Purchase Story

Morristown Antiques Show Discovery Sheds Light on Chase Family Portraits

Treasures turn up at the Morristown Armory Antiques Show. Second-generation antiques and art dealer Butch McGrath and his son, James, offer fascinating and beautiful objects found near their home in Scituate, Massachusetts. Last February, I spotted a handwritten label in their booth identifying material related to the famous American artist/educator William Merritt Chase (1849-1916). As an expert in American fine art with a geek’s appreciation for archival material, I found the contents of a yellow padded envelope laid casually on a tabletop compelling. The envelope housed several manuscript pages, recording in pictures and text the marriage, birth, and death records of the Chase family. The pages were created by Rudolph Baron Irmtraut (1821-1913), godfather to Chase’s son John Rudolph. Not only is the manuscript beautifully rendered, but it revealed important information about Chase’s family and friends that sheds new light on several of his family portraits. I had never heard of Irmtraut but was able to pull up on the web a brief article about him (fig. 8) in The American Bookmaker, a trade periodical devoted to books and publishing, giving the information that he was active in New York City as a specialist in hand-illumination of historical records and Bibles for private individuals and businesses, inspired by medieval illumination.

Figure 8.

From a disbound book, four pages illuminated on both sides are supplemented by a cover or dedicatory page bearing the name and photograph of the artist (fig. 1). The occasion for the splendidly heraldic and gorgeously ornamented manuscript appears to have been the birth and baptism of Chase’s son and Irmtraut’s godson, John Rudolph (figs. 2 and 3). Unfortunately, we do not know how Chase and Irmtraut became acquainted. Chase’s home in Shinnecock Hills, Long Island, where in 1891 he began teaching summer courses and spending several months each year, is depicted on the same page as the announcement of John Rudolph’s birth and baptism (fig. 3). The saint presented in a cartouche at left near the bottom of the first and most heavily ornamented page resembles the distinctive long-nosed oval face of Chase’s often-depicted first child, Alice Dieudonné (fig. 2).

Figure 1.

Figure 2.

Figure 3.

Another page, consisting of decorative text with ornamental headings and borders composed of scrolls, flowers, foliage, and sacred motifs and the letter “C,” records the marriage of Chase in 1880 to Alice Gerson (fig. 4). Births and baptisms are recorded on two pages, the first adorned with a cartouche of the Virgin and Child on top and a mother pelican feeding her nestlings on the bottom, and the second still profusely decorated but limited to nonpictorial motifs, including a blue banner (figs. 5 and 6). A separate page, ornamented with a white lily, blossom, leaves, stem, bulb, and roots beautifully rendered at the left margin, records four infant deaths, including Irmtraut’s godson (fig. 7). We do not know if there are more pages; the record stops at 1898, but two more children, Roland and Mary, were born after 1898.

Figure 4.

Figure 5.

Figure 6.

Figure 7.

The existing Chase scholarship, which is extensive and includes a four-volume catalogue raisonné, does not rely on original documents, as there are no Chase or Gerson papers known. The Chase archive held by the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York, near Shinnecock Hills, is limited to photographs of the Chase family, Chase’s art, and his Tenth Street studio. In their book focusing on the Chase archive, Ronald G. Pisano, the leading Chase scholar, and Dr. Alicia G. Longwell, chief curator of the Parrish, shared photographs of eight Chase children, listing their names.1 These are Alice Dieudonné (b. 1887), Koto Robertine (b. 1889), William Merritt Jr. (b. 1890), Dorothy Brémond (b. 1891), Hazel Neamaug (b. 1893), Helen Velazquez (b. 1895), Robert Stewart (b. 1898), Roland Dana (b. 1901), and Mary Content (b. 1904). Of the children listed in the catalogue raisonné, all had a reasonably long life, except the artist’s namesake, who died in 1891. Irmtraut’s illuminated pages amplify this history, recording two additional births, those of twins Mabel Claire and Sarah Virginia (b. 1895). He also establishes that Helen Velazquez was born and baptized in 1897, not 1895, as Chase scholars have claimed. The recording of three deaths in one year is particularly poignant; previously only those of William Jr., on July 3, 1891, and John Rudolph, on August 10, 1895, were generally known. The twins were born and baptized on September 20; Mabel died the same day while her twin died on October 11.2 Chase’s first biographer and former student Katharine Metcalf Roof does not refer to any of the deaths in 1895, remarking in general terms that 1895 was “a year of change and transition.”3 This is not surprising, as Alice Gerson Chase supervised the biography, and surely she wished to forget this passage in her life. Roof’s biography has provided a base for all recent Chase scholarship. It is only with the consideration of Irmtraut’s manuscript that this pivotal moment in the artist’s life can be evaluated for its potential impact on his career.

Interestingly, Dr. Longwell, author of a fascinating essay about the summer of 1895 as it intertwines with Chase’s painting The Bayberry Bush (at the Parrish Art Museum) and Chase’s staging of tableaux vivants, had fleeting access to Irmtraut’s manuscript around 2001. She mentions it in passing in her essay, noting the correct year for Helen’s birth, mentioning the twins’ birth and death, and proposing, The Bayberry Bush as a sort of elegy for the three deaths. Longwell reproduces just one of Irmtraut’s illuminated pages, that recording John’s birth and baptism. However, this publication was apparently not widely read or circulated, since subsequent Chase scholarship, including the scholarly Chase catalogue raisonné and a 2011 exhibition and catalog examining Chase’s family portraits, does not mention the twins.4, 5 The chapter on Chase’s life and career during the 1890s included in the voluminous catalog for a 2016 traveling exhibition commemorating the centenary of Chase’s death, organized by a consortium of leading international museums, likewise omits any reference to the twins’ births and swift deaths.6

One struggles to imagine the physical and emotional demands these losses made on Alice Gerson Chase and the heartbreak endured by the older members of the family. In fact, it was a time of great turmoil and change for Chase; he closed his vast and intricately decorated studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building, that prominent and much-storied structure housing dozens of preeminent artists, resigned his presidency of the Society of American Artists, abandoned his post at the Brooklyn Art Association, and purchased a new home at 234 East 15th Street in Manhattan.7In January 1896 he sold at auction the entire contents of his studio, including antique and decorative objects, contemporary and historical fine art, and many of his own pictures, amounting to some 1800 lots.8 The same month he departed for a prolonged trip to Spain and England with his wife and daughters Alice and Dorothy, stating publicly that he planned to build a castle for his family. The Chases did not return until June, in time for the summer session at the Shinnecock school. That autumn, William established the Chase School of Art in New York and began teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.9 Given his triple bereavement, it is safe to assume that he was attempting to blot out his crushing grief in travel and work.

Although Irmtraut’s family record presents its share of heartbreak, it also offers interesting historical tidbits. For instance, on April 23, 1899, Robert Stewart Chase was baptized in New York City by the Reverend H.A. Brown, “Chaplain of the Rough Riders.”10 Godparents were William Clyde Fitch and Minnie Gerson; Fitch (1865-1909) was Broadway’s leading dramatist of the era, while Minnie Gerson was Alice Gerson’s sister. Another page records Chase’s close friendship with fellow American artists Frederick Stuart Church (1842-1924), Robert F. Blum (1857-1903), and James Carroll Beckwith (1852-1917), each appointed as a godfather to a Chase child. These artists were closely intertwined through membership in clubs such as the Society of American Artists, the Society of Painters in Pastel, the American Watercolor Society, the National Academy of Design, The Players, Century Association, and the Tile Club, and in teaching posts at New York schools, including the Art Students League.

Other Chase godparents are more obscure, like Irmtraut, and we must do some digging to determine how they became friends with William and Alice. These include Anna de C. Poter, Samuel Dodd, Koto House, Frank Wadsworth, and Susan M. Ketcham. Anna de C. Poter’s identity and history remain a mystery. Samuel Morris Dodd (1832-1912) was a highly successful St. Louis dry goods merchant and art patron who took an interest in Chase, supporting his formative art studies in Munich. Koto House (dates unknown), after whom Koto Robertine Chase was named, was the Japanese adoptive daughter of journalist Edward M. House and a student of Chase at the Art Students League.11 Frank Wadsworth (1874-1905) studied under Chase at the Art Students League; he died suddenly on one of Chase’s school trips to Spain. Susan Merrill Ketcham (1841-1930) was an influential Indiana artist who came to New York, enrolling in Chase’s classes at the Art Students League. Chase clearly had a major impact on her career, because she continued on to a successful career as a painter and art teacher/administrator. The selection of at least four Chase students, three of them women, as godparents underscores Chase’s dedication to teaching, more particularly his support for woman artists, and of course his personal charisma and gift for friendship.

Beyond the basic biographical facts revealed in Irmtraut’s illuminated record, the tragic events of 1895 impel us to reconsider several of Chase’s family portraits, specifically, two bust-length portraits of Alice Gerson Chase (at the Detroit Institute of Arts and Wichita Art Museum) and one of Alice Dieudonné (at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden), all assigned dates of 1895.12 Both portraits of Alice Gerson Chase present her as somber and introspective, with the Detroit portrait (OP 235 in the catalogue raisonné) capturing a beautiful yet remarkably pale young woman with a bleak, remote demeanor. The Wichita portrait (OP 239) depicts Alice dressed completely in black, except for one tiny red flower or ribbon in her hair, against a dark brown background. No color beyond the tiny spot of red relieves the composition, and she appears to be sizing up the viewer with reservation, shielding herself from scrutiny.13The Detroit portrait was singled out for discussion by Laura Fiser, curator of the 2011 exhibition devoted to Chase’s family portraits and principal author of the accompanying catalog: “The relatively small scale of this canvas and the composition’s close cropped format suggest the portrait was painted for the family’s personal enjoyment rather than for exhibition purposes, and the work remained in the family’s possession until 1927…the understated palette and tranquility of the sitter’s expression give the work an introspective, almost melancholy mood, conveying the deep affection between the artist and his subject…their most profound heartbreak came in 1891 with the death of their first son, William Merritt Chase, Jr., at just one year old.”14

The large (60" x 36") full-length portrait of Alice Dieudonné (OP 242), displayed to much comment in the fall 1895 exhibition at the National Academy of Design, in 1897 at the Art Institute of Chicago, and in 1898 at the Society of American Artists, presents her with a haunted, remote demeanor, dressed in black from head to toe except for a fan held loosely and closed, by her right side.15 The entire composition is dark, relieved only by the flesh of her arm and face, and the fan. Dark drapes form the backdrop, and the ground is dark brown. Her eyes and upper face are shadowed by a large black hat with an enormous ribbon, also black. This singular painting has never, as far as I am aware, been considered through the lens of the family tragedy, as the portrait of a girl deep in mourning, who as the eldest child and her mother’s namesake must have felt profound grief and a sense of responsibility and anxiety for her mother. Was the artist deliberately showing his grief by painting his wife and eldest daughter as communicators of grief and mourning, or was this vein of artistic communication simply something that crept into his painting at the time? We may never know.

As the temporary steward of Irmtraut’s beautiful and fragile manuscript, I hope that his illuminated record of passages in the life of the preeminent American artist William Merritt Chase will enter a public collection, where it will be accessible to scholars. In the meantime, I plan to continue on my merry way, sniffing out rare objects in my chosen field of American art history.


  1. My appreciation to Dr. Longwell, Lewis B. and Dorothy Cullman Chief Curator, Art and Education, for clarifying the matter. The book is Photographs from the William Merritt Chase Archives at the Parrish Art Museum by Ronald G. Pisano and Alicia G. Longwell (Southampton, NY: Parrish Art Museum, 1992).
  2. That the twins were baptized immediately suggests that they were born with serious illness or impairment, with the natural concern that they would not live very long.
  3. Katharine Metcalf Roof, The Life and Art of William Merritt Chase (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1917), p. 165. Roof does mention the 1891 loss of William Jr.
  4. Ronald G. Pisano, et al., William Merritt Chase: Landscapes in Oil; Volume 3 The Complete Catalogue of Known and Documented Work by William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 162. Here again Helen’s birth is given as 1895 rather than 1897.
  5. Alicia Grant Longwell, “William Merritt Chase’s The Bayberry Bush: Tableaux Vivants, Nature Morte, and the Summer of 1895,” in About the Bayberry Bush (Southampton, NY: Parrish Art Museum, 2001), pp. 44-45. Laura B. Fiser, William Merritt Chase: Family Portraits (Oshkosh, WI: Paine Art Center and Gardens, 2011).
  6. Elsa Smithgall, et al., William Merritt Chase: A Modern Master (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016).
  7. The Tenth Street Studio Building was Richard Morris Hunt’s first public building, completed in 1857 after his return from architectural studies in Paris. Located at 51 West 10th Street, it was demolished in the 1950s.
  8. See Barbara Gallati’s excellent chapter on the history and significance of Chase’s Tenth Street studio in her book William Merritt Chase (New York: Harry N. Abrams, in association with the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1995), pp. 39-54. Gallati stated that we do not know why Chase abruptly closed the studio and sold the contents (p. 50).
  9. These professional and personal events in 1875-76 are well known and have been widely discussed and published.
  10. Henry A. Brown, an Episcopal minister from Prescott, Arizona, was chaplain to Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.
  11. For a brief biography of Koto House, see “A Child of Japan” in Current Literature: A Magazine of Record and Review, Vol. XI (New York: Current Literature Publishing Co., September-December, 1892), pp. 152-53, available on Google Books by searching “A Child of Japan” and “Koto House.”
  12. See Ronald G. Pisano, William Merritt Chase: Portraits in Oil; Volume 2 The Complete Catalogue of Known and Documented Work by William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), pp. 126, 128. Most of Chase’s paintings are not dated, so Chase scholars have assigned dates based on careful evaluations of the apparent age of his sitters and the objects and locales included in the compositions.
  13. It is important to stress that Chase several times depicted his wife in black or dark brown clothing with red flowers in her hair; he greatly admired the portraits of the Spanish master Velázquez, who depicted women similarly attired. He even paid tribute to the great artist by making Velázquez his daughter Helen’s middle name.
  14. Fiser, William Merritt Chase: Family Portraits, p. 26.
  15. Pisano, William Merritt Chase: Portraits in Oil, p. 30.

Originally published in the November 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest

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