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Chase regains his place in art

Celebrations are in order! Sanity may actually be returning to the world of art. I offer in evidence the fact that Balthus has finally been given a major museum retrospective; that the art-critical fraternity is gradually beginning to grasp the significance of Picasso's last paintings; and that the reputation of William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) is once again on the rise.

Nothing would have seemed less likely 30 years ago. Balthus was considered a minor romantic realist with a few interesting portraits under his belt. Picasso was viewed as a has-been, his late paintings as little more than clever doodles. And Chase was seen as the personification of all that was wrong with turn-of-the century American painting.

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Chase was adjudged slick, superficial, and flashy, an artist who had sold his creative soul for dashing painterly effects and worldly acclaim. And he had, as a result, been assigned to the lowest level of artistic limbo.

Proof of how superficial that judgment was is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in the form of a major retrospective of Chase's work. Originally assembled by Ronald G. Pisano for the Henry Art Gallery of the University of Washington in Seattle, this excellent exhibition consists of 89 paintings and works on paper covering Chase's entire career, but emphasizing his achievements as an outdoor painter.

Most important, this show makes it very clear that Chase was a brilliant draftsman and painter and an observer of uncommon sensitivity. It also establishes that, while he may have been something of a virtuoso at heart, virtuosity was never permitted to interfere with his attempts to create serious art. What we view today as flashy, even perhaps as empty virtuosity in Chase, is actually brilliant painterliness reflecting a world that believed in elegance, high style, and good taste. It may seem somewhat aristocratic to our eyes and overly facile to our current tough-minded sensibilities, but Chase's art is as honest and true as the best of the working-class and depression-era work that followed it.

It was also, with some exceptions, better painted. For sheer, stunning painterliness few 20th-century American paintings can come close to Chase's ''A Fishmarket in Venice'' (painted when he was 29), his 1888 ''Portrait of a Lady in Black,'' or his 1915-16 ''Self Portrait.'' And for exquisite depiction of light and atmosphere, only Monet could have topped his breathtaking outdoor studies of scenes in Central Park. ''Terrace at the Mall, Central Park'' must be one of the loveliest of all American landscapes, and ''Lilliputian Boat-Lake, Central Park,'' while not quite as good, does indicate that plein-air, or late 19th-century French Impressionist, painting was not the exclusive property of the English and French.

Chase's talent was evident right from the start. ''Still Life with Watermelon'' was painted in Indianapolis (he was born in Indiana), when he was 20. Although still a bit stiff in composition, it already shows signs of the painterly flair for which he would soon become famous. That flair began to emerge even more while a student at the National Academy of Design in New York, but really burst into bloom while at the Royal Academy in Munich, Germany, where he had gone to study in 1872.

Chase learned and advanced quickly. He was a master painter at 27 (''Unexpected Intrusion''), a superb depicter of character at 29 (''Portrait of a Woman''), and a brilliant painterly virtuoso - in the very best sense of the word - at 31 (''Interior of the Artist's Studio''). Recognition, fame, and some notoriety followed upon his return to America in 1878. He moved to an elegant Tenth Street studio in New York, became socially active, and in general did most of the things a young painter did in those days to establish a career as a professional artist.

But he did even more. He believed and fought for an American art that would reflect European levels of quality, but that would not be defined by European styles. He worked for an art that would evolve naturally from European standards and ideals of artistic greatness toward a style and imagery that would articulate and give form to specifically American dreams and realities.

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As a painter and friend of painters, he exercised considerable authority in the world of art, and as a popular and respected teacher he succeeded in sharing his ideas and ideals with large numbers. His time was running out, however, as new styles and attitudes toward art were moving in.

The situation was clearly described in 1916 by Duncan Phillips, who would later become an important modernist champion and collector. He wrote: ''Time was when William M. Chase was regarded by his fellow countrymen as a radical artist. . . . Today, they call Chase a reactionary, they who fight sham battles, brandishing paper pistols. And yet the position where he held his own against all comers marks the battlefront of 40 years ago, where the victory was won which made possible the present and future of American painting.''

Chase's reputation continued to plummet, however, to the point where he was soon considered something of a joke by the art world. By the early 1940s Chase ranked even lower than Sargent, and Sargent, as anyone around at that time must remember, was only slightly more highly regarded by the art community than Norman Rockwell.

Times and prejudices change, however. Not only has Sargent recently been given a chance to vindicate himself, Chase also is now being permitted to state his case. Both gentlemen are proving their respective worths, and the art-loving public is richer for it. Neither Eakins nor Homer, I'm certain, will be unseated as the premier American painters of their time - although Sargent and Chase, I must admit, are increasingly beginning to seem almost as good as Whistler.

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art through June 3.

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