William Merritt Chase’s “Spring Flowers (Peonies),” from the Phillips Collection exhibition “William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master.” (Phillips Collection/ Terra Foundation for American Art/ Daniel J. Terra Collection)
Art and architecture critic

The title of a new Phillips Collection exhibition, “William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master,” may baffle some visitors. Chase was certainly a master artist, and there is some stunning, bravura work among the more than 75 paintings and pastels gathered in this retrospective. But a “modern” master?

Chase died in 1916 at the age of 66, so his career overlapped with the rise of Picasso, the fauvist years of Matisse and the heyday of cubism. Compared with all that, Chase seems very much a man of the 19th century, enamored of beautiful women, light-drenched landscapes, elegant portraits of distinguished people, and the illusionist delight of making paint capture the glint of light on metal, glass and the opalescent scales of dead fish.

But modern isn’t limited to just one definition or moment of the avant-garde, and its meaning changed over the several overlapping generations of artists who spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When Chase, who was born in Indiana, left the United States to study painting in Munich, he allied himself with the artists he considered most innovative and earned himself a reputation as an unconventional, individual and even wild painter, according to his critics. It was considered “modern,” at the time, to paint everyday life and to eschew the fine, polished, meticulous brushwork of academic art. Chase was drawn to unconventional material and odd and striking perspectives, and he placed his subjects in novel ways.

An early and infamous portrait of a fellow artist (known today through an etching of the lost original) showed the man sitting sideways on a ratty old chair, with only his head, hands and legs visible. One critic felt it was “cheap and noisy,” while another thought it was designed to be deliberately shocking to bourgeois sensibilities.

Evidence of Chase’s independent vision is apparent in every room, and his mastery of different styles, different national tendencies gleaned from cosmopolitan exposure to the breadth of Europe’s art scene, can make it seem as if multiple painters are represented. In the first room, several of his early calling-card works are on view, evidence of a capacious and eclectic vision. In “The Leader,” a portrait of a ragged boy smoking the stub of a cigar, the paint is pulled in thick streaks to capture the highlights on his forehead, a blunt but telling gesture, while the grime under boy’s fingernails is carefully rendered. Nearby is the dark, almost monochromatic “Ready for the Ride,” an 1877 image of an elegant woman looking slightly sideways at the viewer; this full-length portrait, full of moody glamour, suggests he knew the work of Whistler well before he met the artist in 1885. On another wall hangs “The Turkish Page,” from 1876, a bit of Orientalist exotica reminiscent of Manet.

Sometimes, as in later full-length portraits done in the spirit of Whistler, the paint is so thinly and evenly applied that the texture of the canvas shows through; but Chase was also given to bold, flat regions of bright color, as in the garishly yellow, silky cloth that hangs as background in his 1882-1883 “Portrait of Dora Wheeler.” He was a master of pastels, and it’s worth checking twice to be certain whether you are viewing a painting or a pastel; the techniques peculiar to one medium sometimes migrate into the other, as when streaks of white paint that look a bit like an errant chalk smudge turn out to be virtuoso indications of sunlight.

Chase was a canny painter and an artist who kept abreast of the latest fashions. His images of parks in Brooklyn, cloudy skies made on Long Island, or a late-in-life painting of an olive grove suggest he was well aware of what the impressionists were about. Chase was a prominent teacher and advised his students to create a rectangular “viewfinder” out of paper, to practice finding and framing subject matter as if they were photographers. “The Lone Fisherman,” a small painting of a man sitting on a breakwater, proves he used his own technique for exploiting the visual discoveries of photography to good effect.

Among the merits of being a teacher, he once said, is the power of students to keep you young. Chase was both a prominent teacher and a consummate student of the past; both seem to have kept his pool of ideas and techniques at full flood. In a late self-portrait, made in 1915-1916, he stands near a large gray canvas, mostly empty but for a crowd of meaningless streaks in one corner. Perhaps this was meant to show the first, preparatory stages of an unfinished work; perhaps it hinted at something critics sometimes held against him, a mastery of technique in which the reach never exceeded the grasp; or perhaps it was a sly acknowledgment of the radical new direction that the larger art world was taking late in his life.

It’s hard to be sure. He was capable of caprice, but not much genuine idiosyncrasy. His work is easy to admire but sometimes hard to love. This refrain may come to mind: “This painting is magnificent, and it’s almost interesting.”

He liked to dress up in costumes, stage tableaux vivants and pay homage to past masters, but there’s never much certainty that he had any strong beliefs about the world, other than the importance of finding and rendering the beautiful within it. He lived through the Gilded Age, but the only images of poverty in this exhibition are charming and ornamental ragamuffins. He was modern, after a fashion. But the world he depicted is languid, comfortable and static. Art is peacefully asleep, serene and beautiful, and waiting for someone to wake it up.

The call came, loud and commanding, and history started moving, but Chase was not part of the crowd. By the time you have discovered what was “modern” about masters like Chase, you may be just as eager for a more trenchant idea of modernism as the many artists a century ago who would rebel against everything his generation represented.

William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master is on view at the Phillips Collection through Sept. 11. For more information visit phillipscollection.org.