In what is surely a clever title, Meredith Kennedy, the great granddaughter of William Merritt Chase (WMC), has given the name “Chasing History” to her latest project, which is to capture in digitally manipulated photographic images, the artistic spirit, subject matter and style of her famous forebear. As visitors to the new Parrish Art Museum know, Chase has a room of his own (the Susan Weber Gallery), and the Parrish can boast having the largest permanent collection of Chase in the world—for good reason. Not only was WMC (1849–1916), an exemplar of American Impressionism, he was also a memorable teacher (he founded The Chase School of Art in 1896, which became the New York School of Art and then Parsons School for Design) and a superb collector of European painting. His home studio in Shinnecock Hills, a famous gathering place for artists, sophisticates and bon vivants, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as the William Merritt Chase Homestead in 1983.
The local landscape furnished many a scene for Chase’s plein air work (oils, watercolors, pastels), and he served as director of the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art from 1891–1902, one of the first to offer art classes for women. A text poster in the Weber Gallery conveys a bit of his personality. When questioned by students about finding “picturesque spots in the loamy countryside,” Chase is quoted as having replied that indeed,“there was artistic gold to be found in the dross of the scrubby Southampton hills.” Kennedy is now mining that lode in an imaginative way. In possession of photos and artifacts belonging to WMC that were discovered among her grandfather Roland Rutherford Dana Chase’s effects—many never before seen—she is working on turning family photographs into compositions resembling WMC paintings. A graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology and a longtime creative director at a pharmaceutical ad agency in the city (she commutes from Southampton), she is at home with photography, computers and art.
Kennedy keeps in mind WMC’s signature red touches and love of costume. A WMC painting of a young girl in Japanese dress is re-created in Kennedy’s photo of her eight-year old daughter Shea (“named for the old stadium in Queens”). Chase used his own children as models, especially in his wondrous landscapes of Shinnecock Hills, including “The Bayberry Bush” (1895), which features WMC’s Stanford White house in the background.
“Dana,” as her grandfather was known was one of WMC’s two sons. He had come to live with her mother in the years before his death, and he brought with him cartons of memorabilia he had kept in Jackson Heights. Among the items Kennedy found was a silver mini statue that was actually a “stamp,” bearing the initial “A.” It had belonged to her great grandmother Alice Gerson Chase, WMC’s muse and wife, who figures prominently in several of his works.
Kennedy is still sorting through her grandfather’s photos, trying to separate the unique from the personal. She also has items from her maternal grandparents, the Gersons, who have an illustrious family history with ties to the Empress Josephine, and from a Chase family nanny. Kennedy notes that all the photos are evocative of life at the turn of the century and of WMC’s talent as a photographer. He loved to have family and friends dress up for theatricals and tableaux vivants; Many scenes became the subjects of paintings and etchings.
Modestly, Kennedy defers to the greater skill of her famous great grandfather’s art as opposed to her photo manipulation, but she nonetheless feels that “Chasing History” will enhance his reputation by showing the eternal verities that motivated him, family and land—both increasingly fragile today. She also hopes that by showing his paintings and her images side by side in a future exhibit, viewers will gain a renewed appreciation of her great grandfather’s luminous, textured compositions as well as a greater sense of the role of social history in advancing the history of art.
For more info, visit chaseinghistory.com.