William Merritt Chase,
Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler (1883),
Cleveland Museum of Art
Dora Wheeler was a successful textile designer who in her student years, studied painting under William Merritt Chase in New York City. Chase’s painting of Wheeler was intended as an exhibition piece — neither Wheeler nor her family commissioned Chase to paint the portrait.
The portrait follows typical 19th century conventions for depicting female sitters posing the sitter seated in a 3/4 position. One hand cradles her face as she stares blankly out at the viewer while the other rests on the arm of the chair set against a blue vase painted in swirling brush strokes. The placement of the hand so near the vase draws immediate attention to the daffodils springing from its mouth. As direct references to her sexual presence as a woman, the flowers, the vase (a round vessel!) and the sensual fur trim of her blue dress make the artist Dora Wheeler into an entirely feminine being. Note also the echoes between the coloring of her dress and the coloring of the vase. She is a professional artist, yet there are no references to her profession except perhaps the wall-hanging. Similarly, the composition’s undeniable reference to James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. I: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, already canonical by 1883, further feminizes Wheeler by associating her with the woman’s role of motherhood (again, the vase!).
I love to look at this painting next to Chase’s earlier Studio Interior. In Studio Interior, yesterday’s artwork of the day, the woman serves as a decorative object in the artist’s studio. Here, Chase has taken an artist, an active being, and objectified her in much the same way. The oriental textile was a background popular in portraits of the day and Chase could have positioned his sitter in front of his collection of paintings to make the reference to her occupation more explicit. Above all, this portrait is an exhibition piece, meant to be looked at for its beauty and the its depiction of late 19th century femininity. The sitter’s biography and character are rendered irrelevant.