William Merritt Chase and the Shinnecock Nation

The interconnectedness between the tribe and artists
In the mid-19th century, small frame houses began to replace traditional wigwam structures on the Shinnecock Reservation. Here Charles Bunn posed with his dog outside his house in Shinnecock Hills. Courtesy of David Bunn Martine

The story of the East End as a lure for plein-air painters in the late-19th century is well known, as is the role of the painter William Merritt Chase and the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art, which Chase directed from 1891 to 1902.

“William Merritt Chase: The Shinnecock Years,” an exhibition of paintings by Chase and several of his students and archival photographs now on view at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, sheds light on less familiar aspects of Chase’s, his family’s, and his students’ life in Shinnecock, specifically their relationships with members of the neighboring Shinnecock Nation.

On Friday, Jan. 25, in connection with that exhibition, David Bunn Martine, a Shinnecock historian and the show’s guest curator, and Alicia Longwell, the museum’s chief curator, will present an illustrated talk on the interconnectedness of the Shinnecock Reservation and the people members of that community called the “summer colonists.”

“David Bunn Martine gave a talk at the Parrish a number of years ago about his background and living here, and he had these wonderful archival photographs of many of his relatives,” said Ms. Longwell. “One was a picture of his great aunt or great-grandmother, and he spoke about how these women worked as domestic help and laundresses. It really clicked with me. Those starched white dresses in Chase’s painting ‘The Bayberry Bush’ didn’t just happen.”

Chase first came to paint in the Shinnecock Hills at the invitation of Jane Ralston Hoyt, who had proposed opening a summer art school based on the plein-air schools then popular in Europe. By the time the Chase family arrived and took up residence in their McKim, Mead, and White-designed house, a handful of large estates had extended the Southampton Village’s summer colony into the Shinnecock Hills.

Mr. Martine remembers his grandmother Alice Martinez talking about the market gardens on the reservation, whose produce was sold to the summer residents. “She recalled that they canned a lot of vegetables,” he said. “And my great-grandfather used to store cabbage in the basement in sand.” Eggs, broiler chickens, and Muscovy ducks were also sold.

By the 1890s, outdoor activities were widely promoted as healthy summer pursuits. Children were encouraged to swim in the ocean and bays and to participate in sports such as golf, horseback riding, and tennis. In 1892, a consortium of golfers planned a course in the Shinnecock Hills and hired Stanford White to design the clubhouse.

Men of the Shinnecock Reservation, which was two miles south of the site, worked on the project and one, Oscar Smith Bunn, stayed on as one of the first caddies. Bunn’s skill was such that he became a professional golfer and — despite the protests of some of the club’s members — was the first Native American to play in a United States Open, which was held at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in 1896.

The men of the Shinnecock Reservation were well known for their hunting and fishing skills and were hired as guides by the summer residents. Charles Sumner Bunn was renowned as a guide and for his decoy carving, which he learned while growing up on the reservation. He traveled every year to the Sportsmen’s Show at the old Madison Square Garden, where he sold his carvings of shorebirds, which were hand-painted in rich natural tones.

While Chase often used his family as models for his paintings, during the summers he and his students frequently hired models from the Shinnecock Reservation to pose in exchange for a modeling fee. In 1913, Rodman Wanamaker, heir to the Philadelphia department store fortune, visited the Shinnecock Reservation as part of a large, ongoing project that resulted in photographs of Shinnecock tribe members that capture them at a particular place and time.

Chase’s fourth daughter, Hazel, was born in 1893 and given the middle name Neamaug, which means “between the waters” in the Shinnecock language. “There are just any number of connections between the summer residents and the people who lived on the reservation,” said Ms. Longwell. “It seemed to me that the relationships were a lot deeper than any of us had thought. They were neighbors. In talking with David and exploring these many facets, it seemed to be an interesting moment to tell that story.”

Tickets to the talk, which is at 6 p.m., are $12, free for members and students.