Grounded at Sea Level: Frank Swift Chase on Nantucket

Frank Swift ChaseThough he may forever be thought of as an artist from the mountains of Woodstock, New York, Frank Swift Chase made his lasting mark in American art history during Nantucket’s formative years as an art colony in the early twentieth century, and he was considered in his time to be the dean of Nantucket art teachers and painters.

The path that led a high spirit like Chase to this role turned here and there on chance. The pervasiveness of his influence, however, had little to do with outside circumstances. His determination as a teacher sprang from an inner strength of character, and that character underpinned the art scene on Nantucket from 1920 into the mid-1950s.

Chase’s reputation as a painter, of course, preceded him. His naturalistic approach traced its lineage through two en plein air painters of the era, tonalist Lowell Birge Harrison (1854–1929), a protégé of John Singer Sargent, and Swedish-born John Fabian Carlson (1874–1945). Also, Chase’s island students— dominated by a core of accomplished women—quickly became respected peers as well as key players in the evolution of the Nantucket colony. Today, the Chase effect is still felt in an artistic community both empowered by women painters and focused on the same overriding central imagery of seascapes and moors that Chase found so satisfying to paint.

The Early Years
Frank Swift Chase was born to Charles D. and Grace Metcalf Chase on March 12, 1886, in St. Louis. He grew up in modest comfort in the family residence, Forrest Home, at Bauxite, Arkansas. He and his older brother, Edward Leigh Chase (known as Ned), are remembered as a “robust pair” who rode the railroads between Missouri and Arkansas on “archetypical adventures of youthful discovery.” After high school, Frank worked in the area at a couple of jobs. His papers in the Smithsonian archives contain a 1907 birthday note alluding to his stint with the St. Louis Telephone Company, as well as a 1909 employment reference written by the Aluminum Company of America, where Chase worked for his father, a geologist and researcher at the Alcoa mining laboratory in Bauxite. Like his brother, Chase deferred further education at a traditional college or university.

Training at the League
In 1909, Frank followed Ned to New York City and studied at the Art Students League, a seminal fine-arts school that surfaces in the backgrounds of many American art figures. Their sister, Lyna Chase Souther, had also studied there, for the ASL offered training to both sexes in a time when many universities still considered painting to be a man’s pursuit. “Art was certainly an important part of the Chase family upbringing,” states Larry Stevens, the great-grandson of Lyna Chase, in recent correspondence. “It seems to me that Lyna would have been a very important influence on Frank’s art. Six years older, she would have been studying landscape painting at a very impressionable age for Frank.” Engaged in outdoor activities during his entire youth, Frank Chase had developed a muscular physique that helped secure him work as a life-drawing model at the ASL, where illustrators Frank and Joseph Leyendecker transformed sketches of him into advertisements for Arrow Collars. He sketched models himself, when possible, and took oil-painting classes that winter.

A Woodstock Transformation
Frank Chase became a student of John Fabian Carlson in 1910 when the Chase brothers, no doubt lured by stories of gorgeous scenery and a utopian camaraderie, attended the Art Students League’s summer painting program at Woodstock, New York. Carlson was a brash ASL board member who previously had championed a move of their summer studies—first established at Lyme, Connecticut—to facilities at the Byrdcliffe arts and crafts colony founded in Woodstock in 1902. Carlson had used an ASL scholarship in 1904 to study under Birge Harrison at Byrdcliffe, and with Carlson’s help, the ASL coerced Harrison into directing this reinvention of their summer program in the Catskill Mountains starting in 1906. By 1907, Harrison had hired Carlson as his assistant instructor. In turn, Carlson assumed directorship of the popular program from his mentor in 1911, and hired Frank Chase as his assistant.

Chase’s initial years in Woodstock were spent within a tight-knit community of creative minds. Carlson, in his writings on the ASL published in 1932, talks of a clique in the colony that used to meet on a stone wall at Rock City, “an obscure mountain crossroad” near the village. “There of an evening,” wrote Carlson, he would sit with a “high-brow” crowd that often included stalwarts like Chase, Henry McFee, Andrew Dasburg, and Carl Linden, as well as Chase’s eventual wife, Evelyn Jacus.

During the middle of that decade, Chase taught regularly, married, and grew in stature as a landscape painter.

By 1919, Frank Swift Chase—in congress with his old friends from the stone-wall gatherings: Carlson, McFee, Linden, and Dasburg— was laboring to found the Woodstock Artists Association, a template for many arts organizations to follow, including the Artists Association of Nantucket. Writer Richard Le Gallienne credited those five men in his essay on the WAA published in 1923. Actually, they founded two interrelated entities: the Artists Realty Company, for the purchase of land and construction of a gallery, and the Woodstock Artists Association, for establishing policies and overseeing exhibitions. Tom Wolf, professor of art history at Bard College, counts Frank Chase among its most active members in a 2001 essay, “The Founders of the Woodstock Artists Association.” Other sources indicate that Chase kept close ties with the association throughout his life.

Those bohemian years had a profound effect on Frank and Ned. Ned developed into a strong illustrator with an irreverent streak who settled into equestrian portraiture in his later life. Frank achieved national recognition for his landscapes, and developed a reputation as the country’s foremost painter of trees due to the use of his oils in a series of widely run advertisements for the Davey Tree Expert Company. Still, the two men rarely drifted far from the Hudson Valley. The Chase brothers settled with their families in Woodstock and considered it their permanent home.

Maturing as an Instructor
Chase cut a dapper figure as an art teacher. He smoked a pipe and held a preference for colorful bow ties and starched white shirts. He was confident, yet, according to a thick sheaf of love letters sent by Chase to painter and ASL alumna Evelyn Jacus during the many months before their wedding in 1916, Frank Chase had tried—with mixed results—to teach outside of Woodstock. These attempts started in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1914. Gary Alexander Irving, aided by Chase’s son Denison, detailed some of this account in a catalogue to the crucial Vose Gallery retrospective of Frank Chase’s work mounted in Boston in January of 1985.

“I can’t really see,” wrote Chase from Charleston, “how I can ever make them think they have learned anything when I leave here. I tell them just a few of the first principles and they get discouraged and say ‘How can I remember all that?’ I show them a single tree or group of trees, sky and ground just to explain the values. When I come around I find half of them have decided to paint a cannon.”

Chase expressed further frustration with the limitations of an art instructor, and with the amount of time teaching consumed when he could be advancing his personal skills. “However, I pulled through,” he wrote, as if it served as a working motto.

After South Carolina, he returned to the Hudson Valley to court Evelyn and work in the artist community that had settled about the crossroads at Rock City. Anita M. Smith lived next door to the Chases and portrays them as heroic in her famous chronicle of the town and the colony, Woodstock: History and Hearsay, published in 1959. At one early Maverick Festival, an annual arts festival that drew actors and musicians and other types of artists to the area, a duo of famous wrestlers did not appear to present their act. Frank and Ned searched and found them under a tree listening to Byrdcliffe poet Hervey White as he read aloud. Chase successfully rousted the pair. Smith further referred to him as “husky Frank,” and characterized him as “always the person called when there was trouble and a real man was needed.”

Frank and Evelyn Chase became parents for the first and only time in January of 1923 when Denison was born at Woodstock. This happened after a particularly fruitful period, when Chase had exhibited at the Corcoran in Washington, D. C., in 1921; won the 1922 Peabody Prize from the Chicago Art Institute; and committed to summer-long sessions of teaching on Nantucket.

Discovering Nantucket
While engaged in forming the Woodstock Artists Association in 1919, Frank Chase heard that Margaret Underwood Davis, yet another student from the ASL, was looking for an instructor to teach on Nantucket Island the following summer. Chase conveyed his interest in the position through a mutual friend. With the WAA gallery under construction, Chase felt free to join Davis at the Underwood Cottages on Hulbert Avenue for the month of July in 1920.

Chase returned to the island with Evelyn for July and August of 1921, and between then and 1954 they missed only two summers, when he painted the arid landscape about Palm Springs, California, from 1935 to 1936. The Chase family rented a series of residences in their years on island, including rooms with their friend Tony Sarg. Chase also worked out of a number of studios, some owned by Florence Lang and others belonging to fellow artists or friends.

Any qualms Chase had about teaching away from his beloved Woodstock must have eased when he led his students to the beaches; the marshlands; and the flat, subtle landscapes at the island’s interior. Bebe Poor, whose great aunt was Margaret Davis, recalls that Chase was often a robust and cheerful figure in their family life during the years following that fateful summer of 1920. Pastel artist George Thomas recounts a day sketching on the wharves as a boy when Chase invited him into his studio to talk shop. Florence Clifford, niece of art maven Florence Lang, remembers Chase as full of enthusiasm and energy.

The Florence Lang Connection
Many American art colonies flourished due to a key patron of the arts. Mabel Dodge Luhan settled in Taos after running art salons in Manhattan and Florence, Italy, and that New Mexico colony expanded with art figures that she had first invited to her home. At Woodstock, the initial round of colonists settled into Byrdcliffe, the utopian experiment spearheaded by Ralph and Jane “Byrd” Whitehead on a couple of hundred acres of prime farmland. On Nantucket, we had Florence Osgood Rand Lang, already known as a force in the art circles of Montclair, New Jersey.

Florence and Henry Lang owned Island Service Wharf, now Old South Wharf, as well as several little-used properties along the waterfront. Through her acquaintance with the Underwoods, Florence signed up as one of Chase’s first students, and they quickly became friends. Lang perceived the need of affordable summer housing for this sudden wave of visiting artists. She renovated a cluster of her fishing shacks and a house at the confluence of Washington Street and what is now Commercial Wharf, including the historic Candle House factory building, which she converted into a studio and gallery space. Many of her boarders came specifically to study with Chase, according to Elizabeth Saltonstall, who arrived there as a college-aged girl for just that reason.

Lang also opened the Easy Street Gallery, the island’s lone arts outlet from 1923 to her death in 1943. Chase’s cadre of waterfront artists and Nantucket staples like Tony Sarg, whose Curiosity Shop was a neighboring concern on Easy Street, frequented the gallery as a central meetinghouse. Her August “open” exhibitions were the highlight of the season. They annually featured a printed catalogue with a Ruth Haviland Sutton rendering of the two-story, refurbished bathhouse on a dark yellow cover. Hardly an August went by without at least one Chase landscape on the gallery walls.

Ladies of the Waterfront
As a lifelong teacher of novice painters, Chase resolved many of the doubts he originally expressed to Evelyn during his thirty-plus summers on Nantucket. It may have helped to have such a talented gathering of students during those months, especially the dynamic women who settled on the island and involved themselves in local arts at the highest levels. Though other students of Chase—like Millicent Clapp or Rae Carpenter—were accomplished painters, five women stand out in their roles as founders of the Artists Association of Nantucket.

Like all five, Anne Ramsdell Congdon (1873–1958) was a regular exhibitor at the Easy Street Gallery and one of Chase’s most accomplished pupils. Congdon played an active role in institutions like the Nantucket Historical Association and Hospital Thrift Shop, as well as the Artists Association of Nantucket and its shows at the Kenneth Taylor Galleries.

Emily Leaman Hoffmeier (1888–1952) administered the groundbreaking Sidewalk Art Show from 1935 to 1952. Hoffmeier worked out of the Red Anchor Studio adjacent to the Candle House and the Florence Lang housing complex on Washington Street, and she sat on several AAN committees.

A lithographer as well as a painter, Elizabeth Saltonstall (1900–90) sat on the first executive committee for the AAN in 1945, and, more than anyone, she worked to integrate the artists and the art patrons during the mature years of the art colony. Saltonstall summered in the Lang cottage named Wateredge for five decades. When her husband, Emerson, died suddenly in 1946 after just a few months as the AAN’s first president, Isabelle Hollister Tuttle (1895–1978) took a strong role in administering the association for three decades. She studied under both Chase and the island’s next influential art teacher, Philip Burnham Hicken.

Ruth Haviland Sutton (1900– 60) was a widely recognized artist who purchased, and refurbished, key art colony buildings from the estate of Florence Lang in 1944. She lived in the Candle House while maintaining the heart of the colony for another fifteen years.

Chase En Plein Air
After the turn of the century, new and radical trends in European art began to exert their influence on America. The infamous Armory Show of 1913 quickly divided artists, or at least the labeling of their work, into radical and conservative camps. Frank Swift Chase was at heart an Impressionist, and he never strayed from its conservative ideals. He carried his paintbox into the outdoors and rendered nature, for the most part, the way he saw it. Tom Wolf assessed Chase’s work as that of a romantic:

Chase’s paintings are the heirs of the Northern Romantic tradition, and, although Chase was more faithful to the scene as perceived, they evoke a spiritual kinship with Van Gogh, who also had an emotional response to nature and rendered it with expressive, tactile paint.

“Though he appears to have used a palette knife,” writes Gary Irving in the Vose catalogue of 1985, “closer inspection shows simple, abrupt, and intense brushwork. Chase’s love of color meant love of paint draped like vines over forest or field.”

We know from his numerous oil paintings of Nantucket, and those of his students, that Chase indeed augmented his impasto technique with a palette knife, as well as with other tricks of wet-on-wet painting. He favored seascapes and harbor scenes, but traveled the entire island, from cobbled streets to open moorlands, in pursuit of what an island newspaper deemed the work of a painter’s painter: “His work is lively, colorful, and expressive of the high spirit that he possesses.”

Life Lived at the Fullest
Frank Chase always kept busy. In 1918, he worked painting murals for World War I expeditionary forces in France. During World War II, he acted a while as the Red Cross Director of Personnel for Overseas, Atlantic Region. Still, he did not miss a beat in his teaching schedule. In 1940 he even founded the Sarasota School of Art on Longboat Key, Florida, which lasted until 1952 when his health prevented him from traveling so far south.

On island he first exhibited in 1921 at the Coffin School, in a show mounted by Elizabeth Rebecca Coffin that included work by Coffin, Thomas Eakins, Annie Barker Folger, Harriet Barnes Thayer, and others. The Inquirer and Mirror remarked with considerable foresight on Chase and another instructor working at the time: “Under these two men, there is the promise of the growth of a wholesome school of art.”

In 1930, his summer tuition was $25 for two weeks, or $40 for a month. Classes were limited to twenty students and “held out of doors, with three criticisms a week.” He employed comparative criticism every second week, “enabling students to see the general class work.” Chase’s 1949 newspaper advertisements read simply, “Class in Landscape Painting, July and August, Frank Swift Chase, 20 India Street, tel. 1035 (after June 20th).”

In 1948 Chase officially joined the Artists Association by direct invitation of the executive board, conveyed through Elizabeth Saltonstall. He served as one of three jurors in that year for the prestigious “open” show, the big summer exhibition modeled after those at the Easy Street Gallery. The AAN treasured its relationship with Chase, and hosted solo exhibitions of his work in both 1953 and 1954, his last active years on the island. In an interview held in August of 1953 and printed in the Inquirer and Mirror, Chase looked back on his Nantucket career with great fondness:

“I really wouldn’t trade my life, despite the ups and downs, for any other,” he said benignly as he traced the pattern of a sail against the shimmering sands of Coatue. “I can’t think of a better one.”

A letter from his Smithsonian archives, written to Chase in the fall of 1953 by AAN secretary Georgie Walling, hints at the concern of his fellow Nantucket artists. “Hi and how are you? We heard indirectly that you have been out painting every day and our souls rejoiced.” The ravages of emphysema took their toll, though, and Chase retired to his mountain home for his final years. The local obituary from 1958 sums up that time:

“When he returned to Woodstock to stay, Frank’s chair was a focal point for his many friends. No matter how much he might be suffering there was no trace of it in the warmth of his greeting and in his vivid interest in the news they brought him.”

Frank Swift Chase was buried beside his faithful brother Ned and other members of the family in the famous Artists Cemetery at Woodstock, New York.

Robert Frazier: is director of the Artists Association of Nantucket’s Joyce and Seward Johnson Gallery, and author and editor of The Art Colony on Nantucket catalogue (2005). He is a three-time Rhysling Award winner for poetry, and author of eight books of verse.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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