Before Twitter, There Was 'The Tiff,' a Cutting-Edge Painting that Captured a Moment

William Merritt Chase (American, 1849-1916), Sunlight and Shadow, 1884, oil on canvas, Collection of Joslyn Art Museum, Gift of the Friends of Art, 1932.4
William Merritt Chase (American, 1849-1916), Sunlight and Shadow, 1884, oil on canvas, Collection of Joslyn Art Museum, Gift of the Friends of Art, 1932.4

A brief exchange, perhaps heated, executed quickly to capture a moment.

Sounds like a Twitter tweetstorm, but the subject here is a 19th-century painting once titled The Tiff, painted en plein air, a direct rendering out-of-doors of a couple's conversation in a sun-dappled garden.

Executed at the advent of Impressionism, the work's title was later changed to Sunlight and Shadow by the artist, reflecting that he thought less of "the tiff" as the subject than how the light filtered through the branches at that (Instagrammable?) moment.

One of the Joslyn Art Museum’s most popular works, and a cornerstone of its American painting collection — William Merritt Chase’s (1849-1916) Sunlight and Shadow — has returned to the museum in Omaha following an international tour that began in the summer of 2016 at The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., as part of the exhibition William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master.

The exhibition, which marked the centennial of Chase’s death, explored his role as both an outspoken champion of American art and an active participant in the international art scene in Europe. 

Portraying a couple at afternoon tea in the garden of a home in Zandvoort, Holland, Sunlight and Shadow is one of Chase’s earliest forays into plein-air painting. Light cascades through a canopy of trees, casting dazzling patterns across the couple — Chase's friend, the painter Robert Blum, and a young woman reclining in a hammock — captured in what appears to be a fraught conversation. That the painting was originally called The Tiff by the artist may confirm this kind of interpretation, but Chase is clearly more interested in the naturalism expressed in the title under which he exhibited it shortly before his death: Sunlight and Shadow.

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