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

Gowanus Bay

William Merritt Chase (1849-1916)
Gowanus Bay
signed 'Wm M. Chase.' (lower left)
oil on panel
10¼ x 15¾ in. (26 x 40 cm.)
Painted circa 1887.
[Sale] Fifth Avenue Art Galleries, New York, Ortegie & Co., Chase sale, 1891, no. 5.
The Honorable Seth Low, Mayor of Brooklyn, by 1910.
Mrs. Anne Wroe Scollay Curtis Low, New York.
John Charles Tiedeman, New York.
John Charles Tiedeman, Jr., son of the above, Arizona.
Kennedy Galleries, Inc., New York.
Sotheby's, New York, 20 April 1979, lot 45.
Private collection, Houston, Texas.
Babcock Galleries, New York and AJ Kollar Fine Paintings, Seattle, Washington.
Private collection, Washington, D.C.
Paris Universal Exposition, exhibition catalogue, 1889, no. 53.
K. Cox, "William Merritt Chase Painter," Harpers New Monthly Magazine, vol. 78, March 1889, pp. 554, 556, illustrated.
W. Peat, "Checklist of Known Works by William Merritt Chase," Chase Centennial Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Indianapolis, Indiana, 1949.
A. Blaugrund, Paris 1889: American Artists at the Universal Exposition, New York, 1989, p. 272, no. 53, illustrated.
R.G. Pisano, Summer Afternoons: Landscape Paintings of William Merritt Chase, Boston, Massachusetts, 1993, p. 52, illustrated.
B.D. Gallati, William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes, 1886-1890, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1999, pp. 16, 91, pl. 3, illustrated.
New York, American Art Association, Annual Prize Fund Exhibition, 1888, no. 74.
Indianapolis, Indiana, Indianapolis Art Association, 5th Annual Exhibition, 1888, no. 42 (as Gowanus Bay-South Brooklyn).
Rochester, New York, Rochester Art Club, Ninth Annual Exhibition, 1888, no. 9.
Paris, Paris Exposition Universelle, 1889, no. 53 (as Baie de Gowanus).
(Possibly) Buffalo, New York, Buffalo Fine Arts Academy, 1891.
New York, National Arts Club, Exhibition of Paintings by William Merritt Chase, 1910, no. 134.
Brooklyn, New York, Brooklyn Museum of Art, and elsewhere, William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes, 1886-1890, May 26-August 13, 2000, no. 13.

Lot Essay

As he was in his lifetime, William Merritt Chase is recognized as one of the foremost American artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Celebrated for an eclectic body of work that cuts across subject matter, technique, and media, he was also a revered and influential teacher. Chase prized his artistic versatility and actively cultivated a flamboyant public persona that complemented the astonishing flexibility with which he shifted from one style to another.

Chase's desire to promote himself as a multi-faceted talent is pointedly revealed in the group of paintings that won him acclaim at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, where, with several large, full-length portraits he displayed five small, sketchily rendered landscapes, among which was Gowanus Bay. If the contrast between the dark-toned portraits and the landscapes were not enough, the variety of subjects and styles exhibited within the group of five landscapes must have testified even more strongly to Chase's unwillingness to hold to a single artistic outlook. What is more, his decision to include the five little works of seemingly inconsequential, anonymous sites at such an important international venue, bears witness to the fact that he deemed them to be vital statements of his artist accomplishments. Despite unfortunate installation conditions, Chase's landscapes (noted by one critic as "five little views about New York and Brooklyn") received high praise from the influential art writer William A. Coffin, who asserted, "The small pictures of city scenes about Brooklyn parks and docks, than which nobody has painted anything better in their way, do not show here at their full worth. The little canvases are lost on the big walls, and the light is so high that the pictures are in the shadow cast by the frames. For all that, enough may be seen to leave no doubt of their merit, and their cleverness and artistic quality are incontestable." ("Our Artistic Show at Paris," New York Herald, March 8, 1889, p. 6)

Indeed, Gowanus Bay demonstrates the meritorious qualities remarked by Coffin. The reductive view of a quiet, watery vista, expressed in a narrow range of muted, cool tones is deceptively simple at first glance. Yet, with close examination, the painting introduces a complex series of ideas, all of which center on Chase's campaign to renovate his professional reputation that he undertook in the mid-1880s--at the same time he began to focus on New York and Brooklyn locales for his subject matter.

While he was encountering professional difficulties, Chase's personal life also began to change drastically; his bachelor's existence would soon end with marriage to his long-time model Alice Gerson and the anticipation of their first child early in 1887. Chase eschewed his customary summer trip to Europe in 1886. By coincidence, the change in his domestic situation helped to initiate a new phase in his art since he found himself making regular trips across the East River from his studio to the Brooklyn home of his elderly parents, where Alice spent part of her confinement and the first year or so after the baby was born. These new circumstances over the summer of 1886 resulted in his "discovery" and exploration of the unfamiliar environs of Brooklyn as the subject matter on which to base the renovation of his art. He debuted his first efforts in this line at his first one-man exhibition at the Boston Art Club late that year where one critic noticed, "a number of exquisite little studies of land and water about New York, Coney Island, Long Island, and the Lower Bay." ("The William Merritt Chase Exhibition," Art Amateur, 16, April 1887, p. 100) Of course, others such as his colleague John H. Twachtman (1853-1902) had previously focused on the docks of Manhattan, forcefully depicting the squalor of the city's decaying piers. Chase, however, adopted a different approach, providing generalized, distanced impressions of the new and thriving docks at Wallabout (near the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard) and Gowanus Bay. Indeed, Brooklyn was a booming, independent city in the 1880s -- the fifth largest one in the United States whose docks by then handled more goods than their Manhattan counterparts. The Gowanus docks and canal were visible and potent symbols of the city's modernity and, by extension, viewers of Gowanus Bay would have gleaned that message, amplified as it was by Chase's equally modern, reductive approach to formal and narrative elements. Further meaning lodges in Brooklyn's rapid urban advancement, a modern condition communicated in the contrast of the old pier and wooden boats against the foil of the busy waters beyond.

Gowanus Bay represents Chase's deft manipulation and integration of contemporary styles to devise paintings that were uniquely his. What is more, the critics received them as being completely American and modern.

According to Mr. Frederick Baker, this work is included in Ronald G. Pisano's The Complete Catalogue of Known and Documented Work by William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), Volume 3. completed by Carolyn K. Lane (Yale University Press) scheduled for publication 2008.

We are grateful for the assistance of Dr. Barbara Dayer Gallati in the preparation of this entry.

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