A hairy-chested Lothario of oil paint — good enough not only to get what he wants but to make you believe, however fleetingly, it's what you want, too — the American painter William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) arouses envy and contempt in equal measure.
Envy, because he could paint — really paint — and because over the course of a 40-year career he produced two of the greatest American paintings of his time. Contempt, because he was a sentimentalist, a panderer, and a showoff.
Still, I find myself liking him. Nearly 80 works in oils and pastels are arrayed for our pleasure in "William Merritt Chase" at the Museum of Fine Arts (through Jan. 16). The show is the first Chase retrospective in more than 30 years. It was organized by the MFA; the Phillips Collection, in Washington, D.C.; the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, in Venice; and the Terra Foundation for American Art.
The exhibition's layout emphasizes the artist's range and adaptability. Successive galleries are given over to his studio pictures, the works he made in Europe, pictures of everyday life, portraits, and landscapes.
What's unusual in such a retrospective is that the first work we see is also, by far, the best. "The Young Orphan" was painted in about 1884, six years after Chase, who was born in Williamsburg, Ind., had returned from a six-year residency in Germany at the Royal Munich Academy.
It shows a long-limbed young woman in a simple black dress. Stretched out, she leans back into a red, velvet-covered chair that is positioned at right angles to the viewer, and parallel to the brick-red wall behind her. Resting her head, which is cushioned by billowing auburn hair, against the top of the chair's back, she looks out at us with a strangely covetable combination of indifference, indolence, and exhaustion.
It's a gorgeous painting. But for Chase it was an experiment, and in his oeuvre, it remains an intriguing outlier.
In Munich, Chase had fallen under the spell of Wilhelm Leibl, who was himself a devotee of Edouard Manet. Leibl was passionate about painting everyday subjects — still a radical idea at that time — and partial to Manet's bravura, predominantly tonal manner of painting.
Back in New York, Chase quickly established himself as one of the city's leading tastemakers. A gifted teacher, proud cosmopolitan, and affable, clubby type, he operated out of a large studio-cum-gallery decked out with (as D. Frederick Baker writes in the catalog) "gewgaws, hangings, large bric-a-brac, doodads."
For Chase it was akin to a theater set. We see views of it in the show's first room — a room which makes two things very clear: that Chase was sensationally gifted; and that he couldn't control himself. Like certain of his European contemporaries (Giovanni Boldini, Alfred Stevens, Mariano Fortuny y Marsal), he barely knew when to stop with the winking highlights, the show-offy effects of brush and palette knife, the flashing, high-keyed colors.
But "The Young Orphan" is different. Where Chase's other work from the 1880s suggests a puffed-up synthesis of Old Masters and French contemporaries in the circle of Manet, "Young Orphan" is very much in the tradition of a more original Manet associate: James Whistler.
Like Whistler's masterful portrait of his mother (with which it shares obvious affinities), "The Young Orphan" was painted very thinly in oils that were allowed to sink into the coarse weave of the canvas, creating a unified overall effect and a degree of dreamy blur. Chase even included a little nod to Whistler in the center of the painting's top left quadrant: two overlapping ovals — a dainty touch evoking Whistler's famous butterfly signature.
Chase painted "The Young Orphan" for an exhibition organized by a circle of avant-garde painters in Belgium. At this stage it had not yet been given its sentimental title. It was hung there with a full-length portrait, also in shades of red, by John Singer Sargent.
Despite Sargent's greater fame in Europe, Chase's painting won most of the plaudits. Where the Sargent painting was accused of poor taste and "razzle-dazzle," Chase's had "nothing garish or blinding," and "nothing banal, smacking of the commonplace"about it, according to one Belgian critic. It was admired — and quite rightly — for its combination of art and restraint.
Sadly, too much else in the show is guilty precisely of garish razzle-dazzle. There are things that, frankly, are hard to look at: "'Keying Up' — The Court Jester," for instance, shows a red-nosed jester with a ventriloquist's doll on one arm, pouring himself a glass of liquor before the performance.
It's hard not to see him as a metaphor for the artist in his worst moments. What mental preparation, what fortitude and forced obliviousness did it take to embark on each new pointlessly virtuosic performance? Or was it all too easy?
But that line of thinking is unduly harsh. Throughout the show, intense pleasures abound. A three-legged vessel with a shiny copper interior in front of the folds of a gorgeous green dress. A rendering of an unframed etching with big white borders tossed casually to the floor. Sprays of potted palm fronds. Flouncing peonies. Worn velvet, shiny satin, cascading ribbons and gowns.
One of the show's highlights is a fishy still life that features a squirming gray shark, a splayed ray, and quite possibly the most brilliantly painted octopus in the history of art. Stupendous.
Chase once wondered whether he might not be remembered primarily as "a painter of fish." The fish are excellent. But he was too good at too many other things. He was, for instance, an excellent portraitist, in both oils and pastel (the pastels in the show are first-rate). His best portraits were also triumphs of color harmony.
My favorite is "Portrait of Dora Wheeler," a color exercise setting a dress of deep turquoise against acres of pink-blushing gold. It also happens to be psychologically acute, its subject less ingratiatingly pretty than the norm.
Chase's landscapes, by and large, feel too green. His sweet spot, color-wise, was a fizzing harmony between salmon pink and brick red. Variations on this combination appear all through the show. But such harmonies were evidently hard to manufacture outdoors. The plein air pictures, with only one or two exceptions ("The Nursery," "The Lone Fisherman"), feel bright but prosaic.
The sole painting that comes close to "The Young Orphan" is "Hide and Seek," which Chase painted in 1888.
In many ways comparable to Sargent's "The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit," it shows a dark interior with two girls separated by a large expanse of empty floor. The girl on the far side of the room — the seeker, one assumes — is about to leave over a threshold veiled by a dark curtain, which lets in a slender stripe of light where it meets the wall. Over to the left, a chair covered in turquoise velvet stands sentinel against that same wall. It is like a miniature Mark Rothko.
The departing girl is watched surreptitiously from the picture's foreground by her playmate, who leans into the room (and the picture) from the left. Although she is closest to us, all we see of her is a beribboned sleeve and the most beautifully painted head of hair I have seen since Degas's "Woman Brushing Her Hair," c.1881 (from the Kreeger Museum, in Washington, D.C., and last seen at the MFA in "Degas and the Nude").
"Hide and Seek" is a full of intimacy, mystery, and promise. In contrast to the air of concoction that compromises so many other works in the show, it is the result of a series of aesthetic decisions grounded in feeling and intuition.
It would be great if more of Chase's works were like it. But then, it's also great that nothing else quite is.
WILLIAM MERRITT CHASE
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave, through Jan. 16. 617-267-9300. www.mfa.org
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.