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Arts of North America

Art created in North America includes objects made by native cultures of the present-day United States and Canada; paintings and decorative arts produced during colonial times; 18th- and 19th-century masterpieces; and the work of contemporary artists and photographers.

American, 1849 - 1916
Mother and Child (The First Portrait)
c. 1888
Oil on canvas

70 1/8 x 40 1/8 inches

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Gift of Ehrich Newhouse Gallery, New York

Arts of North America

This portrait is William Merritt Chase’s earliest study of his daughter, Alice, who holds a coral whistle and looks over the shoulder of her mother, dressed in a Japanese-inspired costume. The relationship between the black tones of the kimono and the background attests to Chase’s experiments with delicate tonal harmonies.

Chase studied in Indianapolis and New York before attending Munich Academy, where in the 1870s he absorbed the style of the Old Masters. While in Munich, Chase also mastered a bravura, painterly brush technique that would distinguish his work throughout his life. Here, his bold brushwork is particularly apparent in the treatment of the glittering surfaces of the coral and bells, white lace gown, and Japanese embroidery on the mother’s robe.

This grand, full-length painting was exhibited at numerous venues, including the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. It received many positive reviews, including one by Chase’s student Kenyon Cox, who stated, “the main beauty of the canvas is indescribable . . . the beauty of two tones of black, one upon the other . . . the tingling pleasure that one receives from the one note of vivid scarlet that cuts through this quiet harmony like a knife?”