Portrait of William Merritt Chase
Portrait of William Merritt Chase

Portrait of William Merritt Chase

James Carroll Beckwith (American, 1852-1917)

Currently on View in K212
Image Licensing

• Beckwith recorded painter William Merritt Chase in dapper travel attire, including spats and a cane. An arresting passage of brushwork draws attention to the subject’s bejeweled left hand. Chase strove to ennoble his profession by dressing impeccably.

• Upon completion of their studies abroad, Beckwith and Chase set sail for the United States "to earn a living by their brushes," in Beckwith’s words. This 1878 transatlantic voyage cemented the artists’ friendship. Beckwith began sketches for this portrait of his friend while they were on another journey back to Europe.

• In 1896 Beckwith cropped the picture in response to criticism of an error in perspective.

A Friendship Between Two Artists

"Beckwith’s majestic portrait of William Merritt Chase is the first of a group of oil portraits of the artist’s creative friends and associates. Beckwith may have taken his cue from Carolus-Duran, who painted portraits of many artist and musician friends, including Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Gustave Doré, Henri Fantin-Latour, Charles Gounod, and Beckwith himself. Beckwith’s portrait brilliantly conveys Chase’s engaging personality, flamboyant taste, and growing success and affluence. Chase authority Ronald G. Pisano has noted that by the early 1880s, Chase would attract “attention as he made his way down the avenues [of New York] elegantly dressed in spats and cutaway coat, with a scarf threaded through a bejeweled ring and a carnation in his buttonhole.”

The Indianapolis Museum of Art’s portrait of Chase was painted in late 1881 and exhibited often during the next several years, including at the Paris Salon in 1882, the Boston Art Club and Munich Exposition in 1883, and the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition in New Orleans during 1884-85. Art critics highly commended the work, recognizing it as a strong and important achievement. The critic for the Boston Evening Transcript remarked that the “technique is pure and simple, with the boldness of the French School and none of its coarse qualities.” Contemporary writers noted that Chase was pictured on the deck of a ship “just sweeping across the downward curve of a big wave,” a fact that is lost to us today since Beckwith cut the portrait down in 1896, removing nine and a quarter inches from its height and, with this, a clear sense of the subject’s location. Apparently, Beckwith was moved to this drastic action because of a critical flaw in perspective, which created an unwanted impression that the floor upon which Chase stood was on a sharp upward incline. The idea for painting Chase on a ship’s deck probably grew from Beckwith’s and Chase’s round-trip voyage together to Europe in the summer of 1881 abroad the steamer S. S. Belgenland.

From the late 1870s through at least the 1880s, Chase and Beckwith were close friends and professional associates. In later years they grew apart, but following Chase’s death in 1916, Beckwith wrote a warm tribute to his old colleague which was published in The New York Times. “The loyalty with which Chase has always stood by the higher principles of his profession has been an encouragement to all American painters. Never stooping to the commercial or the cheap, he has held high the banner of courage and integrity…He was greatly gifted as a technician and a tireless worker; some [of his works] show a technical dexterity in the handling of the brush and pigment that has never been excelled. Such painters among us are rare…I predict that his works will grow greatly in value, as I see few among us who will be able to take up the brush where he has laid it down.”

Weber, Bruce, and Pepi Marchetti Franchi.Intimate Revelations: The Art of Carroll Beckwith. New York: Berry-Hill Galleries, Inc., 1999, pp. 52-53.

An Affinity for Velázquez

"Beckwith’s portrayal of Chase reveals his assimilation of the methods of Carolus-Duran and Manet, at the foundation of which lay an aesthetic inspired by the painterly realism of Velázquez. By positioning the full-length figure of Chase in strong light, and isolated against a broadly worked, relatively flat ground, Beckwith asserted his intention to continue the stylistic inheritance derived from the Spanish master. What is more, by portraying him in this manner, Beckwith referred indirectly to Chase’s own passion for the Spaniard’s art."

Gallati, Barbara Dayer. High Society: American Portraits of the Gilded Age. Exh. cat. London: Merrell, 2008, pp. 110-111.

Chase’s Personal Style

"Ironically, it may have been the flamboyant, publicity-seeking Carolus-Duran who confirmed for Chase that a carefully constructed personal style was of strategic value in an increasingly competitive art market. Although Chase represented the extreme in self-fashioning among American artists who worked in the United States (with Whistler as his expatriate counterpart in the arena of self-promotion), his concern with his public image is symptomatic of how Gilded Age artists escaped the stereotypical attitudes that had categorized them as impoverished bohemians or worse, as mere craftsmen."

Gallati, Barbara Dayer High Society: American Portraits of the Gilded Age. Exh. cat. London: Merrell, 2008, pp. 110.

Artistic Commonalities

“Now look well at the “Portrait of William M. Chase, John Herron Institute, Indianapolis, by J. Carroll Beckwith (1852), for it is a loving appreciation of a friend for a friend. Both men are westerners—the West of forty years ago. Mr. Beckwith is a native of Missouri and Mr. Chase of Franklin, Indiana. Both men went to study in Europe at an early age, Mr. Chase to Munich and Mr. Beckwith to Carolus Durand, in Paris. Mr. Beckwith has painted portraits of many notable persons in Europe, particularly several cardinals of Italy. He has exhibited in the Paris exhibitions and our own Academies. This portrait of Mr. Chase has much of the same direct personal element that Mr. Chase himself gives to the likenesses of his sitters.”

Bryant, Lorinda Munson. American Pictures and their Painters. New York: John Lane, 1917, pp. 113-114, fig. 74.

Given by the artist to the John Herron Art Institute, Indianapolis, Indiana, now the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, in 1910.

Object Information

James Carroll Beckwith (American, 1852-1917)
creation date
oil on canvas
78 x 38 in.
85-1/2 x 45-1/8 in. (framed)
mark descriptions
Signed and dated, l.l.: Carroll Beckwith, 1882
accession number
credit line
Gift of the Artist
Public Domain
American Painting and Sculpture to 1945

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