Oct. 25 is the 100th anniversary of the death of painter William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), currently the subject of a major retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts. Chase was well-known in his time not only as an artist, but as someone who exemplified how, in the popular imagination, an artist should live, which is to say, decoratively and flamboyantly. That determined aestheticism fueled one of Chase’s great loves: stuff. His famous studio on Manhattan’s 10th Street overflowed with furniture, objets d’art, exotic bric-a-brac, exquisite junk. Amidst the hoard was a small but fascinating flock of musical instruments — a well-curated glimpse of late-19th-century bohemian chic.
Chase’s instruments were up-to-date in their exoticism. Japanese gongs, a Chinese erhu, Middle Eastern ouds: Such instruments mirror influences then percolating through European music, be it Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s musicalized Arabian nights or Claude Debussy’s fascination with Indonesian gamelan music, which enthralled the composer at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. A set of gamelan instruments modishly graced Chase’s collection; there were also tambourines and mandolins for Mediterranean flair; African tom-toms and a native American drum; German hunting horns (arranged in a tableau with a flintlock rifle), recalling, perhaps, Chase’s Munich-based apprenticeship; and even bagpipes, contributing a bit of Ossianic romance.
To be sure, Chase regarded the instruments as props — though sometimes, apparently, they were played. (Artist and critic Henry Rankin Poole recalled entering the studio to “music from a stringed instrument which died away in the screech of macaws and parrots.”) A few made their way into Chase’s art: “The Mandolin Player” (1879) plucks Chase’s fanciest specimen, a Spanish instrument with inlaid mother-of-pearl; “The Moorish Warrior” (1878), convincingly at home among Chase’s artifacts, inspects his sword alongside one of those tambourines. Others can be glimpsed in Chase’s numerous paintings of his studio.
But the most complete record of Chase’s instruments is an auction catalog. By 1896, Chase had a home on Long Island and had just bought a new house in Stuyvesant Square, expenses that, on top of years of grand living, had exhausted his finances. With characteristic aplomb, Chase sold off the entire contents of his studio, the musical instruments (and three dozen samovars, 50 candlesticks, and 600-plus finger rings) included, and embarked on a European sojourn. His collecting soon resumed — the lure of trinkets was irresistible — but not of instruments; the only one to appear in his later paintings would be a piano.
“William Merritt Chase” is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts through Jan. 16. www.mfa.org
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.