William Merritt Chase was a American Nineteenth Century artist not even all that well known in his time, recognized late in life for his general accomplishments. He was neither original in his subject matters nor in his treatment of them, and so is a suitable subject for letting us know just how much can be garnered anyway from his paintings about the social life of his period, which is the Victorian Era on the East Coast of the United States. He gives us a sense of architecture and interiors, of leisure time, and even of the relation between men and women, each of which could also be documented from other sources including other artists but is also documented here, in the specialized point of view of this particular artist, which traditional sociologists would not trust as a reliable source of information about a period in that the artist reflects what he perceives and not what is generally true. But that is not true in that even Andy Warhol tells the truth about what preoccupies people so much that they will not easily report what he can notice as their preoccupations: soup cans and Marilyn Monroe.
Sociologists are much given to document what is invisible: social structures such as families and bureaucracies and interactions such as friendship and courtship, for which painters can merely supply stereotypical illustrations, such as two young people looking affectionately at one another, or people each one of them huddled over their similar desks sorting through papers, as happens in any number of silent films. There is, however, much that can be said about what can be seen rather than merely represented as standing in place of an abstraction. The easiest level of this to appreciate is available in “Studio Interior”, a Chase painting from 1882. A girl in a white dress and a blue ribboned bonnet is sitting on a small and hard un-upholstered bench bending over a large book, clearly too heavy for her to carry, that is opened on the floor before her. Why is she so uncomfortable? You would think that a place where people might look at art books would have a lectern on which to set one of them. And why is the furniture unupholstered? There are wall hangings and a nice blue carpet and a small blue upholstered chair in the room, the blues nicely tied to one another, but the room is dominated by a large and heavy looking wood bureau on which are stacked a number of items, like pots for brushes, and what seems to be a photograph, as well as walls filled with paintings. The room does not look cluttered because so much floor space is visible, but the wall that contains the paintings and against which the bureau is set does seem to contain too many objects, at least to a post-Victorian eye, which means that the cluttered look, one object adjacent to another object not related to it, is within the aesthetic realm of how a room is supposed to look. Such a room is exciting because you see unexpected juxtapositions and no end of things to look at. The book of pictures the young lady is looking at does not exhaust the interests in the room. So this is the kind of indoor splendor that seems to satisfy the Victorian mind: items collected from various pursuits carried out both inside and outside the room and brought together as if to a museum and that feels both cozy and comfortable, a suitable venue for a young unaccompanied lady.
That this is a theme of a room is borne out by another picture of Chases: “Open Air Breakfast”, from 1888, where the same thing is true of a room created for a moment or a while as a place to take breakfast outdoors. Our own idea of leisure as a time when people rough it just a little bit seems already to have settled in, people taking their food out of doors, as if on a picnic, yet in relative comfort, but not in utmost comfort, as if it were fun to live less well than one normally does, and so reminiscent of those people we all know who think that camping is fun because you get dirty and it is difficult to make dinner and you settle for whatever may result. In this case, the outdoor setting is made enough like an indoor room so that there are hangings on the wooden enclosure of the outdoor space and assorted objects brought in as wall decorations so as to make it more like the indoor room we have already noticed. There is no getting away from Victorian decoration; there is just its facsimile in another setting where such decoration is harder to create and so its furnishings are suggestive of what a regular room is like rather than a duplication of a regular room.
A tea table and some chairs and a hammock and a wall hanging have been imported to the walled outdoor setting. There are also some plantings in vases, but the grass within the enclosure is unmown and the trees and shrubs within the enclosure are unpruned. True to his gift for color, Chase puts white at the center of his picture, which is the way the women are dressed and white is the color of the table cloth on the tea table. They are the central items: people are imports that will just spend a few hours in this setting before getting back to their “real” house, with all its amenities. But, for the moment, even their dog has been imported so as to wile away an afternoon living in a place that is edenic only in that it is slightly uncomfortable and not a site of much temptation, that not something that is yet appreciated as a bit of a thrill, which will come soon enough, with Edwardianism. So we have a sense of the emotions of Victorian life: nothing out of place,just slightly displaced for the satisfaction of that.
And yet there is something discordant in the life of the artist. On the one hand, there are his pictures of family life including “Mrs. Chase Playing the Piano” from 1883, her back turned to us, the piano not a particularly aesthetic object and so just an instrument for the performance which is of interest to the family rather than to any other audience, none being present. This is her pastime, just as is breakfast taken outdoors. The interest of the painting is that Chase is out to capture the ordinary rather than the aesthetic. The pianist as well as the piano is non-descript. Her back is turned and erect, which is as her piano teacher instructed, and so you don’t see her face, only a back in an everyday dress hunched over the piano. The model, in this case his wife, is not trying to be appealing or even noticed.
But Chase also paints nudes, most of which are fairly sedate, showing only the backs of the models. A more daring one is “Modern Magdalen”, from 1888, which shows a model whose breasts are allowed to droop forward, who has flabs of flesh around her middle, and very acccurately depicted feet. But consider how coy and self conscious is the title he gives the picture. It is an allusion to a time when the portraits of women were dressed up to be about Biblical figures even if the artist’s intent was on the models not on the reference. Here, the artist makes a Biblical reference to cover up the fact that he is giving us a portrait of a nude, legitimizing it that way. Chase is far behind the French in the candor with which to address nudes. He does not give the full frontal nudity found in Manet’s “Olympia”, as that is emphasized by the delicately placed hand. “Olympia” is from 1865, and so we can say the French were ahead of the Americans in the unfolding of the nude, or else that Victorian prudery deepened in the two decades between the Manet and the Chase paintings.
And yet, if you take the Chase pictures of family and nudes as a whole, he is making a point very similar to that made by Manet in 1863 with his “The Luncheon on the Grass” which depicts a naked woman picnicking with two dressed males and a semi-dressed female bather in the background. That point is that dressed and undressed are very close to one another even if they are segregated from one another. In Manet, the reverie of seeing a nude woman at a picnic was something that males could well appreciate, might indulge themselves to think of as the way they would like a picnic to go, while in chase life is separated between profession and family, the former undressed while the latter is clothed, women not sexual objects. And so we have an anticipation of Freud through hitting a point even more general than the ones that Freud made: the dressed and the undressed, the socially acceptable and the sexually fraught, are always present beside one another, whatever one thinks of Freud’s additional propositions that sexual urges are present in children, or that sexual urges are everywhere trying to get out. It is not, for Chase nor Manet, that sex and society are at war, only that they coexist.