Sargent portrait of William Merritt Chase

"There never was
a school like it."

William Merritt Chase
Portrait by John Singer Sargent -- American painter, 1902
Metropolitan Museum

When I decided upon an art career, I unhesitatingly chose to study at the New York School of Art - more often called The Chase School for its founder and head, William Merritt Chase. Its attractions were many. The instructors were artists whose work I especially valued: Chase, himself, who was the dominant figure in the New York art world as he was at the school, Frank V. Dumond, F. Luis Mora, and Walter Appleton Clark, the illustrator.

Equally important to me was the fact that - unlike any other schools at the time - at The Chase School a beginner could immediately enter the life class, without having to do preliminary work in the "cast room" as at the Art Students League and the National Academy. And not to be discounted was its unique atmosphere. The League studios looked like classrooms - cold and clean. Ours were larger and dirtier. Caricatures, drawings, and globs of paint covered the walls. A big pot-bellied stove in a corner of the large studio contributed a choking, acrid quality to the already overpowering odors of paint, turpentine, and tobacco smoke. I don't believe the place was ever ventilated. Yet, just so, one immediately felt, must the atelier of Paris look, feel, and smell.

The school was run as casually as the premises suggested: a blessing to the initiated; sheer terror to the newcomer. On my first day I bought supplies at the school store and was shown to the life class. More than fifty students in the large smoke-filled studio were drawing and painting from the model. No one seemed to be in charge. No one paid the slightest attention to me. Observing that the drawing students were using up-turned chairs as easels, I found a chair, turned it upside down, propped up my portfolio on the legs, found a low stool to sit on, and wondered how to begin. There was no one to give me a start, and I was so far back against the wall, with so many students in front of me, that I could scarcely see the model.

The second day, the class seemed to come to life. From remote corners of the room came such calls as, "Well, Jack, do you see a new sail on the horizon?" And from another corner, "Yes, I think I do." "What do you make of it?" "I can't tell yet."

On the third morning another new ship was sighted, and on the fourth, two more. The calls were clarion clear: "Does it look like a treat?" "What did you have in mind?" "Oh, a little beer, a little more beer . . . crackers and cheese."

By the fifth morning a threatening note was introduced into the calls, and when they broke into song, "Who's going to set them up? Who's going to set them up for us today?" (to the tune of My Country 'Tis of Thee) the four new ships realized that the inevitable would have to be faced. We chipped in two dollar apiece and the janitor, called General Funston, was joyously called in. He was sent out to buy the refreshments, which were spread out on the model stand and consumed during the noon recess. The new students were at last accepted.

These feasts were gay and noisy affairs. They were also often athletic. We chinned ourselves from the lintels, practiced boxing with the models (one, I remember, had worked out with Gentleman Jim Corbett), and usually ended up with a chair race. Astraddle the back, with feet on the rungs, we jumped the chairs around the room. General Funston would rush in crying, "Gentlemen! Gentlemen! You've got to stop it! The druggist downstairs says the plaster is falling!"

During that entire first week I never saw an instructor. Finally, one of the students took pity on me and offered to show me how to go about drawing the figure. He was E. Ward Blaisdell, the illustrator, and I have been eternally grateful to him ever since. (Even when he was still a student, magazines like Harpers, Century and St. Nicholas were buying his amusing animal sketches.) And then, at last, the Master - Chase, appeared on Saturday morning for his weekly general criticism.

Chase, as well as the students, loved these sessions, and he gave some of his best performances at them. He was always immaculately dressed - white carnation in his lapel buttonhole, pearl-gray vest, his tie run through a ring, spats. He was not tall, but his carriage was marvelous, and he was well, though stockily, built. His criticisms were theatrical triumphs. He punctuated his remarks by running his fingers through his large moustache while he gazed intently at the student whose work he was considering through glasses, or a monocle which hung round his neck on a wide, black ribbon. He was a great showman, and he had a great following. The women, particularly, hung on his every word.

Chase's discourse was often as dazzling as his appearance. "There is nothing so rare in art," he would say, "as the artistic." He advocated the grand manner: "Always paint with a full brush. But, never over-paint." "Someone," he would say, "should always stand by with an axe to stop the painting at the right moment."

He loved to refer to "my friend, Whistler." or to the days "when Whistler and I worked together in London." Just as often he would speak of "my friend, Sargent." Periodically word went around the school that Sargent was coming to visit it, but he never did.

About once a month Chase painted for the classes. Sometimes it was a portrait head, occasionally a full-sized portrait on a six-foot canvas. If it was a head, he would complete it in one morning; if a full figure, he might spend the day on it. Invariably a thrill went through the class when General Funston walked in with a palette freshly set with a great many colors and ceremoniously presented it to Chase. The Master would then select one of the students to scrub in the back-ground first. It was a dramatic moment, played to the hilt by Chase, when he stepped up to the prepared canvas and started his demonstration. And he usually did a fine job. His starts were often brilliant: clear, fresh colors applied in sweeping strokes. When finished and pulled together, it might have lost some of its freshness. Still, it was quite a feat to paint before 60 or 70 bright-eyed students, performing all the while, gesturing, posturing, lecturing constantly, and more often than not, delivering "the goods."

Chase was a great technician, not a great painter. Among his best things are the portrait heads of fishermen at Shinnecock, and the still-life paintings of fish - dark-toned, rich and gory - done so rapidly that the fish were still fresh and edible when he had finished. They have the spontaneity that much of his work lacks. But then, his life, as well as his art, was seemingly a carefully calculated affair. Sargent's portrait of him captures his essence. One can imagine Chase striking one of his theatrical poses and Sargent saying to himself, "Dammit, if you will have it so ..." Wallking along the street in his flat-brimmed high hat (in imitation of Whistler), swinging his cane, and accompanied by his white wolfhound, he was indeed a portrait. (He often reminisced about that portrait, but I remember only that the nose gave Sargent trouble and he re-painted it several times.)

Basically, Chase was an exponent of art-for-art's sake rather than reality, and he hated sloppy technique as he hated sloppy dress. Even though his point of view seemed rigid and old-fashioned within a relatively few years, his influence was great. He constantly talked about great art as he knew it, and he was absolutely true to his own ideals. As a fastidious man of the world, he did much to dignify the profession and he increased his students' respect for it and for themselves. He truly taught by example - and it was one of the best of its kind.

Chatterton's recollection is continued here.