National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS
American Impressionism and Realism

Self-Portrait
William Merritt Chase, 1849 - 1916
c. 1884, pastel on paper, 17 1/4 x 13 1/2 (43.8 x 34.3), Collection of Margaret and Raymond Horowitz

With Robert Blum and J. Carroll Beckwith, William Merritt Chase was a founding member of the Society of American Painters in Pastel.1 His self-portrait was one of the sixteen pastels he showed in the Society's first exhibition at W. P. Moore's Gallery in New York in 1884; it bears on its surface the two P's that formed the Society's monogram. It is indeed a self-portrait.2 Listed in the catalogue simply as Portrait, it was described in reviews as "a clever portrait of himself" and "a portrait of the gentleman himself," and a "characteristic autograph portrait."3 What is more, the stiff brushy hair, gravity-defying moustache, goatee, and long, sharp nose all so closely resemble the same traits of appearance in J. Carroll Beckwith's nearly contemporary portrait of Chase, not to mention the almost palpable aura of style both images exude, that there can be no doubt that they depict the same person.

Pastel was part of the explosion of interest in new mediums -- one that included watercolor, wood engraving, and etching as well -- that occurred in America in the years following the Civil War. Until then pastel was particularly little used by American artists and largely unfamiliar to the American public, but in the hands of the Pastel Society artists, it was used with astonishing vigor and originality.

Chase was one of the supremely gifted pastelists of the nineteenth century. He regarded pastel as a painting medium and treated it with "all the freedom and nearly all the vigor of oil," as someone wrote of many works in the Pastel Society exhibition. "It was his delight in pastel that opened our eyes to the charm of that medium," his friend and student, Irving Wiles, wrote. "Up to then no one had handled pastels in so painter-like a manner."4 And in this, "his characteristic autograph portrait," as a critic called it, Chase, as if to express the painterliness of his pastel technique, depicts himself holding a painter's palette.

Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr.
Senior curator of American and British paintings

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Notes

1. See Dianne H. Pilgrim, "The Revival of Pastels in Nineteenth-Century America: The Society of Painters in Pastel," American Art Journal 10 (November 1978), 43 - 62.

2. Pilgrim has suggested that it might be a portrait of Chase's close friend Robert Blum, whom he depicted on other occasions, and whom he undeniably resembled. Dianne H. Pilgrim, American Impressionist and Realist Paintings and Drawings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz [exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art] (New York, 1973), 24.

3. "The Pastel Exhibition," Art Amateur 10 (May 1884), 124; "The First Exhibition of the American Painters in Pastel," Art Journal 46 (1884), 157; "Fine Arts," New York Herald, 16 March 1884.

4. Quoted in Pilgrim 1973, 28.