In the spring of 1877, a young American artist was finishing three years of study at the Royal Munich Academy and contemplating a future career in New York. However, before he returned to the States, William Merritt Chase (1849–1916) treated himself to one last youthful fling.
With several other American expat artists, he went to Venice—La Serenissima—which Chase extolled as “the most artistic place that I was ever in.” Expecting to stay a few weeks, the Americans stayed nine months—until their money ran out.
One of the finest paintings to result from Chase’s first Venetian idyll will soon make its debut in the NCMA’s American Gallery as the gift of Marcia Bishopric Gest.
William Merritt Chase, In the Baptistry of St. Mark’s, Venice, 1878, oil on canvas, 33 1/2 x 43 1/2 in., Gift of Marcia Bishopric Gest in memory of Joseph Henry Gest and Henry Gest Jr.
In the Baptistry of St. Mark’s, Venice is not the usual tourist picture. There is no Grand Canal, no Renaissance palazzi or piazzi, no gondolas riding the lagoon. Instead Chase has retreated with his easel into the medieval baptismal chapel adjoining the vast basilica of San Marco. A generation earlier, John Ruskin, the great romancer of Venice, described the Baptistry much as Chase would depict it:
The floor of it is of rich mosaic, encompassed by a low seat of red marble, and its walls are of alabaster, but worn and shattered, and darkly stained with age, almost a ruin … but all beautiful; the ravaging fissures fretting their way among the islands and channeled zones of the alabaster, and the time-stains on its translucent masses darkened into fields of rich golden brown, like the colour of seaweed when the sun strikes on it through deep sea. (from The Stones of Venice)
“Worn and shattered … darkly stained … almost a ruin … but all beautiful.” That is pretty much what Chase painted. And in the chill gloom of the chapel, Chase encountered a sexton intently polishing a silver candlestick. The ironic, faintly comic situation of a common Joe, as oblivious to the grandeur of a distant past as he is to our presence, must have been an affecting subject for a young artist negotiating the Old and New Worlds. Taking his cue from Ruskin and earlier generations of romantics who brooded rhapsodically over the ruins of fallen empires, Chase invites us to stop and contemplate time’s corrosion upon the once lustrous “Pearl of the Adriatic.” Venice is the past—beautiful but a tomb. Through Chase, we peer into the chapel as if into an abyss, all the while the eternal sexton goes about his business. Chase expects us to shiver.
The artist clearly intended this picture to be one of the paintings that would introduce him to the American art world. In the Baptistry of St. Mark’s, Venice was exhibited in New York at the annual exhibition of Society of American Artists in March 1879 and again later that spring at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. At both exhibitions the painting received generally favorable reviews. Several critics focused their praise on the still-life elements. In 1881 the patrician critic Marian G. Van Rensselaer lauded Chase for the fidelity of this technique:
The textures—of the veined marble, and of the metal lamps which the old sacristan is cleaning and of all the different accessories—are rendered with a power that is as various as impartial in its manifestations. Without being at all minute, as the work is commonly understood, the treatment is detailed to a greater degree than in any of the works to which I have already referred. Yet no atom of unity or breadth has been sacrificed in the process.
The critical and popular success of In the Baptistry of Saint Mark’s, Venice gained Chase welcome attention and helped in his rapid rise in the highly competitive New York art world.