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The Green Tree: Highlights from the Collection of the Mutual Assurance Company of Philadelphia - April 2007
 
 
painting
 
William Merritt Chase
(1849–1916)
Henry Williams Biddle, 1910
Oil on canvas, 48 × 37 inches
Signed at lower left: “Wm. M. Chase”
Exhibited: “Framing the Board: A Look at Corporate Portraiture,” Mutual Assurance Company and Independence National Historic Park, Second Bank of the United States, Philadelphia, October 27, 1982–January 17, 1983, no. 15.
References: Garvan and Wojtowicz 1977, 70, color pl. This portrait will be listed in the forthcoming monograph by Ronald G. Pisano and D. Frederick Baker, William Merritt Chase: Portraits in Oil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).
RS 6225


Henry Williams Biddle (1848–1923) was born into one of Philadelphia’s oldest and most distinguished families, descendants of Quakers who had immigrated to America from England in 1681. He attended the University of Pennsylvania in 1866 and then joined his grandfather’s banking house, Thomas A. Biddle & Company. Biddle succeeded his father Thomas Alexander Biddle as a trustee of the Mutual Assurance Company in 1888, and served as chairman of the board from 1909 until his death. Biddle’s colleagues at the company respected his “faith in the future of his country and its industries, his breadth of vision, and his courage in times of stress.” They also admired his social skills and regarded him as “a presiding genius” of the dinners that followed their monthly board meetings. “His delightful personality, his memory, his wealth of incident in the social, historical and business life of the community, his fine mind and long-time cultivated tradition make him an unforgettable figure at the head of the dinner table, charming by his recollections mellowed with age, or drawing out those present in their especial fields of knowledge.”

William Merritt Chase was born in Williamsburg, Indiana. He declined to follow his father into the women’s shoe business and took lessons with the Indianapolis portraitist Barton S. Hays (1826–1914) in 1867, before studying at the National Academy of Design in New York with Lemuel P. Wilmarth (1835–1918) in 1869. Chase moved to St. Louis in 1871 and worked as a professional artist. Local patrons provided him with the financial support necessary to study in Europe, and he entered the Royal Academy in Munich in 1872, an experience that profoundly influenced his artistic development.

Chase returned to New York in 1878, moved into the Tenth Street Studio Building, and embarked on a long and distinguished career as a painter of landscapes, studio interiors, still-lifes, and commissioned portraits. He participated in the first exhibition of the Society of American Artists in 1878 and was elected president of the group in 1880. Chase was an influential teacher, and taught at the Art Students’ League and the Brooklyn Art School. He conducted summer classes in Shinnecock, Long Island, from 1891 to 1902, and founded the Chase School (later named the New York School of Art and now the Parsons New School for Design) in 1896. Chase was elected an associate member of the National Academy of Design in 1888, and became a full academician two years later.

This portrait, the largest in the Mutual Assurance Company’s collection, was commissioned in 1910, one year after Biddle had become chairman. Chase was a logical choice to paint Biddle’s likeness because he was an accomplished portraitist who was well known in Philadelphia, where he had taught weekly classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1897 until 1909. This vivid likeness of the portly, affable-looking banker and raconteur exemplifies Chase’s statement that “it is the personality that inspires and which you depict upon the canvas. To make a vivid personality glow, speak, live upon the canvas—that is the artist’s triumph.”1

Note

1. William Howe Downes, “William Merritt Chase, A Typical American Artist,” International Studio 39 (December 1909), xxx.


  


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