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Joseph Cummings Chase: A World-Renowned Artist From Kents Hill

Joseph Cummings Chase (1878-1965) was a Kents Hill native and world-famous portrait painter.

by Dale Marie Potter-Clark

Joseph Cummings Chase was born in Kents Hill on May 5, 1878, in the house his family called "Jollity Manse." He was born on a Sunday, an appropriate day for the son, grandson, and nephew of devout Methodist ministers. His parents, both Kents Hill School alumni, were Rev. A. Fitzroy Chase and Louise (Allen) Chase.

Rev. Chase was a brilliant scholar and known as a strong leader, adept orator, and strict disciplinarian. He, and his wife of two years, moved to Readfield in 1871 where Rev. Chase served as head of the mathematics and literature departments at Kents Hill School, and where all six of their children were born. In 1883 the family moved to Bucksport where Rev. Chase taught in another seminary, but their fondness for Kents Hill School never waned so they returned in 1897, when Rev. Chase became headmaster.

There were many ministers and educators in the Chase/Allen family. Joseph's maternal grandfather was Rev. Stephen Allen, who in 1886 authored the 1,130 page History of Methodism in Maine, 1793-1886. He was also a headmaster at Kents Hill School in the 1840s, and after that a trustee during one of Kents Hill School's most challenging financial times, as was his brother Rev. Charles Allen. Later they were both instrumental in establishing the University of Maine.

Stephen Allen had a gift for fundraising and did so for both institutions – in fact it is said that he was the predominant force in raising the monies to build the University of Maine. He was offered its first presidency but declined and recommended his brother Dr. Charles Allen, who remained at the helm for the first twelve years.

Four of A. Fitzroy and Louise Chase's children survived to adulthood — Joseph, Crystal, Louise, and John. Three remained in Readfield as faculty members at Kents Hill School, while John founded Chases Camps on Torsey Pond in 1898 — said to be the first boy's summer camp established in Maine.

Joseph's artistic talent surfaced early though, and it soon became apparent that he was destined to take a much different course than his siblings. As a boy Joseph began to frequent town meetings and church suppers where he sketched leading citizens. His reputation as an artist spread, and before he was 18, the Lewiston Sun asked him to sketch for their newspaper. His life's course was set.

Joseph Cummings Chase painted "War Hero” during WWI, when he was assigned to follow the A.E.F. Army of Occupation into Germany.

He went to New York City in 1898 to study at Pratt Institute and then he studied portrait painting at the Academie Julien in Paris, France. Upon his return to New York City, his artwork gained such notoriety he caught the attention of dignitaries in Washington D.C. When World War I broke out, Chase was commissioned to paint portraits of President Wilson, his cabinet, and officers at the Pentagon.

A year later, General Pershing cabled the U.S. War Department to request they send an artist to Europe. He wanted to accompany the WWI historical writings with depictions of officers and soldiers. Chase was the ideal choice since his reputation for capturing personalities on canvas in record time had become well known.

So, for five months Chase traveled with the Army of Occupation in France and Germany. He was assigned five cars and drivers — four were wrecked and two drivers killed.

When sitting for Chase, a general asked, "Are you painting any of the boys?" Chase explained that the Treasury Department wanted him to paint four "hero boys" for their war bond posters. The General immediately assigned Chase a driver and they set off to where Sgt. Alvin York was located 20 miles away. As the young "hero boy" sat for Chase he humbly shared the story of how he managed to single-handedly kill 28 German soldiers and capture 132 more.

Kents Hill School now owns Jollity Manse, the house where Joseph Cummings Chase and his siblings were born.

Chase became inspired and gained tremendous respect for the young soldiers. He could not stop with four "hero boy" sketches, but amassed 150. In 1920, Chase authored 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, wrote "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.

Throughout his life Chase used his talent in various ways — as an illustrator for magazines and book publishers, a teacher of art and design in colleges, an author and lecturer. Above all, Chase became world renowned for his portraiture. By 1928, he estimated he had already painted or sketched about 6,000 portraits.

His work continued for nearly forty more years. He painted portraits of actors, military giants, academics, politicians, sports figures and six American presidents. He taught art to students such as Eleanor Roosevelt; he authored nine books; and his work appeared in several national magazines. A few of the prominent people Chase painted were Albert Einstein, Theodore Roosevelt, Will Rogers, Charles Lindbergh, James Cagney, and Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower, George Patton and Douglass McArthur. More than 100 of his formal works are in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery collection.

The Chases owned two homes at Kents Hill. Jollity Manse, where Joseph Cummings Chase and his siblings were born, became property of Kents Hill School in 1959. Chase Hall, which Rev. A. Fitzroy Chase built next door, has been owned by the school since 1918. Joseph Cummings Chase was married twice and had no children. He died in 1965 in Milwaukee, WI and is buried with his parents and two wives near Bryant Pond, Oxford County, Maine, where his father was born and raised.

Dale Marie Potter-Clark is the Historical Consultant for the Readfield Historical Society. She also offers community education about Readfield's history, and organizes Readfield History Walks.