Quiet, intimate, and reflective, The Pet Canary depicts the younger sister of William Merritt Chase, Hattie, standing before a window in the Brooklyn home of their parents, silently gazing upon a yellow canary in its cage. With the summer sun streaming through the curtains, Hattie's figure appears partly illuminated by the window, yet she is also silhouetted by the afternoon shadows of the room in which she stands. In this expressive portrait, Chase draws upon a common motif popularized in earlier Victorian imagery, that of a young girl by a window with a caged bird. However, in this scene Chase also provides a poignant glimpse into the fragile experience of his young sister recently transplanted from her Midwestern home to the urban surroundings of Brooklyn, finding quiet companionship and solace in the company of her tiny pet.
During the years of 1886 through 1890, an important transition took place in Chase's career, in which the artist began to depict in his work his own environs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, rather than the European subjects to which he had been so devoted. Chase's work also marked a stylistic departure from his earlier Munich-inspired techniques to an adoption of the Impressionist mode for which he would become known. In 1886, Chase's soon-to-be wife, Alice Gerson, was pregnant with their first child, and his immediate family relocated from St. Louis, Missouri to Brooklyn. His aging parents rented a home at 483 Marcy Avenue, in what is now the Bedford-Stuyvesant district of Brooklyn. The artist spent that first summer of his family's relocation painting the parks and harbors surrounding their new home, in addition to the quiet moments spent with his family at home. Dr. Gallati writes of the present painting, "Not only is it an experimental exercise in capturing interior and exterior light in an Impressionist mode, it now reads as an intimate portrait of the painter's young sister Hattie on the second floor of the Marcy Avenue house." (William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes, 1886-1890, p. 56) The artist would depict Hattie in several works, including The Open Air Breakfast of 1887 (The Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio).
In The Pet Canary the circumstances of the bird, transplanted from its natural environment to the domestic confines of the birdcage, are certainly metaphorical for the young Hattie, who in late nineteenth-century New York would have lived a prescribed life, often at home. The motif of the female subject with a caged bird proliferated in popular imagery of the Victorian period, and was the subject of a number of earlier well-known paintings, including William Powell Frith's The Canary painted circa 1865 (Private Collection). By referencing this common theme, Chase was able to paint his sister in an acceptable way, in what otherwise may have been seen by viewers as an inappropriate exposure of private life. As stated by Dr. Gallati, "Hattie as model in The Pet Canary was depersonalized because the majority of the audience would have connected the painting with the familiar meaning that equated the female subject with the caged bird." (William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes, 1886-1890, p. 61)
In November of 1886, Chase exhibited The Pet Canary at his first one-man exhibition at the Boston Art Club, which was extremely well-received. For example, the Art Amateur critic stated that the show "may be said to have been the most interesting exhibition ever held here of the works of an American artist" and of Chase, "he cannot be said to belong to any school, unless it be the modern school; and, whether impressed by a certain phase of art, or a certain aspect of nature, the work of his brush always expresses a thought or feeling of his own." ("The William Merritt Chase Exhibition," Art Amateur, vol. 16, April 1886, p. 100) Indeed, with his confident Impressionistic brushstrokes and masterful depiction of the effects of both indoor and outdoor light, Chase creates a brilliant and evocative Impressionist composition in The Pet Canary. In this work the artist updated a familiar art historical theme through the lens of his own sister's newly changed domestic experience, and it is for these reasons that The Pet Canary can be considered among the most innovative and personally significant works from this important period of Chase's career.