William Merritt Chase once declared, “If one can paint a fence-rail well, it is far better than an unsuccessful attempt at the most sublime scenery, for it is not what one does, but the way it is done.” (as quoted in R.G. Pisano, Summer Afternoon: Landscape Paintings of William Merritt Chase, Boston, Massachusetts, 1993, p. 13) Following this precept, some of the finest accomplishments of Chase’s career capture simple, everyday views of the public spaces of leisure life in the late nineteenth century. Incorporating modern perspectives, bold brushstrokes and a meticulous attention to color variation, Chase transformed the parks of New York City and the dunes and hills of Long Island into innovative views full of vitality and light. With his uniquely American form of Impressionism, Chase would not only create plein air gems, such as the present work, but also inspire an entire school of landscape artists to continue in his tradition.
In 1890, Chase was invited to Shinnecock, near the village of Southampton on the eastern end of Long Island, by Mrs. William S. Hoyt, an amateur painter and summer resident of the rapidly developing area. “Southampton had become a summer resort for New Yorkers and, by the nineties, rivaled Newport, Rhode Island, as a vacation retreat. The Long Island Railroad opened the far eastern portions of the island to settlement by offering frequent service to the city. The rolling, sandy hills stretched along the southern coast, an area Chase had visited in the 1880s with the Tile Club. The terrain between Shinnecock and Peconic Bay was covered with low brush resembling the heather of the Scottish Highlands and a coarse wire grass. Wildflowers produced a garden effect in the spring. Chase knew the clear skies, ever changing light, and soft air from his previous sojourn, and accepted the invitation to return." (K.L. Bryant, Jr., William Merritt Chase: A Genteel Bohemian, Columbia, Missouri, 1991, p. 150)
Encouraged by this beautiful landscape and the efforts of Samuel Parrish and Mrs. Henry Kirke Porter, Chase was soon convinced to join in efforts to start the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art. Chase had an enormous natural gift for teaching, and over his eleven summers there, his school developed into one of the strongest of its kind in the country. Dedicated to painting out of doors, directly from nature, “Chase and his pupils,” writes Ron Pisano, “were interested in capturing fleeting impressions of the landscape, swiftly painted and filled with bright sunlight.” (A Leading Spirit in American Art: William Merritt Chase, 1849-1916, Seattle, Washington, 1983, p. 121) He became particularly known for his spirited advice to his students about ideal Impressionistic technique. "Among his admonitions were the following: Take the first thing that you see on leaving your door. Anything in nature is good enough to paint. Stop that squinting. Try to see nature as you should, with your eyes wide open. Hold up a card with a square hole in it, and put what you see through the opening in your canvas…Why not begin with color at once and work with a brush loaded with paint, rather than with black and white?" (William Merritt Chase: A Genteel Bohemian, p. 157)
Following his own suggestions, Chase produced some of his most original and purely Impressionist landscapes during his summers at Shinnecock, of which the present work is a highly characteristic example. Indeed, here Chase transforms a nondescript scene amongst the grassy hills of eastern Long Island into an immersive experience of color and texture, which accurately captures the unique aspects of the location yet also encourages the eye to follow the intricate patterns of nature’s beauty. Keeping the foreground the most painterly area, with the handling becoming tighter and more controlled in the distance, he creates a realistic sense of perspective with the Ponquogue Point lighthouse just visible along the horizon. The bright green vertical of a lone tree, dashes of red flowers and two puffy white clouds create an off-center focal point at left, adding to the sense that this is not a composed setting but rather a freshly conceived and spontaneously depicted spring landscape. Working directly from nature, Chase presents in Shinnecock pure painting and his Impressionist style at its best.