The C&O Canal and Georgetown have been the subject of more than a century of photography, including numerous black and white glass plate negatives from the 19th century and colorful images taken by Carol M. Highsmith at the end of the 20th century. In between these two sets of photographs located at the Library of Congress, there is a small, but singular collection of paintings by Susan Brown Chase that serve to document the C&O Canal and Georgetown between the 1910s and 1930s, a period shaped by a pandemic (Influenza), World War I, women’s suffrage, the Roaring ‘20s and the Great Depression. While these significant events impacted Americans coast-to-coast, Chase’s watercolors depict not the dramatic, but the everyday: quiet scenes of life along the C&O Canal, in Georgetown’s African American community, on the streets and along storefronts, where fruit and vegetables are sold and workers stand on the corner, waiting for work.
Born in St. Louis, Susan Brown Chase (1868-1948) was a newcomer to Washington, DC, at the turn of the 19th century, but spent her adult life in the District. Married to Volney Ogle Chase, a Naval officer who died prematurely, Chase became heavily involved in the local art scene, becoming a charter member of the Arts Club of Washington. She was also a member of the Washington Water Color Club, the Society of Women Artists, the American Watercolor Society, and the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors. Through these groups Chase exhibited her work at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Witte Museum. Like many artists, Chase taught art classes, and continued her own studies at the Chester Spring Summer School, attached to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Her artwork was recognized with awards from national organizations and she was one of only a handful of women admitted to the Landscape Club of Washington.
The four watercolor and gouache artworks seen here (gouache is a versatile water-based paint often used by professional illustrators) are painted in a loose style, which captures the scene at hand, but does not place emphasis on details or formality. In fact, Chase likely took her block of watercolor paper and paints and sat close to the scene she painted–first lightly drawing the forms and then washing color over the paper, with sometimes just a stroke of the brush to suggest the color of a storefront awning, or the shape of a woman wearing a dress. These types of paintings were akin to the idea of writing “sketches” or capturing the flavor of local scenes for literary magazines and newspapers in the 19th century. But, what makes these artworks very much of the 20th century is the emphasis on the everyday, an influence that came from American Scene painters such as Thomas Hart Benton, Edward Hopper and eventually, Norman Rockwell.
Chase died in Clearwater, FL and is buried with her husband in Arlington National Cemetery.
The following titles were assigned to the paintings by the Library of Congress. All of the artworks are signed in the lower left corner, and the C&O Canal scene is both signed and dated (May 1916). Top left: Old Georgetown, DC; top right: African American Sitting in the Doorway of a Frame House in Washington, DC; bottom left: C&O Canal, Georgetown, DC; and bottom right: Pa. Ave Between 22 & 23, Washington, DC.