Chase and Henri

Robert Henri, Girl with Red Hair, 1903 The Spartanburg County Museum of Art, Spartanburg, South Carolina  “Painterly Controversy: William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri,” at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut, juxtaposes the art and pedagogy of two successful turn-of-the-century painters, illuminating an important shift in American art. In 1902 Chase (1849–1916) hired Henri (1865–1929) to teach at the New York School of Art, which was originally known as the Chase School. The two artists, both well-known portraitists, were united by their admiration for Manet, Velázquez and Hals. Chase had moved beyond the bright colors of his Impressionist phase in favor of a darker palette, and his brushwork, always assured, had taken on a bold bravura freedom. He saw these same qualities in the younger artist. The similarities are evident in a pair of demonstration pictures, painted in front of students to illustrate principles discussed in class. Chase’s Girl with a Book (1902), a full-length standing figure of a red-haired girl in a pewter-grey kimono, has bohemian glamour. It’s a sensitive portrait and a masterly exercise in letting the figure emerge from a smoky background, a specialty of both Velázquez and James McNeill Whistler. Henri’s Girl with Red Hair (1903), a half-length study, also sets a titian-haired model against a dark background. The deft brushstrokes capturing the ruffles of her white blouse are loose; the warm face has a more polished look.

But Chase and Henri would soon have a very public falling out. Tensions escalated until 1907, when Chase left the school he had founded. Chase and Henri disagreed about technique and subject matter, with Henri discounting the importance of draftsmanship and advocating the gritty, urban themes that would become the specialty of the Ashcan School. The split also signaled the end of an era when the society portrait could be considered a significant mainstream work of art. You can see the seeds of discord in the artists’ different persona. In a Self-Portrait (c. 1914) Chase presents himself as the eternal boulevardier, a grand old gentleman with carefully groomed goatee and bristling mustache, pince-nez and a buttonhole flower. An earlier Henri Self-Portrait (1903) uses a similar black-and-white clothing arrangement to set off the face, and the brushwork is comparable, but the ruddy-faced Henri presents himself as a no-nonsense man of the people. Chase’s Studio Interior (c. 1882) shows the deluxe furnishings and elegant props (including a reproduction of a Hals painting) of his Tenth Street Studio Building apartment, with a fashionable young woman leafing through an album. Chase closed the studio in 1895, the year before he opened what would become the New York School of Art. A grubbier New York emerges in Henri’s East River Embankment, Winter (1900), a view of the coal-loading piers from the window of the house he rented on East 58th Street. The white steam of tugboats and accumulations of not-quite-pristine snow stand out against the dark grey-on-grey of river and sky. Henri advocated depicting the city’s “commerce in the raw,” a different view of metropolitan life than Chase promoted in his cosmopolitan studio/salon onTenth Street.

Chase went on to teach at the Art Students League, and rivalry between the two institutions—the more conservative League, the more progressive New York School of Art—sometimes boiled over into physical violence. Curator Kimberly Orcutt cites, in the catalogue, one student’s boast that “a black eye earned in the crusade against academicism was a badge of pride.” Chase and Henri influenced a generation of American artists, and the exhibition includes some intriguing examples. Edward Hopper’s Still Life with Earthenware Jug (1903) was painted under Chase’s tutelage; the looser Student and Teacher at the Easel (1903–06) depicts a critiquing session in Henri’s class. That proto-Pop Art powerhouse Stuart Davis enrolled in Henri’s classes in 1909. Davis’s Consumer Coal Co. (1912) is a marvelous black, white and grey snow scene on a blustery day, set in a tenement neighborhood. Rockwell Kent studied with both Chase, who he considered “a brilliant technician,” and Henri, whose populist views he found more congenial. A number of Chase’s pupils fell on the conservative side of the modernist divide, but Georgia O’Keeffe credited him with instilling in her an endless fascination with the “singing shapes” of still lifes. Her Dead Rabbit and a Copper Pot (1908), painted under Chase, won a first prize at the Art Students League and points the way to her mature work. The thirty-four paintings in this compact, insightful show illuminate an interesting chapter in American art.  “Painterly Controversy: William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri” continues through April 29, 2007, at the Bruce Museum, One Museum Drive, Greenwich, Connecticut 06830. Telephone (203) 869-0376. On the Web at www.brucemuseum.org

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2007, Volume 24, Number 2