A Newly Discovered Work by an Impressionist Master: William Merritt Chase’s Jester Resting on a Chair

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  • April 18, 2018

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William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), Jester Resting on a Chair, Oil on Canvas

Gray's Auctioneers is extremely excited this month to debut a previously undiscovered work by William Merritt Chase.  Chase is a landmark figure in the history of American painting: a turn of the century Impressionist with a deft hand for shadow and color, a highly sought-after portraitist, and an esteemed educator and founder of one of America’s greatest artistic institutions.  Born in Indiana in 1849, Chase studied in New York, St. Louis, and at the Royal Academy in Munich, Germany before finding his first great success with his 1875 painting “Keying Up”- The Court Jester.  Initially exhibited for the Boston Art Club in 1876, the painting depicts a rosy cheeked court jester hunched over in his scarlet & gold costume and pouring himself (perhaps another) glass of wine.  Distinguishing itself with its warmly saturated scarlets and golds and a delicate sense of articulation, the painting was very well-received when submitted for exhibition at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, earning Chase a Medal of Honor and immediately establishing him as an up and coming artist of note.   As described by contemporary critic of his time, S.G.W. Benjamin: “A noble sense of color is perceptible in all his works, whether in the subtle tints of flesh, or in the powerful rendering of a mass of scarlet, as seen in his notable painting The Court Jester.”

After a year spent in Venice with his friends, fellow Impressionists Frank Duveneck and John Henry Twachtman, Chase established a studio on Tenth Street in New York. He was an active member of many art clubs and organizations, including "The Tile Club," the first plein-air sketching club in the United States organized in 1877. Chase’s influence can be most explicitly seen in the generation of artists that he taught, first in his private studio, then at Shinnecock Summer Hills School in Long Island, and finally at the Chase School of Art that he established in 1896, which is today known as The Parsons School of Design, perhaps the most prestigious art school in the United States.  Chase’s students included such turn of the century luminaries as Georgia O’Keefe, Dora Wheeler, George Bellows, Leopold Seyffert, Louise Upton Brumback, Elizabeth Sparhawk-Jones, Mariette Leslie Cotton, Charles Demuth, Joseph Stella and Marsden Hartley, among many others.

The newly discovered work, authenticated by Deba Gray of Gray’s Auctioneers, has been officially certified by D. Frederick Baker, director of the William Merritt Chase Catalogue Raisonné Project.  Dubbed Jester Resting on a Chair, 1875, the work is one of several “trial poses” Chase painted as preparation for his famous “Keying Up”- The Court Jester.  However, since the work is signed and dated, it can be appropriately considered a finished work in its own right rather than a study.  The model for this series of paintings was the source of an amusing anecdote Chase often shared with his students.  As related by biographer Katherine Metcalf Roof: Chase hired a model “who was fond of imbibing anything of an alcoholic nature that was available.  One day when the painter was out of the room the model consumed a considerable quantity of hair-tonic which Chase had put in a whiskey bottle, with the result that the next day the jester was not present at the studio.”  Perhaps it was this incident that inspired the jester’s depiction in the midst of pouring himself a drink in the final version of “Keying Up”- The Court Jester.

Jester Resting on a Chair finds the same subject seated in a moment of despondent contemplation, or perhaps just a boozy nap, slumped in a chair with his jester’s bauble in his right hand. In the background is a wooden chest upon which rests a vase and brass charger, both of which can also be seen in the background of Serenade to a Cockatoo, another “trial pose” from the same series of paintings.  As described by Baker: “Jester Resting on a Chair displays the dashing brush work which so characterized Chase’s work during his years as a student at the Royal Munich Academy (1872-1877).  But the bold use of red in the pants and cape decorated with brass bells reveals the extent to which the young Chase enlivened the work.  He was determined to paint with brio and gusto to make his mark as a new and energized presence on the art scene.”

One might wonder how a work painted by a 19th century New York based impressionist while he was a student in Munich found its way into the hands of a private collector in Cleveland, Ohio in 2018.  Deba Gray suspects that the connection was possibly Chase’s dear friend and fellow student at the Royal Academy in Munich, Frank Duveneck, with whom he shared a studio.  Duveneck spent the final decades of his life teaching at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, so it’s possible Chase may have gifted the painting to his friend and that it made its way to Ohio along with him.

As a newly-discovered early work by an undisputed master, Jester Resting on a Chair is a delightful highlight of the auction at Gray’s on May 7th in Lot 24

Gray’s is open for in-person preview May 3rd-7th; Monday-Friday 10am – 5pm, Saturday and Sunday 12noon – 4pm. The auction starts at 11am EST on Monday, May 7th with live bidding available at GraysAuctioneers.com. The fully illustrated catalog is now online at GraysAuctioneers.com.

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