Joseph Cummings Chase 1878-1965
was a Kents Hill native and world
famous portrait painter.
The Chase / Allen family tree includes many ministers and educators. Joseph’s maternal grandfather was the illustrious Rev. Stephen Allen who, in 1886, authored the History of Methodism in Maine. Rev. Allen also served as a headmaster and then a much valued trustee at Kents Hill School, as did his brother Rev. Charles Allen. Rev. Stephen raised the money to build the University of Maine and was offered its first presidency. He declined and recommended his brother Dr. Charles Allen, who accepted the position and remained so for twelve years. Joseph’s sisters remained in Kents Hill and his brother John went to Haverford, MA where he taught school. He also founded Chase's Boys Camp on Torsey Pond in Readfield - said to be the first in Maine. But Joseph’s artistic talent led him on a different course.
As a young man, Joseph frequented local town meetings and church suppers where he convinced leading citizens to let him draw their likenesses. His reputation spread and as a teenager he was paid by a Lewiston newspaper to do sketches at the Maine State Fair. Chase also tapped into a talent for singing as a young man. He could, said Chase in his autobiography, “decipher music notes before I could even read the words under the notes.” He became a member of his small town chorus. His gift for music would be beneficial later.
In 1898 Chase set off for New York City to study art at Pratt Institute. He found a $4.00 rent, and no sooner had he unpacked than he received word that his father had died. He returned to Maine where the funeral was held at Kents Hill School. He was afterwards part of the burial procession towards his paternal grandfather’s home place in Bryant Pond where the patriarch delivered the eulogy. Young Chase shared only a little about this occurrence in his 1963 autobiography “Face Value” saying “…There was no dust to dust. Briefly and tearfully he spoke of character. I sat at the tiny parlor organ and sang the hymns alone. Then immediately, I returned to New York...”
In New York he sang bass in one church chorus after another to help pay his rent, and he sketched men-of-affairs for newspaper stories. In his autobiography Chase wrote “It was a constant study of what makes a person look like himself and like nobody else; it was priceless preparation.”
In 1903 he set off for Paris to learn portrait painting at the Academy Julien in the studio of Jean Paul Laurens. Upon his class’s first encounter with the master Laurens, Chase was the only student whose painting the master gave notice. With this, the seed was set for his notoriety as a portraitist.
While in Paris, Chase continued to submit sketches to American and French newspapers to help pay his way, and he also tapped into his gift for singing to help supplement his income. He auditioned at Holy Trinity in Paris where he impressed the director and he was positioned as their new basso soloist. He wrote of his first rehearsal “By my side stood the baritone soloist, Henri Chateau of the Paris opera. He and I became pals. My salary proved to be twelve dollars a month. However, weddings and funerals contributed five dollars each, and there were some days when two or three funerals followed each other.” Mission accomplished - more income, new subjects, significant contacts and friends found. His years in Paris were good ones.
In 1904 Joseph Cummings Chase submitted three pieces of art in a contest at the worldwide-known “Paris Salon” and to his surprise he won both the first and second place cash prizes, which funded his return to New York City.
Back in the U.S.A. newspaper editors had come to appreciate his flexibility, rapid response to their requests, and his ability to gain access to seemingly inaccessible events and people who made headline news. His accomplishments in Paris led to commissions as an illustrator for text books and magazines such as “The Cosmopolitan”, “Scientific American”, “Saturday Evening Post” and “Life”. It was the reputation he built as a skilled portraitist, however, that led him in a direction very different than any other.
When WWI erupted Corporal Joseph Cummings Chase was summoned from his station with an artillery outfit of the National Guard, and sent to Washington D.C. where his assignment was to paint portraits of the dignitaries who were associated with the war. For a year he commuted from New York City to capture the likenesses of generals, admirals, congressmen, foreign ministers, the U.S. President and his cabinet. Then in 1918 General Pershing cabled the U.S. War Department from France asking that a portrait painter be sent to complement the work of author-historians who were already on the job. Joseph Cummings Chase was selected to be the Government's official overseas portrait painter for the war history record of the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.). Chase was to paint General Pershing, the Generals of the General Staff, the Commanders of the two Armies, of the Seven Corps, and of the twenty-nine Combat Divisions. To this list were added U.S. Army officers whose skills warranted historic record.
In Europe General John J. Pershing took great personal interest in seeing that doors were opened to Chase, who traveled with the Army of Occupation into Germany and covered about 4,000 miles by automobile to and from each of the American divisions. Over the course of five months Chase was given five cars and drivers. They averaged fifty miles a day, frequently over devastated areas, and in order to escape detection they drove at night without headlights. Four cars were demolished with Chase as a passenger and two of his drivers were casualties.
The U.S. Treasury Department wanted images to enhance their Liberty Loan posters so they requested that Chase paint four “hero boys” while he was in Europe. Among those “hero boys” was Sgt. Alvin York, who humbly shared, with Chase, his firsthand account of how he single handedly captured and brought in 132 German prisoners. Chase was inspired and could not stop at four but ended up painting one-hundred forty two “hero boys”. He gained immense admiration for them all.
Coach candles were included in his supplies as he often ended up painting at night. Portraits were done in shacks, in tents, in castles—anywhere the opportunity arose. He managed to complete a portrait about every three hours and heard many confessions and war stories throughout that time. It was said that no other man had more personal contacts with officers and soldiers during WWI than Joseph Cummings Chase. In 1920 he authored and released “Soldiers All Portraits and Sketches of the Men of the A.E.F.” In the introduction Col. C.W. Weeks, Chief of the Historical Branch of the War Department, said “More than any American artist has he succeeded in preserving the likenesses of the foremost officers and men of the A.E.F.” Later, Chase went on to paint military figures from World War II and Korea, as well.
The “hero boy” portraits Chase brought back from France were a hit with the Treasury Department. They took all 142 of them, and created a two-week long exhibit in New York City in shop windows on Fifth Avenue from 34th Street to 57th Street. Newspapers across the country printed reproductions of them. The New York Tribune's art editor, Peyton Boswell, wrote about the “hero boy” series, "(they) are presenting the truth about the war, telling exactly how the Americans put the Germans out of business. The story is told wholly by means of pictures, yet not one of them shows a battle, or a trench, a piece of artillery or a tank. Each one presents merely the portrait of a rugged, keen, resourceful and daring American soldier, a man who performed some wonderful feat of heroism or military skill and who was selected by his divisional commander to sit for Chase, who was sent to the front by the United States Government to do this work.” After the exhibit the portraits were sent to their permanent home in the National Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.
Some months after the Armistice the “hero boys” were honored in a New York City parade while Chase looked on from the sideline. He recognized several he had painted, and they him with a nod and a wave. One was Sgt. Alvin York. A few days later Chase received a call from the person organizing a special reception for Sgt. York. It seemed that when the still humble, shy Tennessee country boy was asked who he would like to sit beside him at the dinner, his reply was “Mr. Chase”. He felt honored to accept York’s invitation.
Throughout his career Joseph Cummings Chase painted portraits of actors, military giants, academics, politicians, athletes, musicians, industrialists, business magnates, philosophers, explorers, and he painted six American presidents. Some were planned and others were by chance. In 1927 Chase published his first book titled “The Romance of An Art Career”. At that time he estimated the number of portraits and sketches he had created was six-thousand. He continued to paint for nearly forty more years. Some became lifelong friends and to many of them he became known as “Joe”. In 1927 he was asked to paint Charles A. Lindbergh at an ideal time - a few days after his solo return flight over the Atlantic. Chase’s dilemma – he was scheduled to paint President Calvin Coolidge the very next day. Chase called the President to explain and his reply was “Certainly! I understand. You must paint him, for you can paint me any time.” More than three-hundred of Chase’s works are in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery collection. Of those, two-hundred are in the Division of Armed Forces History collections.
Joseph and his wife Cora moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1955 to escape the demands of the city. There, he was also more centrally located for his portrait sitters who traveled in from all over the country. He was still actively painting in 1962 when he wrote an autobiography titled “Face Value”.
The parents of Joseph Cummings Chase owned two homes at Kents Hill. The first which they called “Jollity Manse” is where Joseph Cummings Chase was born. It became property of Kents Hill School in 1959. The Chase homestead, which Rev. A. Fitzroy Chase had built next door, became property of the school in 1918 and is aptly named Chase Hall. Joseph was married twice and had no children. He died in 1965 in Milwaukee, WI and is buried with his parents, two wives and a sister in Cole Hill Cemetery, Oxford County, Maine near his father’s childhood home.
A few of the prominent people Chase painted and sketched during his career included: Albert Einstein, Franklin Roosevelt, Mark Twain, Humphrey Bogart, John D. Rockefeller, Woodrow Wilson, John Phillip Sousa, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, George Cohan, Will Rogers, Leo Carroll, Herbert Hoover, Gen. George Patton, Adm. Robert E. Peary, James Cagney, Clarence Darrow, Calvin Coolidge, some Kings and Queens of Europe, Ethel Barrymore and Gen. Douglass McArthur.
This article was written by Dale Marie Potter-Clark who is the Historical Consultant for the Readfield Historical Society and a Kents Hill School alumnus ‘66. She also offers community education about Readfield’s history, and organizes "Readfield History Walks". FMI visit www.readfieldmaine.blogspot.com.
Printed in "Summertime in the Belgrades", July 2014
Printed in "Summertime in the Belgrades", July 2014