"Pa, I want to go to Europe!"
Original research © 2021 Jeffrey B. Chace
A Lost Light of the Gilded Age
Now nearly forgotten, Harry Chase was an influential American artist of importance in the late nineteenth century. During his short career, Chase earned a place among the elite artists of the Eastern Establishment and he was rewarded with high honors and prestigious prizes for his work. An adherent of Dutch Impressionism, his paintings were de rigeur for any serious collection of American Art, well into the early 20th century. Until recently, Chase’s vibrant yet brief life lay hidden to posterity, but his extensive oeuvre has endured as a powerful testament to his prowess as an artist.
Henry Seymour Chase Jr. was born on February 2, 1853, in Woodstock, Vermont, to Dr. Henry Seymour Chase Sr. and his wife Sally Haskell, joining a family dedicated to the healing arts. To distinguish him from his father, his family and friends simply called him Harry, and this is the name he would also use professionally. Harry’s father, grandfather, great grandfather, and great-great grandfather were all physicians. In fact, his father was both an M.D. and a D.D.S. Even as his brothers would follow the family footsteps into medicine and science, Harry dedicated his life to the fine arts from a very early age.
In 1857, when he was four, Harry’s family moved to Iowa where he grew up on a farm, the son of a gentleman farmer and frontier dentist. Harry spent his free time copying illustrations from Harper’s Weekly, and took art lessons sporadically. By 1868, his family had moved to St. Louis, where his father took over the chair of operative dentistry at the Missouri Dental College. Zealously dedicated to pursuing the life of an artist only, Harry haunted the art district of St. Louis around 5th & Olive just a couple of blocks from where the iconic Gateway Arch now stands.
St. Louis Art
The art world of the city was small, but flourishing. Harry rubbed shoulders with other talented St. Louis artists such as John M. Tracy, William Lewis Marple, James William Pattison, J.R. Meeker, Alban Jasper Conant, Thomas Allen Jr., Paul E. Harney, and William Merritt Chase. Huddled into shared studios in downtown St. Louis, these ambitious artists produced works to sell in the local galleries, and competed for prizes at the annual St. Louis Fair and Exposition. Harry was eager for proper instruction, but St. Louis did not yet boast an art academy. Still, by taking portrait artist James Reeve Stuart, a displaced southern aristocrat, as his mentor during this period, Harry benefitted from the instruction of a very accomplished master. From him, Harry heard stories of Munich, Germany, and the Royal Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts, where Stuart had studied prior to the Civil War.
National Academy of Design
An artist of unusual promise, Harry left St. Louis in 1870, at the age of seventeen, for a year of formal studies at the National Academy of Design in New York. His instructor there was Lemuel Wilmarth, a classmate of James Reeve Stuart in Munich. Wilmarth’s own experiences studying at the Royal Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts reinforced the allure of a German art education. Returning to St. Louis in 1871, Harry became obsessed with studying in Munich and declared that he would pursue no other education than that of an artist, proclaiming, "Pa, I want to go to Europe!"
Royal Bavarian Academy
Harry finally convinced his father to allow him to go to Munich for his studies when he was still only nineteen years old, and made the journey to Europe in July 1872, together with another young hopeful from St. Louis, William Merritt Chase. While some have claimed the two men were cousins, or at least family, the only relation between them was through the brotherhood of artists. Having the same last name was purely coincidental.
Harry received a comprehensive, world-class art education at the Royal Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts, counting among his professors in Munich, Wilhelm von Kaulbach the director of the Academy, Wilhelm von Lindenschmit, Arthur von Ramberg, Ferdinand Barth, and the greatest of Greek marine painters, Konstantinos Volanakis (Bolonachi). For nearly four years, Harry committed himself to his studies in Munich and travelled widely in Europe, throughout Germany, to the British Isles, the shores of Scandinavia, Venice, Belgium and the Netherlands, making studies of the coasts and sailing ships of the Old World along the way.
Return to St. Louis & First One-Man-Show
Returning to America in early 1876, with a large cache of finished works depicting many of the locations he visited in his travels, Harry established a studio for a brief time in New York, before landing once more in St. Louis by the summer, taking a studio at 5th and Olive in the heart of the art district of the city. Eager to make money and a name for himself in his hometown, by November of that year, Harry had arranged for a massive one-man-show of his paintings at Pettes & Leathe, a local gallery at 606 & 608 Washington.
Comprising forty of his works, the exhibition was thronged daily with visitors who clamored to see the exquisite paintings depicting exotic coastlines and sailing vessels of Europe. The exhibition closed with an auction on November 21, 1876. Wildly successful, every one of Harry’s paintings sold that evening, and he pocketed around $1600 (approx. $32K in 2017). His show and the sale of his works immediately placed Harry at the forefront of the artists of St. Louis, with local collectors eager for more. Sensing a golden opportunity, Pettes & Leathe offered to support him financially should he wish to return to Europe to paint. Harry accepted their proposal, his mind set on Paris.
Marriage & Off to Europe Again
On January 23, 1877, just before decamping St. Louis for Europe, Harry married his childhood sweetheart Laura Emeline Eames, a local girl from the best social circles of the city. Her father, Dr. William Henry Eames was a dentist and a colleague of Dr. Henry Seymour Chase, Harry’s father. Known to family and friends as Emma, Harry’s new wife dreamed of becoming a professional writer, or as she phrased it, an “authoress.” Wasting no time in furthering Harry’s career, the newlyweds set off for New York the very evening of their wedding to board a steamship bound for Europe where they would live, work, and travel for three years. While crossing the Atlantic, Harry turned 24 years old, and Emma 21 soon after they arrived.
Paris & the Salon
From 1877-1878, Harry and Emma lived a Bohemian existence in the Latin Quarter of Paris, the artist husband and the aspiring authoress wife, a real-life Marcello and Musetta. Seeking out Paul Constant Soyer as his master, Harry benefitted from the same valuable teaching and influence that had helped launch the career of Mary Cassatt, an earlier student of Soyer’s in the late 1860s.
A canny self-marketer, Harry realized that any American artist of substance during that era must be successful in having his work accepted by the jury of the world’s most prestigious art exhibition, the Salon de Paris. As a student of Soyer, a master with a long history of success at the Salon, Harry was honored in having one of his works selected for inclusion at the exhibition of 1878. His acceptance at the Salon was widely reported in the American press, bringing his name prominently before numerous potential patrons. 1878 also saw Harry Chase’s debut exhibiting at the Annual Exhibition of the National Academy of Design in New York, the most important exhibition in America.
Mesdag & The Hague
By 1879, Harry and Emma had left Paris for The Hague, in the Netherlands, where Harry secured Hendrik Willem Mesdag, the celebrated marine painter, to become his master for nearly a year. While living and working in The Hague, Harry became well-acquainted with the very best artists of The Hague School, as it was called, a confederacy of Dutch Impressionists. They accepted him as one of their own. For the rest of his career, Harry’s work would reflect the marked influence of Mesdag and Dutch Impressionism. His success continued in 1879, as one of Harry’s works was once more accepted to the Salon de Paris, further cementing his place among the most accomplished young artists of America.
Return to St. Louis & Second One-Man-Show
In October 1879, having spent nearly three years in Europe, Harry and Emma returned to St. Louis. As part of his working agreement with Pettes & Leathe, Harry had created a vast cache of 83 paintings during his time in Europe, all of which he had shipped faithfully back to St. Louis in care of the gallery, where they had been regularly put on display. By the time Harry and Emma returned to their hometown, the city was once again rife with “Harry Chase Mania” as Pettes & Leathe prepared for another one-man- show of sixty-four works in March 1880.
His second auction was also a huge success, with Harry pocketing somewhere around $6000-$7000 in cash ($120K-$140K, 2017). This placed him and Emma on firm financial grounds for establishing themselves on the East Coast of the United States, where the best and brightest of America’s artists battled for prizes, and patrons.
New Bedford, Massachusetts
First moving to New Bedford, Massachusetts, for a time from 1880-1881, it was there that their first child Rhoda Campbell Chase was born. Harry’s successes with his auctions, and his increasingly bold presence at the major art exhibitions established him as an artist of note throughout the country, and a steady flow of lucrative private commissions began to come in. Staking a personal claim to the sea, with his new-found affluence, Harry purchased a yacht, the Bonnie, and became a member of the New Bedford Yacht Club.
New York City
By 1881, Harry had established a studio in New York City where he kept up a frenetic pace, participating in just about any exhibition of substance throughout the country. The National Academy of Design, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Society of American Artists, the Boston Art Club, the Philadelphia Society of Artists, the Salmagundi Sketch Club, the American Water Color Society, all of the most important exhibitions in the country readily welcomed his works for their shows and he became a member of many of these organizations. Even after relocating to New York, Harry spent most of his summers in New Bedford, sailing upon the Bonnie for inspiration.
The honors Harry received as an artist only multiplied. In 1883, a few months before his son Irwin G. Chase was born, Harry was elected an Associate National Academician (ANA) of the National Academy of Design. In 1885, his painting New York Harbor, North River won him the First Hallgarten Prize for best painting by an American artist under the age of 35 at the annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design. And indicating the great respect he had earned, Harry was also elected Vice President of the Salmagundi Sketch Club the same year. He was only 32 years old. Harry’s reputation was impeccable and his paintings were in great demand for the best art collections of the wealthy elite of America, selling literally as quickly as he could produce them. Vanderbilt, Billings, Layton and Laughlin, to name but a few, his patrons were some of the most powerful men in the country. Starving artist he certainly was not. Then disaster struck.
Insanity & Death
In the autumn of 1885, after a summer of sailing on his yacht in search of artistic treasure for his paintings, Harry returned home to New York feeling very ill. Severe indigestion had plagued him for many months, but now he could sense that something else was terribly wrong. His mind began to play tricks on him and he increasingly fell prey to maniacal visions. By the end of 1885, Harry was overwhelmed by his delusions and was committed by his family to the Hudson River State Hospital for the Insane at Poughkeepsie, New York.
By the end of 1886, after a year at Poughkeepsie, with no apparent relief coming from their treatment, his family sequestered Harry in the mountains of Tennessee, where, strangely, he was put under the care of a man with apparently no formal medical training. Hope was nurtured as Harry experienced several periods of improvement, only to be dashed as he continued to succumb to his illness. A cure was not found. After nearly four years of struggling, Harry Chase died on October 1, 1889, at the age of 36, in Sewanee, Tennessee, leaving a grieving wife and two small children behind. He is buried at Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.
What Harry’s reputation would be today had he lived and enjoyed a full career can be debated, but his works bear witness to what surely would have been a brilliant future had it not been cut short by his illness and premature death.