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Alice Levi Duncan
Miss J. (Content Aline Johnson) is a classic example of William Merritt Chase’s formal portraiture done in the manner of the great seventeenth and eighteenth century English portraitists, Anthony Van Dyck and Thomas Gainsborough. Here, Chase presents a tour de force of artistic skill and dexterity. Chase has cropped the figure of Miss J. at three-quarter length to create a dramatic and direct composition. He presents his subject with her left hand, and the flower it holds, resting on a table covered with ornate fabric. The fabric, the wisp of the white plume in Miss J.’s hair, and the brilliant diamond and emerald pins on her dress are conscious and convincing demonstrations of Chase’s ability to render a variety of textural qualities. Such skill is evident moreover in his remarkable treatment of the various fabrics of the sitter’s dress, coat, and the table covering. In the background Chase provides a veritable still life, a subject for which he was most celebrated at the time. The still life objects – a black teapot, a red lacquered box, and a porcelain figurine, all of which allude to oriental culture – lend an artistic touch to what is already an impressive display of wealth and social stature. Furthermore, Chase presents his sitter as a dignified and self-assured individual, one of sensibility as well as sensitivity.
Content Aline Johnson was one of Chase’s students, studying under him at the New York School of Art and at the Shinnecock Summer School of Art on Eastern Long Island. Although there are no enrollment records of the New York School of Art or Chase’s summer school, Johnson’s presence at Shinnecock is documented by a letter she and other Chase students wrote to him on September 20, 1901, at the close of the school’s season. Chase’s portrait of her was probably done between this date and the time it was first exhibited in February of 1903 when Chase began featuring it in important portrait shows in an attempt to attract other society portrait commissions. Given the elaborate nature of this work, its grand scale and lavish treatment, as well as the fact it was lent to shows by the sitter’s mother, it is apparent that it was a commissioned portrait.
We are grateful to Ronald G. Pisano for his research and text.