William Merritt Chase, “Child Star Elsie Leslie Lyde as Little Lord Fauntleroy,” ca. 1889, oil on canvas, 69 1/4 x 39 1/2 inches
Few of William Merritt Chase’s full-length portraits are as flamboyant, colorful, and vivacious as his Child Star Elsie Leslie Lyde as Little Lord Fauntleroy. Executed about midpoint in the artist’s career, the image of this child actress in costume evidences that distinct combination of skill, flair, and charm that Chase often realized in his portraits. By the time he painted this canvas his standing as a leading American portraitist was firmly established by such works as Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler (1883; Cleveland Museum of Art), James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1885; Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Portrait of a Lady in Black (1888; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Despite the obligations of other portrait commissions, a busy teaching schedule at the Art Students League, the demands of his growing family, and his ongoing efforts to organize pastel exhibitions, Chase actually elected to undertake this portrait with no thought of remuneration. On completion of the painting and its public exhibition, he presented it as a gift to the sitter, Elsie Leslie Lyde (1881-1966).
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Elsie was a daughter of Benjamin Tanner Lyde, an affluent merchant in Newark, New Jersey. When her father lost his business due to poor health, she and her sister, Dora, joined the theatrical company of Joseph Jefferson, a family friend. Elsie (her stage name was Elsie Leslie) went on to make her professional debut at the age of four, traveling to the Far West with Jefferson’s Rip Van Winkle Company. In 1887, she achieved her earliest success in New York as the star of Editha’s Burglar at the Lyceum Theatre, which was followed by additional roles, including Little Lord Fauntleroy (1888) and The Prince and the Pauper (1890). As America’s first child star, Elsie was a favorite of such theatrical types as Edwin Booth and William Gillette. She also had a number of friends from the literary world, among them Oliver Wendell Holmes and Mark Twain. In 1890, Elsie left the stage to attend school, but she resumed her theatrical work again eight years later, going on to appear in productions such as The Rivals, The Cricket on the Hearth, The Christian, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Man on the Case. In 1907 she declared that she sought to exemplify “the child actress who grew up and could act,” but acknowledged that despite her achievements, she remained best known for her role as Little Lord Fauntleroy–to the extent that she would later say: “Sometimes it really seems to me that I don’t know whether I’m Little Lord Fauntleroy or Little Lord Fauntleroy is me–our identities have been so mixed.”
At the time Chase painted her portrait, Elsie was playing the title role in the stage version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s tale of Little Lord Fauntleroy. The story describes the adventures of young Cedric Errol, a sweet, angelic child living with his poor widowed mother in Brooklyn, who discovers that his grandfather is the Earl of Dorincourt and is summoned to England to claim his patrimony. The play originally opened in Boston but made its New York debut at the Broadway Theater on December 3rd 1888. Chase attended the opening night performance, where he was so captivated by the child actress that he vowed to paint her portrait. He arranged for a sitting in his Tenth Street studio through an acquaintance named W. H. Patten, who was a friend of the Lyde family.
The result is this picturesque portrait of the nine-year-old child, dressed in the white lace and black velvet costume that she wore on stage. Indeed, Elsie’s garb contributed to the popularity of Little Lord Fauntleroy regalia, a distinctive “look,” described in one contemporary periodical, as “usually made of black velvet or velveteen, with a broad collar and cuffs of Irish point lace, with a sash of silk passed broadly around the waist and knotted on one side.” Ironically, the props that Chase assembled for this painting reveal more about the artist than about his young celebrity subject. The renaissance revival chair behind Elsie is one of several variations that appear in many of the artist’s studio views and attest to the prodigious collection of furniture and bric-a-brac that he accumulated during his frequent journeys to Europe. In this instance, the chair provides a touch of elegance as well as a vivid sense of scale to this diminutive figure. The heavy green curtain behind Elsie looks identical to one that Chase featured in Meditation (ca. 1885-86; private collection), a pastel drawing of Alice Gerson, his future wife; in both works the curtain provides a sumptuous backdrop to the shallow pictorial space depicted.
The fur rug on the floor appears original and unlike anything seen in Chase’s other portraits, although he did include a different, mottled bear skin rug in an earlier studio view titled A Corner of My Studio (ca. 1885; The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco). The rug supplies an exotic note here and also permits the painter to display his skill at suggesting the look and feel of fur. The inclusion of the tasseled velvet cushion at Elsie’s feet adds both color and counterpoint to her bright red sash while imbuing the portrait with an air of informality. To achieve a similar effect the artist would use this cushion again in a small studio scene titled Weary (ca. 1889; location unknown) and, later, a variation on it for A Friendly Call (1895; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.).
Elsie’s pose and attitude equally reinforce this air of informality. Although this stance may very well reenact one from her theatrical performance, there is no mistaking its clear resemblance to that of Chase’s famous portrait of Whistler, executed just four years earlier. The child’s right foot points directly forward while her left is placed laterally behind it; Elsie, like Whistler, also rests her left hand on her hip, evoking a similar attitude of insouciance and nonchalance. Lacking Whistler’s long, elegant cane, she casually rests her right forefinger (and perhaps thumb) in her hip pocket. That Chase would have deliberately sought to associate this image with his most controversial and well-known portrait reveals both his mischievous sense of humor and his genius for shrewd marketing and self-promotion. Although he would freely give this portrait to his young sitter, it was only after he had exhibited it in several prominent venues.
The critical response to the portrait was not disappointing. When it was exhibited at the Society of American Artists in 1889 the New York Times judged it was painted “with more than his usual finish, yet without loss of breadth. She stands near an armchair which gives, to some extent, a measure of her size, and looks out from the canvas with much the same artful artlessness that she exhibits on the stage.” Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer, one of the era’s most discerning and thoughtful art critics, described the portrait in these words:
Mr. Chase is at his very best in the portrait of Elsie Leslie as Lord Fauntleroy, a big canvas filled with rich furniture and stuffs painted with a sympathetic completeness, an illusive truth, yet a breadth, freedom and vivacity which no one could surpass. Not Alfred Stevens at his best, I heard a brother artist say, could paint better than this; and, as everyone knows, Alfred Stevens, in the eyes of his fellows, is the king of technique. Yet with all this decorative splendor and technical brilliancy the portrait preserves its character as such-the tiny, sensitive face first attracts and longest holds the eye.
Van Rensselaer had long admired Chase’s painting, and her remarks about technique cut to the heart of the work. Eschewing the rich impasto and painterly brushwork that had often characterized his art since his return from Munich in 1878, Chase carefully depicted his subject in a restrained and naturalistic style. The end rather than the means was paramount here as his broad technique was subsumed in a conscious verisimilitude, probably intended to please his young sitter. Lyde holds her own in this portrait, despite the rich array of material objects that surround her, and her disarmingly direct gaze becomes the painting’s delightful focal point.
Before giving the portrait to Lyde, Chase would also exhibit it in the Chicago Exposition in 1889, the Indianapolis Art Association, and the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. Lyde would subsequently loan the picture to the Broadway Theater, where it hung in the lobby for many years. She later gave the portrait to Frances Hodgson Burnett in gratitude for the author and playwright’s support and encouragement.
In addition to this portrait of Lyde, Chase’s oeuvre also includes such portraits of actresses and female performers as Linda Dietz Carlton (ca. 1890; Newark Museum, New Jersey), Carmencita (1890; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Hilda Spong (1904; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond) and Minnie Maddern Fiske (1910; Museum of the City of New York). Chase’s portrait of Elsie Leslie Lyde is clearly the most colorful and elaborate of these various works, demonstrating both the extensive efforts he expended in its execution and his singular attraction and devotion to his young subject.
Carol Lowrey and Robert Bardin
 For biographical details on the sitter, see Gerald Bordman and Thomas S. Hischak, The Oxford Companion to American Theatre, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 384, and Trustable and Preshus Friends, foreword by Julie Harris; edited by Jane Douglass (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1977). See also: Elsie Leslie Lyde, “My Stage Life,” Cosmopolitan 6 (February 1889): 372-77, and “The Restless Ghost of Little Fauntleroy,” New York Times ( September 15, 1907), p. X5. Elsie married the actor Jefferson Winter on August 27, 1901, but they later divorced; in 1918, she married the Canadian-American banker Edwin J. Milliken. After fulfilling Elsie’s desire to travel, the couple settled in New York, where they remained until Elsie’s death in 1966. Her papers can be found at New York Public Library.
 “The Restless Ghost of Little Fauntleroy.”
 Lyde was actually required to alternate performing the lead role with another child actor named Tommy Russell, in response to pressure from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, whose members were concerned about her health and safety. See Vivian Burnett, The Romantick Lady (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927), 179-80.
 W. H. Patten is almost certainly William H. Patten, an illustrator and art editor at Harper and Brothers. Some details of the circumstances surrounding the portrait are recited in Trustable and Preshus Friends, 34-36.
 Several commentators have said that the sitter was seven years old when Chase painted her portrait, but in a contemporary magazine article about Lyde, she indicates that she is nine years old. See Lyde, “My Stage Life,” 372, and Lucy C. Lillie’s supplemental comments, 376. Also see “Elsie Leslie-Yesterday and To-day,” The Theatre – An Illustrated Magazine Devoted to the Drama and Music 2 (January 1902): 25.
 See Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine (September 1889): 244, as cited in Ronald G. Pisano, William Merritt Chase: Portraits in Oil, Volume 2 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006), 80.
 Given Chase’s longstanding rivalry with John Singer Sargent and his occasional painted references to his competitor’s portraits, the addition of this rug may have been a response to Sargent’s Robert Louis Stevenson (1887; Taft Museum, Cincinnati), a portrait of a well-known celebrity that also features a fur rug. See Robert G. Bardin, “Posing as a Fine Art”: William Merritt Chase’s Portrait Strategies, Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University, 1997, Chapter 5.
 “The Society of Artists,” The New York Times (May 12, 1889), p. 5.
 Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer, “The Society of American Artists II,” The Independent (June 6, 1889), p. 8.
 In Trustable and Preshus Friends, editor Jane Douglass states that Lyde’s portrait was shown at the “Paris exhibition” of 1900, where it won a silver medal. Later writers have repeated this assertion, assuming this was the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle. An extensive review of both Exposition literature and catalogues as well as contemporary newspaper accounts provides no support for this assertion.