Musings about Harry

The original spark which drew my attention to Harry Chase was an encyclopedic entry I found online in 2004. Concise, yet with mention of his untimely death after going insane, certainly rife with intrigue. In my initial investigations, I quickly surmised that there may be a significant story attached to the life of Harry Chase. Perhaps melodramatic, but my interest was sustained by the evolving idea that perhaps this could be a way for me to leave a lasting mark upon the world. I have yet to run across anyone else who is actively and enthusiastically researching Harry Chase, so, for the last fifteen years, it has seemed that I am his only standard bearer.

Indeed, I have begun to feel as if it is my lot to reintroduce the world to Harry Chase and his work. It is a rare occurrence when someone leaves behind such objects of beauty which continue to delight those fortunate enough to possess one 125 years after his death, and yet the man himself has been completely forgotten. These objects still find their way to Sotheby's and Christie's from time to time, and will probably continue to do so for hundreds of years more. In a way, I believe that Harry’s legacy has been left to me to resuscitate and preserve for the future. In doing so, I hope I am spending my time wisely and that others will find benefit and enjoyment from my efforts.

Moreover, I take this self-imposed responsibility quite seriously. Back in 2005, I had the exceptional chance to take a year off from work. I could have spent my sabbatical traveling the world, or doing anything I had a mind to. But, it was clear to me that my passion would allow no other alternative than to return to America in the pursuit of Harry Chase. I decided to begin my journey by creating a mindset akin to the Harry of long ago. He had traversed the Atlantic several times during his studies in Europe and I set out to have the same experience, and in a real sense to encounter what he would have seen and felt on the high seas with no land in sight. I booked passage on the CMA CGM Freight Ship Potomac out of Lisbon, Portugal, and set out in April 2005 for an eight day journey across the ocean to New York City, little knowing what to expect.

The Potomac was not a cruise ship but a working freighter, over 700 feet long, laden with containers full of anything you can imagine. It ran a regular route beginning in the Mediterranean calling at various ports along the southern coast of Europe, went through the Strait of Gibraltar and up the coast of Portugal to Lisbon. There it embarked across the Atlantic to New York City. In Lisbon is where I joined. A freight ship can take up to 12 passengers without a legal requirement to have a doctor on board, so usually the non-crew travelers are a small group. However, on this particular journey, I was the only passenger among a full crew of Romanians. One American on a French Ship, sailing under the Panamanian flag, with a Romania Crew sailing out of Portugal. Here is a photo of her coming into New York Harbor in January 2005, just four months before I did the same:

After eight days at sea, having been baptized by the captain and his officers halfway through the voyage in the middle of the ocean after which I was submitted to the god Neptune for approval and welcomed as an honorary crew member, and after having survived a major storm in the form of a tropical depression while the ship fought through 30 foot waves while I was thrashed around in my bed as I tried in vain to rest, we finally arrived in the Port of New York.

In New York, I bought an old Mercury Cougar and began my year-long adventure in America. At the time, looking for information about Harry Chase was very much like the proverbial needle in the haystack. There were most definitely many needles, but there were also many haystacks. And the problem was that I didn’t necessarily know where the haystacks were. I had some ideas, but only vaguely at this point. I started at the New York Public Library, found some more encyclopedic references, but didn’t know where to begin looking with regard to art journals or newspapers besides blindly starting to read articles from the 1880s. I gathered what clues I could and moved on to the archives of Metropolitan Museum of Art, but was confronted with the same conundrum, no real context with which to begin.

I did what I could in New York, and must admit that I was also distracted from my purpose by the city itself as this was the first time I had visited. The top of the Empire State Building, Broadway and Times Square, Staten Island, the Brooklyn Bridge, and other landmarks whittled away at my resolve. From New York, I journeyed to Boston, where the public library provided some additional clues. In New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Harry lived and worked for a couple of years, I found an obituary and also discovered him listed in directories of residents. I also indulged myself with a journey to Nantucket further exercising my sea legs.

After traveling through New England and admittedly doing much more sightseeing than research, I made my way to Virginia where I also investigated some leads into the ancestry of William Merritt Chase, whom I believed at the time may have been related to Harry. Eventually I made it to the Midwest, where I stopped in Nineveh, Indiana, boyhood home of William Merritt Chase. I found his family home (now a hairdressers), and I found his grandfather’s grave and headstone and duly made a crayon rubbing. I also visited Indianapolis and the Museum of Art there which still holds a fine painting by Harry. When I finally arrived in St. Louis, I fully expected to be able to make some progress. Indeed, at the St. Louis Public Library, I found an Artists File on Harry Chase which provided me a glimmer hope as well as a lengthy obituary. I visited Harry’s grave at Bellefontaine Cemetery, I took photographs of various homes where his family members lived around the city, if they had not already been demolished in the name of progress or as a result of urban decay.

Over the course of a year, I did what I could to find the traces of Harry’s life and was mildly successful. I did find many more needles, and some haystacks were beginning to take shape. Naturally, I also spent much time with family and friends and further indulged my touristy notions visiting Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Maui … in all I visited 25 of the 50 states. As my last stop before making my last goodbyes and flying back to The Netherlands to resume my real life, I traveled to Sewanee, Tennessee, the place where Harry died. I investigated the library of the University of the South, talked to one of the university historians, visited a Sanatorium where I thought at the time Harry may have once been under care, but in the end I walked away with little more than some photographs of the beautiful campus and some leads about the university publisher, William M. Harlow.

I have now been back in Holland for many years, and my interest has only increased as my trove of knowledge has grown, albeit with a bit of a disadvantage as I am physically so far away from the subject matter. But, technology has finally caught up with my needs and I now believe that I have found all of the most relevant haystacks and the associated needles. For most of these, I have been able to acquire copies of the information. But as to those for which I have not, I now know exactly where to look and it is merely a matter of finding a way to gain access through electronic means, whether by hiring a local researcher to scan and email (which I have done) or through the kindness of librarians and historical societies (which thankfully is typically available in abundance), or at other times to simply pay the copy fees. And, although I am quite successful in obtaining the information I seek from afar, now that I am much more aware of the milieu where Harry’s life and career existed, I sorely wish that I could go back and live that year over again. What is it they say about hindsight?