The Norton Museum of Art’s last Spotlight exhibition of the year brings us a drama-free impressionistic work by an American master who taught Georgia O’Keeffe and Edward Hopper, and lacks all of the flamboyance associated with its creator.
On view (and admission is free) through Jan. 29, William Merritt Chase’s Shinnecock Hills, Autumn (1893), captures the Long Island landscape where the artist, initially drawn to realism and portraiture, found a new love for outdoor plein air painting. Chase’s Autumn is one in a series of coastal and countryside oil landscapes he painted in the 1890s, while vacationing at Shinnecock.
The painter’s loose brushwork and fine observation skills are obvious, but the most striking thing is what the straightforward picture does not show. It offers an anemic sky with hints of bright blue, a lonely bush in the distance, a dirt road — which we are told ran north from the artist’s home to Peconic Bay — and plenty of empty spaces. Environmentalists would be pleased to know nature and sunlight, not the human figures, are the protagonists here.
Despite it featuring his two young daughters picking flowers, it does not feel like a personal story is being told. The warm colors lend it a bit of romance but that’s about it as far as love goes. His wife, in dark clothing, appears frozen while standing on a dirt road. No touch of color escapes his brush for her, unlike the foreground figure of one of his daughters, who gets a bit of red adorning her hair and salmon pink in her skirt. Looking at this masterpiece alone, we would never deduce this was a man who liked to show off.
Accompanying the larger masterpiece is a smaller oil sketch owned by the museum and created in 1912 while Chase was in Europe. This untitled work illustrates the artist’s tendency to draw the viewer in by employing landscape elements that might seem random but are very much intentional. The pale canal over which the male figure is depicted kneeling over does the same job as the dirt road in Autumn. It is inviting us to look past it and step into the scene.
Shinnecock Hills, Autumn is on view through Jan. 29 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 Olive Ave., West Palm Beach. Admission is free through December 2018 while the museum undergoes an extensive renovation.