William Merritt Chase (1849-1916)
William Merritt Chase (1849-1916)

An Idle Afternoon

William Merritt Chase (1849-1916)
An Idle Afternoon
signed and inscribed 'To My Friend Wm. S. Allen Wm. M. Chase.' (lower left)
oil on canvas
21¾ x 26 in. (55.3 x 66 cm.)
William Sullivant Vanderbilt Allen, New York, gift from the artist.
Ethelinda Vanderbilt Allen Ward, New York, sister of the above.
Mildred Sutton Ward, daughter of the above.
By descent in the family to the present owner.

Lot Essay

In the late nineteenth century, the fresh greenery and quiet, pastoral simplicity of Brooklyn attracted many New Yorkers who had become weary of the hassles and pressure of modern urban life. William Merritt Chase was among those who opted for the resources that Brooklyn had to offer. The artist married Alice Gerson in 1886 and, in 1888, she gave birth to the first of their eight children. Realizing that his resources would not readily permit the growing family to make annual summer trips to Europe, the Chases chose a vacation spot in Bath Beach, Brooklyn, a fashionable summer resort during much of the nineteenth century.

In the relaxed atmosphere of Brooklyn, Chase began to paint the subjects that would captivate him for the rest of his life. The pleasant scenery and peaceful environment produced some of the most enduring and important accomplishments of American Impressionism, most notably a series of works depicting various scenes in Prospect Park.
Painted in an upscale, private park-like setting in Bath Beach, An Idle Afternoon is related stylistically and in character with Chase's Prospect Park series executed during the same period.

The works of Chase's Prospect Park series have been described as "saturated with the intimacy of interior scenes despite their outdoor locales, [in which] the artist rarely revealed evidence of the surrounding city ...Chase turned to the parks... which were for him genteel, feminine venues, enclaves for repose set apart from the hurly-burly of late-nineteenth century New York. To visit the parks with Chase is to experience a milieu entirely dominated by women who are accompanied sometimes by children and almost never by men. It is to focus on them as places for pleasant strolls and promenades, areas defined by paths and lawns. It is to find a refuge from unpleasant urban realities and to be invited to pause and rest." (H.B. Weinberg, D. Bolger and D.P. Curry, American Impressionism and Realism, New York, 1994, pp. 146-7) An Idle Afternoon can be described in the same manner. The work prominently features the figure of an exquisite young woman in the foreground which balances with the lush garden landscape in the background. Like many Prospect Park pictures, the dreamy attitude of the subject, who is reclining in a hammock, is juxtaposed to the more formal landscape setting in the background.

The spontaneity and directness that Chase preached to generations of art students is also evident in An Idle Afternoon. Elizabeth Kornhauser notes of Shinnecock Hills (A View of Shinnecock) (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut) that "Chase followed his own advice in this work, which he left in a sketchy state that, he believed, would draw the viewer into the composition, allowing him or her to participate in its completion. Chase frequently exhibited works described as 'Sketch,' 'Study' or 'Unfinished Picture' as his most important paintings, preferable to the highly finished works of many of his contemporaries." (E.M. Kornhauser, American Paintings Before 1945 in the Wadsworth Atheneum, Volume One, Hartford, Connecticut, 1996, p. 184)

Many scholars have focused on Chase's extremely warm and outgoing personality. A devoted family man, Chase was often surrounded by his wife, and any number of his children, all of whom are featured in works throughout his oeuvre. Chase's students were devoted to the charismatic master as well. Many of Chase's masterworks feature groupings of the artist's family, friends, students or models poised in an idyllic, relaxed atmosphere of elegance and comfort. An Idle Afternoon carries the artist's characteristic unencumbered tone--Chase's sitter dreamily gazes at the viewer from her resting spot on the hammock. Ron Pisano suggests that this work likely depicts Alice Chase as "the very relaxed, informal pose would suggest a personal relationship between the model and the painter. Furthermore, the young woman posing has on her lap the same, or similar, hat to that which Mrs. Chase wears in several other paintings or pastels by Chase, including Afternoon by the Sea, circa 1888 (private collection)." (R.G. Pisano, William Merritt Chase Research Report)

Alice's contributions to her husband's career cannot be overestimated. Completely devoted to her husband and family, Alice Chase made a subtle but strong contribution to her husband's work. Indeed, "from the very beginning of their marriage, Alice made their residence a place of comfort and refuge for her husband. She guarded their privacy at home, even as she became a valued critic of his work. Alice accepted his need to leave the city in the summer and moved the household to a cottage at Bath Beach or Bensonhurst-by-the-Sea in what was largely pastoral Brooklyn." (K.L. Bryant, Jr., William Merritt Chase, a Genteel Bohemian, Columbia, Missouri, 1991, p. 107)

Alice was also one of Chase's favorite models, and has been described as "a 'handsome and spirited brunette,' with a 'lithe and well rounded' figure, [she] had an oval face with dark eyes and bud-like lips, and small, graceful hands. 'A very paintable model,' Alice became a lovely young woman who appealed to Chase; according to the press, he had monopolized her as a model for two or three years before their marriage." (William Merritt Chase, a Genteel Bohemian, p. 106)

Chase, an enthusiastic teacher and generous person, often gave paintings to students or friends. An Idle Afternoon is affectionately inscribed to his good friend and fellow artist, William Sullivant Vanderbilt Allen, a well-to-do artist and great-grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. The two artists may have become acquainted while they were studying in Europe in the 1880s. Allen, who studied under Jules Lefebvre, Claude Monet, William Bougereau, and Jean-Leon Gérôme was friendly with a number of the most outstanding American artists of his time including Chase, Willard Metcalf, and Winslow Homer. An eclectic character with a strong love of the fine arts, Allen's own work is characterized largely by sporting pictures and most notably, the bronze medal that he won at the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition for his outstanding Evening by the Lake (private collection).

This painting will be included in Ronald G. Pisano's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.

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