William Merritt Chase (1849–1916), one of New York’s most prominent artists in the 1880s, surpassed all others in the use of pastel. In his adept hands, pastel’s chalky matter rivaled the authority of oil paint, though with greater receptivity to light and an unmatched velvety texture. Chase produced more than one hundred pastels in the 1880s, increasing the visibility of the medium in exhibitions and promoting the technique with forward-looking artists of the day.
The pastel has borne more than one title since its making. The Gallery has reinstated Study of Flesh Color and Gold, which was used when the pastel was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1897 and is reminiscent of titles favored by James McNeill Whistler. Consider, for example, Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold or his Arrangement in Flesh Colour and Black. Chase was an exuberant admirer of Whistler’s work and sought out his acquaintance while on a trip to London in 1885. By all accounts the two men got along famously, but Chase eventually tired of the older artist’s quarrelsome behavior. Nonetheless, he maintained respect for Whistler’s work and continued to laud his accomplishments.
In Study of Flesh Color and Gold, Chase applied the pastel relatively densely and with exceptional vigor, maneuvering the colored crayon as one would a brush loaded with oil paint. In keeping with the contemporary vogue for Japonisme, Chase (like Whistler) adopted Japanese props. He tilted the picture plane and cropped the composition, devices common to Japanese prints. Like Kitagawa Utamaro, whose eighteenth-century prints were coveted by avant-garde artists at the time, Chase focused on the figure’s bare back. But he heightened the effect—to the point of its being somewhat startling—by placing the model in the extreme forefront of the composition, adding a modern sensibility to a traditional Japanese subject.
Margaret and Raymond Horowitz began acquiring art in the mid-1960s, assembling one of the finest collections of American impressionist and realist works in private hands, a selection of which was the subject of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in 1999. In addition to this sumptuous pastel by Chase, the Gallery has been the beneficiary of other gifts from the Horowitz collection, including a superb painting from 1891 by Childe Hassam, Poppies, Isles of Shoals
lower right in red pastel: Wm M Chase
Potter Palmer, Chicago, by 1897; Florence Davis Watson, Jacksonville, Fla.; Kennedy Galleries, NY; Hirschl & Adler Galleries, NY, 1965; Raymond J. and Margaret Horowitz, NY; gift to NGA, 2007.
- Paintings by William M. Chase, Art Institute of Chicago, 1897, no. 67.
- William Merritt Chase Exhibition, Gallery of Modern Art, New York, 1965, (not in catalogue).
- Three Centuries of the American Nude, New York Cultural Center, 1975.
- temporary loan, The White House, Washington, 1977-1988.
- American Impressionism and Realism: The Margaret and Raymond Horowitz Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1999, no. 14.
- Medieval to Modern: Recent Acquisitions of Drawings, Prints, and Illustrated Books, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2008, no. 108.
- American Impressionism and Realism: The Margaret and Raymond Horowitz Collection. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1998-1999: no. 14.
- Pisano, Ronald G. William Merritt Chase: The Paintings in Pastel, Monotypes, Painted Tiles and Ceramic Plates, Watercolors, and Prints (The Complete Catalogue of Known and Documented Work by William Merritt Chase (1849-1916). New Haven and London: Y.
- Brodie, Judith. "William Merritt Chase, Study of Flesh Color and Gold." Bulletin / National Gallery of Art, no. 38 (Spring 2008): 14-15, repro.