Born in 1849 in Indiana, William Merritt Chase showed artistic talent as a young boy. His family arranged for him to begin formal training in art at the age of eighteen with a local portrait painter in Indianapolis. In 1869 Chase went to New York, where for two years he was a student at the National Academy of Design. He moved briefly to St. Louis, as his family had relocated there, and in 1872, sponsored by contributions from a group of St. Louis art patrons, Chase went to Munich to attend the Royal Academy, something that had been his dream for years. In Munich he studied with Karl von Piloty, who helped him to perfect a quick, bold brushstroke and taught him the dramatic Munich “dark manner.” A few years later Chase abandoned this somber palette in favor of the lighter tones of French impressionism. He returned to New York in 1878 to teach at the Art Students League, a position he held until 1896, when he opened his own art school in the city. Suited to teaching by intellect and personality, he began a long and successful career. He traveled abroad continually, looking at new art and old—the paintings of Velázquez, Whistler, Sargent, as well as Japanese prints—eventually incorporating travel into his teaching career by taking his students abroad.
By 1874 Chase was established in his Tenth Street studio, located in a building that was a center for artists. His works often contain views of his studio, an aesthetic setting extravagantly furnished with art and decorative objects he had collected. In his studio, Chase painted, taught, and entertained other artists, students, and patrons. His early portraits and figural compositions show backgrounds that are loosely brushed, with abstract geometric arrangements of paintings, mirrors, and textiles as a foil for the figure, creating a lively counterpoint of straight and curving forms.
In 1886 Chase married Alice Gerson, who had been his model. Not only did he depict his wife frequently in his paintings, but also their many children. The family spent their summers in a large house in Shinnecock, Long Island, N.Y., and the fresh and sparkling outdoor scenes he painted there established Chase’s reputation as a superb landscape painter. Between 1891 and 1902 Chase directed a summer school in Shinnecock Hills, which became the most important outdoor art school in America.
He was elected president of the Society of American Artists in 1885, a position he held for the next ten years, and in 1890 he was elected academician in the National Academy of Design. Chase was a well-known and prolific artist. His paintings were admired in the United States and abroad for their luminous color, virtuoso brushstroke, and assured composition, and his work was exhibited widely, often winning prestigious awards. He was an influential teacher whose students included many of America’s noted modernist painters—Sheeler, O’Keeffe, Hartley, and Demuth among them. Besides founding the Chase School in New York, he traveled regularly to Philadelphia to teach at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and in his later years, taught summer classes in England, Spain, Holland, and Italy.