National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS
American Impressionism and Realism

Reflections
William Merrit Chase, 1849-1916
1893, oil on canvas, 25 x 18 (63.5 x 45.7), Collection of Margaret and Raymond Horowitz

Reflections is a portrait of William Merritt Chase's favorite subject at Shinnecock, his wife, Alice Gerson, seated at night in the large central hall of their house. Pictorially and psychologically, it is one of Chase's most complex paintings.

Alice, seen from behind, is reflected in the mirrored door of a large armoire. Mirrors and mirror images appear in a number of Chase's Shinnecock interiors. In the exploration of pictorial illusion nothing is as valuable as the mirror: as the standard of perfect and complete illusion, the "mirror of nature" was for centuries the emblem of art. But in the late nineteenth century the mirror was understood less as the symbol of art's capacity to reflect outward nature than as the symbol of self-reflection and psychological insight -- the symbol less of seeing than of the unseen. That is the meaning and function of the mirror in Reflections. One critic, explaining that "The lady is reflecting about some matter; we see her face reflected in the glass," saw it merely as "a pun in paint,"1 but it was more serious and subtle than that. Mirrored in Reflections, her expression is inflected by a wry smile and intent gaze that are signs of meditative thought and emotion.

In 1889, the artist Kenyon Cox wrote that "His art is objective and external. . . . Whatever the bodily eye can see, Mr. Chase can paint, but with the eye of the imagination he does not see."2 Technically brilliant but not deep or thoughtful, a mindless but exceedingly gifted painter of surfaces -- this was the standard reading of Chase's artistic accomplishment. But Reflections, for all its painterly brilliance and complexity, shows that Chase, when dealing with a subject close to him, could do a great deal more than record externals.

Reflections hangs in the same room in the Horowitz apartment as another penetrating artist's portrait of his wife, George Bellows' meditative but disquietingly charged Emma in a Purple Dress of 1919. In the company of Bellows' more expressively modern and frankly psychological portrait, Reflections, though more allusively symbolist, gives no ground.

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

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Notes

1. "The Exhibition of the Society of American Artists," Art Amateur 30 (April 1894), 127.

2. "William M. Chase, Painter," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 78 (March 1889), 549, 552.