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Important Art by William Merritt Chase
A plush studio is the setting for Chase's painting. It is filled with many golden framed pictures and luxurious objects including imported porcelains, a lamp (hanging from the ceiling), a large gold vase (on a shelf), and a large Oriental carpet. Just right of center, a female model in an elegant white dress sits in a vibrantly blue colored chair while the artist sits to the sitter's left sketching and his large black dog sleeps on the carpet.
When Chase arrived back in America after completing his first European tour, he settled in New York City and quickly set about finding a studio that would fulfil his wish of occupying "the finest studio in New York." He settled on a space in the Tenth Street Studio Building and went about decorating it with the collectibles he had amassed while in Europe.
Chase's studio was his haven but it was also a place for friends to gather and to "mingle". Chase was so inspired by his studio that he painted it several times during the 1880s. According to curator, Erica Hirshler, "Chase's rooms, which echoed the great studios he had seen and admired in Europe, enhanced his reputation as a well-traveled, dapper, creative practitioner of the arts. Often wearing a fez and accompanied by one of his pet wolfhounds, Chase presented himself against a backdrop of hundreds of objects from around the world: old master paintings, Japanese parasols, Renaissance furniture, Islamic lamps, fabrics, rustling chimes, great copper pots, and dozens of exotic shoes". The idea that artist and patron were sophisticated enough to appreciate such tasteful surroundings was a significant marker of social standing in late nineteenth century New York.
Dora Wheeler adopts a reflective look as she reclines into a tall backed chair with red seat and arm rest cushions. Wearing a blue dress, trimmed in fur, she rests her chin in her left hand while next to her is a table on which rests a large blue and white vase filled with yellow flowers. According to Hirshler, the artist, "made his name by picturing women [captured] in a variety of roles, both active and meditative, in public and at home, and in professional and domestic guises".
Some of his female sitters were his students who went on to become established names on their own terms. As The Cleveland Museum of Art explains on its website, a young "Wheeler became Chase's first student when he returned from overseas study in Munich and set up a teaching studio in New York. At the time, few American artists accepted women as private pupils. After her course of study, Wheeler joined her mother in launching a successful decorating firm, one of the first businesses in the country to be operated entirely by women. For the firm, she designed luxurious textiles, and the embroidered silk tapestry that fills the background in her portrait references her occupational interest".
It is the gaze of the young woman resting in a red velvet chair that first grabs the attention in Chase's painting. Wearing a long black dress, she rests her head against the back of the chair and looks out absently at the viewer. Set against a red wall, in the same shade as the chair, the only other burst of color comes from the white tissue the young orphan clutches in her right hand.
While Chase was known for his portraits of society women, this is one in which the sitter is steeped in some mystery. As Hirshler points out, "if she is identified as an orphan, she seems plainly in mourning, her black dress and clutched handkerchief indicative of her grief". However, Chase first debuted the work with the title At Her Ease and if we consider the work under that heading then, as Hirshler argues, "her heavy burden is lifted, allowing a more positive interpretation of her daydreams". Given that the theme of women in contemplation was a topic Chase often explored, it is not clear why he chose to change the title, but when he did so, it allowed for a wholly different interpretation of the subject.
James McNeill Whistler's influence is in strong evidence in this painting. The over the shoulder gaze of the woman is very Whistleresque while Hirshler picked up especially on "the famous example that inspired the costume, composition, and thinly applied pigment" that marked Whistler's most famous 1871 portrait of his mother (Arrangement in Black and Grey, No. 1).