Past Perfect?

Trees grow in Brooklyn: William Merritt Chase's Boathouse, Prospect Park (1888).Photo: courtesy of Brooklyn Museum of Art

The Brooklyn Museum Of Art is struggling mightily to become “relevant” to both the sophisticated art world of Manhattan and the low- and middle-income communities of Brooklyn. That is not an easy task: The uproar last fall over “Sensation” was enough to make anyone long for the irrelevant. This summer, the museum will temporarily put aside the fractious divisions of the present and instead indulge in quaint dreams of peaceful perfection. In the shows Maxfield Parrish and William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes, 1886-1890, you will find presented a different Brooklyn and another America. Unless and until you look beneath their pleasant surface.

The Chase exhibition – which was organized by Barbara Dayer Gallati – includes 35 park and seaside scenes, which were painted mostly in Brooklyn and Manhattan. In her research, Gallati has located the exact urban setting for many of these pictures; some that were once thought to depict Prospect Park were actually painted in what was then called Tompkins Park (now Herbert Von King Park). Certain images should give today’s New Yorkers a nice shock of recognition: Chase shows the Bethesda Fountain, for example, and the pond in Central Park where children still sail toy boats. These Impressionist park scenes have a certain Parisian aura; they evoke a leafy and carefully trimmed paradise. Viewers may sigh nostalgically, “If only New York today were so lovely,” or think, “If only artists today displayed such charm.”

In fact, New York was just as tough back then – and the charm of these pictures actually represents a calculated response to tricky struggles over relevance and irrelevance during the late nineteenth century. In the four years covered by the show, Chase (1849-1916) was in the process of updating his art to meet the taste of a changing market. His park and harbor scenes were examples of the new Impressionist look, adopted because it was more fashionable than his earlier old-master panache and because a market was developing in New York for this European style. At the same time, Americans demanded subjects that were “American.” Chase therefore chose to depict small slices of life, such as a mother and child sitting in the park or a view of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. But he had to cut the American slice a certain way. As Gallati writes in the catalogue, New York at that time was obsessed with vandalism, the dislocations of immigration, and the threat of disease. Many people thought that the parks, intended to be a picturesque refuge from urban pressures, were a swampy breeding ground for malaria. (Today’s obsession with the mosquitoes in Queens is a contemporary echo.) And so Chase’s charm came with a moral. In a painting of the Bethesda Fountain, Chase posed an elegant woman dressed in white against the fresh water and sunny air – a symbol of urban health and lily-white purity.

Although a good painter, Chase rarely equaled the best works of Parisian Impressionism. He was not entirely at home in this foreign style; his French had an American accent. There was often something too earnest, literal, and hardworking in the play of his brush. Particularly when painting the figure – or moralizing through his subject matter – he could tighten up and lose the pagan freedoms of the style. The strongest pictures in the show often seem the most tossed-off; they are not painted in order to convey a style or make a point. The best one forgets New York altogether. Windswept Land, Shinnecock, Long Island is just a piece of sandy dune. Its planes are firmly built. The discolored light glints with gray.

In the world of Maxfield Parrish, the sky is eternally blue, the brooks never cease to babble, and the girls ripen like peaches in the sun. He seems entirely untroubled by reality, which does not, of course, mean that he was an irrelevant figure. This American illustrator was actually a master of that most relevant of relevancies – dollars and sense. Parrish (1870-1966) knew how to market paradise; he understood that in America the beautiful, innocence sells. During the early thirties, Ecstasy, an illustration for the Edison Mazda Lamps Calendar in which a fresh young maiden rapturously greets the dawn as it rises over the mountains, hung in thousands of American homes.

Parrish was a confectioner-craftsman who knew as much about glazes as any American artist of his day. The show in Brooklyn, which was organized by Sylvia Yount of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, contains a large variety of his paintings, prints, and photographs. Parrish designed everything from magazine covers to seed catalogues and chocolate boxes; he was particularly good at illustrating fairy tales. He was entirely clear about his intentions, saying, “I’ve always considered myself strictly a popular artist,” and he never failed to go straight to the sugary heart of his subject. (Being an illustrator means never having to say you’re sorry.) As a result, his eye candy provides an interesting view of the escapist dreams and aspirations of mass culture, particularly before World War II. Contrast Parrish with successful illustration today – with the jumpy quickness of MTV or the savvy commercials created for the Super Bowl – and you will see America change before your eyes.

Past Perfect?