painting works for the mere sake of marketability. Chase died at the age of 66 after several months of illness.
What Inspired It
William Merritt Chase enjoyed turning mundane subjects into pleasing images. As he said, “Paint the commonplace in such a way as to make it distinguished.” Because fish were objects of great beauty to Chase, he painted them frequently. In 1913, he remarked, “I enjoy painting fishes; in the infinite variety of these creatures, the subtle and exquisite colored tones of the flesh, fresh from the water, the way their surfaces reflect the light, I take the greatest pleasure…It may be that I will be remembered as a painter of fish.” Chase’s impressive technique drew attention and acclaim to his work, placing his still lifes with fish in high demand. His affinity for a dark palette and bold brushwork were influenced by his studies at the Munich Royal Academy.
Chase was notorious for painting quickly. His dashing painting demonstrations, in which he completed a major composition within a few hours, were legendary. A fish painting like ours usually took him less than a day to complete. He would douse the fish he used as models in ice water to keep them from smelling. Story has it that Chase once rented a fish in order to paint it and returned it still fresh enough to be sold.
One scholar refers to this painting as a “kitchen piece” because of its lack of “elegance,” its association with daily life, and because the elements depicted are related to the preparation of a meal. The fish is displayed with objects that might be used to prepare it.
Chase enjoyed painting copper pots, so his choice of including one in the composition was not only practical but also aesthetic. The pot creates a play of color and shine between its burnished gold and the shimmering silver fish, and also a play of texture between the slithering fish and the firm structure of the pot.
Chase was able to achieve a strong sense of realism without a high degree of detail. In this work there are several examples of his quick vigorous brushwork. Chase creates a convincing fin by simply dragging a flat, dry brush through wet paint. There are several spots on the copper pot where the canvas is still visible.
Chase admired many 17th century Dutch artists and hung copies of their paintings in his studio. By recreating the characteristic dark background used by these artists, Chase was able to better highlight the light silvery tones of his fish.
Chase used color carefully in this painting to create a rich, warm atmosphere. The golden-brown foreground and background accentuate the silvery-grey fish, while the bright red of the lobster and onion balance and enliven the composition.
A group of dead fish gave Chase an opportunity to compose an elegant series of related curves. And by including the cooking pot and white plate, he could take the echoing shapes a step further.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- Chase was notorious for painting quickly. There is a certain amount of raw inspiration that emerges from a quick sketch. Provide a series of subjects for the students to draw but only allow them 1 minute to draw it. Charcoal and newsprint would be the perfect tools for this project.
- As Chase said, “Paint the commonplace in such a way as to make it distinguished.” Have the class collectively think of an object they all use on a daily basis, without informing them of the upcoming project. Once they have decided, challenge them to create an interesting painting with that object as the central focus.