William Merritt Chase's vivid depictions of the Shinnecock Hills have been repeatedly acknowledged as some of the finest accomplishments of American Impressionism. Having learned a direct and spontaneous style of painting from Frank Duveneck in Munich, Chase developed upon his return to New York his signature style--incorporating bold, vivacious brushstrokes with meticulous attention to composition and color variations. At Shinnecock, he developed his style even further, producing innovative views almost wholly unlike any of his previous work.
Located near the village of Southhampton on the eastern end of Long Island, Shinnecock developed into a lively center for American Impressionism with Chase's establishment there of a summer school. His involvement at Shinnecock began in 1890, when Chase accepted an invitation to visit Mrs. William S. Hoyt at her home. He soon became acquainted with Samuel Parrish and Mrs. Henry Kirke Porter, who eventually convinced him to join in their efforts to start the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art. Prior to this time, Southhampton was a quiet farming community with little to offer visitors other than its charm. Ironically, "the nearly four thousand acres that make up Shinnecock Hills were considered of little value by the early settlers. They regarded the sand dunes covered with wire grass and scrub brush--the 'hills' in the otherwise flat landscape-as suitable only for grazing sheep. Chase's arrival at Shinnecock coincided closely with the commercial development of the region. If the area was of little practical agricultural use, by about 1890 it began to be settled by those who perceived very different value in it. A booklet published by the Long Island Railroad described the place and the state of its development in 1890, the year before Chase's arrival: 'it is hardly possible to imagine a more desirable location for a summer residence. The land is high, and from this rounded plateau one looks down upon one of the finest marine views on the Atlantic coast. The ocean, flecked with sails, is before, while behind, the winding waters of Peconic Bay, with the intermingling shores, give infinite variety of scene.'" (D. S. Atkinson, William Merritt Chase, Summers at Shinnecock, Washington, DC, 1987, 1987, p. 16). During the 1890s, the area would swiftly become a resort for prominent New Yorkers, and the area began to rival Newport as a vacation retreat.
Not only was the countryside beautiful, but Chase had an enormous natural gift for teaching, and the school soon 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). Chase himself became a figure of renown for his friendly reproofs. "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. In painting a sandy beach, try to imagine that you are walking upon it. We all see color and form. Why not begin with color at once and work with a brush loaded with paint, rather that with black and white?" (K. L. Bryant, Jr., William Merritt Chase, A Genteel Bohemian, Columbia, Missouri, 1991, p. 157.)
Early on, in 1892 Chase built a home nearby, and he led the school every summer for eleven years, during which time he produced some of his most original and purely Impressionist landscapes, of which the recently rediscovered Shinnecock Landscape is a highly characteristic example. Chase enlivens the work with a rich surface of brush stokes and brilliant touches of blue and green, evoking the atmospheric effects of a summer's day. Indeed, he appears to follow his own advice to his students, providing his audience with a direct record of the scene before him. With dashing sweeps of his brush, Chase paints the seagrass and ruffled waters of an inlet. In the distance, he records a few rowboats and houses, following all the while his dictum of keeping the foreground the most painterly area, with the handling becoming tighter and more controlled in the distance. "Do not put too much of the same handling in the foreground and the middle distance," noted the artist. "Break the surface of your shades. They will appear more natural." (William Merritt Chase, Summers at Shinnecock, p. 25) The effect is of a freshly conceived and spontaneously depicted ideal landscape. Working directly from nature, Chase presents in Shinnecock Landscape pure painting and his Impressionist style at its best.
This painting will be included in Ronald G. Pisano's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.