William Merritt Chase's vivid depictions of New York's parks and coastal areas are among the earliest and finest American landscape paintings in the Impressionist style. Executed during five consecutive summers spent in Brooklyn and Manhattan between 1886 and 1890, Chase's highly regarded urban scenes represent an important transitional phase in the artist's career, and in the history of American painting in general. In contrast to the dark palette and European academic style typical of Chase's earlier studio works, this group of outdoor scenes incorporates the brighter palette and innovative plein-air technique for which the artist is best known.
Ronald Pisano wrote: "What was the impetus for this series of impressionistic views of city parks? In subject, there seems to be no direct American prototype; Chase's park scenes were considered daring and modern, since most American landscape painters focused on the bucolic countryside, far from the city limits. Surely Chase was aware of Sargent's views of the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris and Whistler's Cremorne Gardens in London; these works may account in part for Chase's choice of subject matter." (Summer Afternoons: Landscape Paintings of William Merritt Chase, Boston, Massachusetts, 1973, p. 9)
Prior to 1886, Chase had traveled abroad during the summer months, painting outdoor scenes in Spain and Holland. In 1886 the artist married Alice Gerson 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 remained at home in the summers. During these summer months the artist devoted his attention to capturing the beauty of the various parks in the area--particularly Prospect Park and Central Park. The period of Chases's interest in painting these locales is clearly demarcated, beginning in 1886 and continuing through 1890, when the family began passing the season in Shinnecock at the eastern end of Long Island.
While geographic limitations clearly influenced Chase's choice of subject matter at this point in his career, an interpretation of the dramatic stylistic developments seen this period of Chase's oeuvre based solely on these factors seems rather limited. In discussing Chase's radical departure from his earlier Munich-inspired painting style, Barbara Gallati notes several additional possible factors, including the artist's experimental nature and his keen awareness of critical reception of his work. Gallati discusses the artist's determination to regain his artistic priority following the devastating reception of the 1884 annual exhibition of the Society of American Artists (or SAA), of which Chase was a member. Gallati writes: "The timing of his own plan for self-promotion and transformation worked against him inasmuch as it coincided with an already volatile moment of transition in American aesthetics...Just as the society recognized its need to 'regroup' if it were to survive, Chase may have determined that his career was at a similar juncture Chase was attacked on both personal and aesthetic grounds. Not only was his work considered empty of serious (and more important, 'American') content, but its technical characteristics denoted a flimsy sleight of hand owing to the mixture of the ill effects of Munich training, or, alternatively, the adoption of monotonous compositions and tones arising out of a denatured Whistlerian style. It must be assumed that Chase, who was so attuned to public image, was acutely aware of the disastrous 1884 reviews and studiously considered their content." (William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes, 1886-1890, Brooklyn, New York, 2000, p. 33)
After 1884 Chase quite clearly began experimenting. In his subsequent New York park pictures, we see his earliest incorporation of innovative artistic techniques learned from the Impressionists. Stylistically, Pisano describes this group of works as "painted in a much higher key, more vigorously executed, and more dramatic in their cropped compositions with strong diagonals leading the viewer swiftly into the picture plane. This last device is one that Chase most likely adopted from the work of Giuseppe de Nittis, an Italian-born artist who moved to Paris, where he became a friend of Degas and exhibited with the French Impressionists. Chase, who later obtained a small painting by de Nittis for his own collection, probably became familiar with his pastels while visiting Paris in 1881 when a major exhibition of these works was held at the Cercle de la Place Vendôme." (Summer Afternoons: Landscape Paintings of William Merritt Chase, p. 9)
Prospect Park, Brooklyn depicts a view of the Reviewing Stand on the Pedestrian Terrace from the carriageway of Brooklyn's Prospect Park. Designed by Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, who had earlier created the Greensward Plan for Manhattan's Central Park, Prospect Park formally opened to the public in 1867. Prospect Park was the first of New York's parks that Chase chose to paint, and inspired many of his most brilliant Impressionist works.
This pastel will be included in Ronald G. Pisano's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the works of William Merritt Chase.