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Everybody Is a Genius  ...but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.  --Albert Einstein


William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master

A "Must See" Retrospective at The Phillips Collection

by Barbara Bennett and Donna Christenson

William Merritt Chase’ playful oil painting titled “Hide and Seek” has long been a favorite, and we were delighted to view the original, along with a full range of more than 75 of his other works currently featured at The Phillips Collection in a retrospective commemorating the centennial year of the artist’s death.  What better example to illustrate the title of The Phillips exhibition, “William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master”. 

In his Washington Post review, art critic Philip Kennicott questioned whether Chase should be called a “Modern Master” since his work has long been considered conventional and impressionistic.  However, one look at “Hide and Seek”; “A City Park”; “The Young Orphan”; and one of his last efforts, his “Self Portrait”, leaves little doubt that in his life’s work Chase went well beyond impressionism.  Take away the people or objects in these oil on canvas paintings and you are stunned to see large blocks of color reflecting economy of space and perspective seen later in the likes of a Rothko painting.  

Another example of a Modern Master at work is his oil composition “Portrait of Dora Wheeler”, featured with the exhibition’s curator Elsa Smithgall in the photo at right.   Chase combined his superb depiction of textured fabrics in the gold-toned background tapestry and his very whimsical inclusion of the black and white cat so seemingly out of place in the left hand corner of this serious portrait rendition.   He definitely was forward thinking in his painting, much like other more-recognized and classified Modern Masters who painted in the modern period from 1860 until 1950.

Chase’s oil paintings are stunning and certainly worthy of this long overdue retrospective, but it is his surprisingly intense pastels that really set him above others of his generation.  “Spring Flowers (Peonies)” is exquisitely rendered with his strong use of red, white and green pastels.  This lovely partial profile portrait of an elegant woman in Asian dress draws us to her serene essence and mood.  “May I Come In” is another pastel treasure on exhibit where we see large surfaces of color, a shimmering copper urn and gold leaf picture frame, rich textures on wall hangings and furnishings with lots of tassels, and then, partially hidden by the door, the image of a beautiful woman hesitating at the entrance.  

In addition to his own paintings, whether in oil or pastel, there also should be no doubt that William Merritt Chase was an innovative and extremely influential teacher who spearheaded the advancement of American Modern art through his students of the next generation.  In an adjacent annex, The Phillips is featuring works from its own permanent collection by well-known former students such as Georgia O’Keefe, Edward Hopper, Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Joseph Stella.  William Merritt Chase taught at all of the best art schools of his time, including 12 years at the Shinnecock Summer School of Art, the largest plein-air art school in America.  Impressively, many of his well-regarded paintings were created in a single session as he demonstrated amazing virtuosity in techniques to his students.  Perhaps as important to his imprint on Modern art is his legacy school, the Chase School of Art, which later was renamed the New York School of Art and has evolved to become part of what today is known as The New School’s Parsons School of Design.  Located in New York City, it ranks as one of the top art schools in the United States.

The current exhibit William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master is co-organized by The Phillips Collection, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Fondazione Musei Civici Venezia and the Terra Foundation for American Art.  This impressive exhibit was five years in the planning and execution, with countless hours of cooperation between three principal representatives: Elsa Smithgall, curator of the special exhibit of The Phillips Collection; Cary Haslett, PhD Program Director, Exhibition and Academic Grants at the Terra Foundation for American Art and Erica Hirshler Croll, Senior Curator of American Paintings Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The retrospective will be featured at The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC until September 11, 2016.  It will then move to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston from October 9, 2016 until January 16, 2017.  Finally, the exhibit will travel internationally in February 2017 to the International Gallery of Modern Art in Venice, Italy. 

All photos by Donna Christenson


NOVEMBER 2015: Explore Thanksgiving with Food Fridays, warm up with some whiskey at American History (After Hours), and brush up on your Halloween history


Calling all lab rats, whiskey fans, and glass artists! (Wondering what all those have in common?) Mark your calendars for Wednesday, November 11 when our popular evening program series, American History (After Hours), returns with a fascinating night exploring the impact of glass on science, art, and whiskey in America.

Join a conversation with scientific and artistic glass blowers, try your hands at the Make-Your-Own Old Fashioned station, taste custom cocktails and samples from Pittsburgh’s historic Wigle Whiskey, and check out the museum’s newest exhibit “Science Under Glass."

Tickets are $40 and include food and drink tickets. Buy yours today and get ready to see your cocktail glass through a whole new light.



Jump into the history of Thanksgiving


This November, Food Fridays explores the history of Thanksgiving celebrations and Native American foodways. All demos are at 11 am and 1 pm.

  • November 6th Food Fridays
    What would have been on the table at George Washington’s Mount Vernon? With Wegmans Chef Ernesto Cadima and Nutritionist Krystal Register

  • November 13th Food Fridays: 
    What did people eat at the first Thanksgiving and why does today’s meal look so different? With Sur La Table Chef Jordan Carfagno.


Interested? Check out the upcoming Food Fridays schedule for more autumn cooking fun or for recipes for past programs.



Tasty reading for the season



Photo Journal: "Object Project" 1930s Potluck

The team behind "Object Project" selected recipes from 1930s cookbooks in the Product Cookbook Collection at the museum's Archives Center. Click through this album for notes, thoughts, and reviews on some truly unique recipes!

1930s Potluck




Have a friend who loves food?
Remind them to sign up for Food History emails.

Copyright © 2015 National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, All rights reserved.


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National Museum of American History

 Wednesday, July 1 Grand Opening of the Innovation Wing

Wallace H. Coulter Performance Plaza

  • 10:15- 10:30 a.m.        Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra Quintet performance
  • 10:30 a.m.                   Ribbon Cutting
  • 11 a.m. - 4 p.m.           Build a large U.S. Flag sculpture with Lego Master Builders           
  • 11 a.m. - Noon            D.J. Will Eastman
  • 12:30 - 1:30 p.m.         “How Do You Fix a Broken Heart?” demonstration
  • 1:30 - 2 p.m.                D.J. Will Eastman
  • 2 - 4 p.m.                     “The Business of Chocolate: From Bean to Drink” demonstration

American Enterprise

Join us on July 1 for the Grand Opening of the Innovation Wing

The National Museum of American History will transform how visitors experience history when the first floor of its new Innovation Wing opens to the public with a dozen new galleries and spaces as well as a panoramic window looking out to Washington’s landmarks. In addition to a new Performance Plaza and hands-on learning lab, the floor will feature three new signature exhibitions: American Enterprise, the Smithsonian's first-ever examination of the history of business, Places of Invention, where vistors can explore invention hotspots in the Lemelson Hall of Invention and Innovation, and The Value of Money, featuring the National Numismatic Collection, one of the Smithsonian's oldest and most treasured collections. 

On July 1, visitors will celebrate America's innovative spirit with special activities, demonstrations and music. The festivities will include a ribbon cutting ceremony, building the world’s largest American LEGO flag, “Meet the Wheelwoman,” in a debut performance by the museum's new living theater program, and special spotlight tours. DISCOVER MORE

TRIVIA: Think you know your early inventors?

Men of Progress

This 1862 painting, Men of Progress, on display at the National Portrait Gallery, depicts 19 of the "the most distinguished inventors of this country, whose improvements . . . have changed the aspect of modern society." See if you can answer the following questions about some of America's first inventors.

Sam Colt

After the Civil War, it was said of Sam Colt, "Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them equal." What was Colt’s most famous invention?

A. Armored Turret Warship
B. Repeating Gun
C. Threshing Machine
D. Revolving Pistol

Cyrus Hall McCormick

Born and raised in Virginia, McCormick took over advancing the invention his father worked on for 28 years, but it wasn't until Cyrus moved to the young city of Chicago that sales of his invention took off. What was it?

A. Irregular Turning Lathe
B. Friction Match
C. Mechanical Reaper
D. Ever-pointed Pencil

Elias Howe

In 1846, Elias Howe received the 5th U.S. patent for his invention. Unsuccessful at marketing his invention, Howe instead relied on collecting royalty fees from those companies that were more successful at selling his machine. What was this machine?

A. Electric telegraph
B. Sewing Machine
C. Power loom for carpets
D. Rotary Press

Peter Cooper

Peter Cooper made a fortune in glue and ironing manufacturing, but he is most well-known for his invention nicknamed "Tom Thumb," which used the new power source of steam to revolutionize travel. What was this invention?

A. Steam engine gear and steering device for ships
B. Efficient heat conduction for steam engines
C. Railway locomotive 
D. Horseshoe manufacturing machine

THINK YOU KNOW THE ANSWERS?   Find out at the link.

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