The celebrated American painter William Merritt Chase found himself in an uncomfortable situation in the mid-1880s.
Chase had spent six years studying in Munich, successfully exhibiting there and in London. On his return home, however, he faced charges from art critics that his portraits and still lifes conformed too closely to classical European art styles and lacked an authentically American subject matter.
After settling in Brooklyn, Chase adopted a new strategy -- portraying the public parks and harbors of Brooklyn and Manhattan. From about 1886 to 1893, Chase devoted himself to the plein-air style when painting scenes in New York's newly established park system, including Central Park and Brooklyn's Prospect Park, along with cozy views of his parents' back yard in Brooklyn.
"Chase was looking for a new subject matter and something that was quintessentially American," says Judith Barter, Field-McCormick Curator of American Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago.
His vivid, sun-drenched scenes of pastoral oases may seem less than groundbreaking today. But, as a new exhibition, "William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscape," illustrates, they reflected a burgeoning American appreciation of urban parks and prefigured a shift in American art toward Impressionism.
Chase's works depicted the efforts of city planners Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, whose bosky spaces provided much-needed havens in New York and Chicago in the post-Civil War era. "There was this whole movement toward beautifying cities, which had been fairly grim up to this point," Barter explains.
"When they were being built, there was no zoning or urban planning to speak of. It was all fairly haphazard...There was a feeling that America had come of age and was proud of its urban culture and was doing something about it."
By the early 1890s Chase had moved on to painting large seascapes, but his small landscapes continued to influence several important American painters, such as Childe Hassam, into the early 20th Century.
The exhibition includes works by Hassam and other American painters, as well as Chicago Park District plans for Garfield Park, designed by Olmsted and Vaux, and Jackson Park, designed by William Le Barron Jenney.
"William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscape" continues through Nov. 26 at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Stein is a Chicago freelance writer.