He painted great sweeps of blue sky lapping against the sea, and flat arcs of beach covered with dune grass, on which women and children in Victorian clothes basked in happiness. His name was William Merritt Chase, and he was one of the great American Impressionist painters whose work is being celebrated by the National Gallery of Art. ``William Merritt Chase: Summers at Shinnecock 1891-1902'' is the title of the small but choice exhibit on display at the East Wing of the gallery through Nov. 29.
The exhibit includes 24 paintings and pastels done during Chase's summers at Shinnecock, Long Island, N.Y.
``It's something of a revelation,'' says National Gallery director J. Carter Brown, ``because when you see an artist at his peak performance - these great Chases - you really have a sense that the good old USA is right in there in the sweepstakes, that Impressionism should not be a purely French monopoly.''
The Chase show is the first in a series of three (the others will focus on Childe Hassam and John Twachtman) about masters and masterpieces of American Impressionism.
The Chase exhibit is also getting multimedia treatment.
``William Merritt Chase at Shinnecock,'' a 27-minute video dealing with Chase's life, art, and family, has already been presented on public television. It is also being shown in the auditorium of the National Gallerey's East Wing. The video was produced by the gallery's department of extension programs in cooperation with Nicholai Cikovsky Jr., curator of the Chase exhibition.
Chase was a celebrated Manhattan teacher as well as a painter, one whose pupils included Georgia O'Keeffe, Rockwell Kent, Joseph Stella, and Charles Hawthorne.
It was a group of wealthy Long Island art patrons who beckoned him to Shinnecock, backing him in establishing Art Village, the first school of open-air painting in America. Chase lived nearby in a home with adjoining studio, designed by architect Stanford White.
At Shinnecock, Monday and Tuesday were known as ``Chase Days,'' in which he, twirling a revolving easel, critiqued students' works done the previous week.
``Try to paint the sky as if we could see through it, and not as if it were a flat surface, or so hard that you could crack nuts against it,'' Mr. Cikovsky quotes Chase as saying, in the Shinnecock exhibit catalog he has written with D.Scott Atkinson, curator of the Terra Museum. (The exhibit will be on view at the Terra Museum of American Art in Chicago from Dec. 11 through Feb. 28.)
Cikovsky, curator of American painting at the National Gallery, says he became interested in Shinnecock because for 45 years his parents have had a house on Long Island, 10 miles from there.
Cikovksy notes that Chase was trained in the United States, but ``the formative influence was his six-year stay in Munich studying at the Royal Academy.
``He came back a thoroughly polished and cosmopolitan artist, one of the most prominent artists of his time.'' In the catalog Cikovsky has written, ``Chase made Shinnecock one of the great sites of Impressionist painting.''
Chase was a contemporary and friend of Whistler and Sargent, as well as a prodigious teacher at the Art Students League, the Chase School of Art (now the Parsons School of Design), and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
The exhibit also focuses on the interiors he did at Shinnecock, pictures that often included members of his expanding family. Chase, always prolific as a painter, eventually also became the father of eight.
``You can almost date the paintings by the number of children,'' says Cikovsky. ``The more children there are, the later the picture.''