Fish Tales

Still Life with Fish
William Merritt Chase (American)
about 1913

After singing fun songs about fish, students will explore William Merritt Chase’s painting Still Life with Fish, noting the shiny quality of the scales and the pot. They will also listen to the story The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister and make a fish artwork using collaged metallic paper.

Intended Age Group
Early childhood (ages 3-5)
Standards Area
Visual Arts
Lesson Length
One 40 minute lesson

Students will be able to:

  • participate appropriately in singing classroom songs;
  • actively listen to a story; and
  • create a collage using paper and glue.


1. Begin by gathering the children together to sing I’m a Little Fishy and Three Brook Trout .

2. Show children Chase’s painting Still Life With Fish and ask them:

    • What do you see?
    • What things in the painting are dark? What can you find in the classroom that is dark? What things are light? What can you find in the classroom that is light?
    • What parts are shiny? What can you find in the classroom that is shin=

    3. Read The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister to the class. Ask them to find areas of the painting that are as shiny as the scales of the fish in the book. Can they find any of the same colors

    4. Explain to the children that today they will be making fish collages, using paper to show scales. Hold up a piece of regular printer paper and a piece of metallic paper. Which paper looks more like the fish in the book and in Chase’s painting? Which type of paper should they use to make shiny scales?

    5. Have one fish shape either cut out or drawn on heavy drawing paper for each student. If your students are able, have them cut out the fish shapes themselves. Provide students with pre-cut metallic paper squares in a variety of colors to serve as scales. Have students decorate their fish by gluing the metallic squares onto their paper. Remind them of the different colored shiny scales on Chase’s fish, and encourage them to use a variety of metallic paper colors. For eyes, you might want to use the plastic movable eyes. You could also use paper circles cut from black construction paper.

    6. Have students glue their decorated fish on a sheet of dark construction paper, similar to the dark background color of Chase’s painting.

    7. Conclude by displaying the children’s collages and inviting them to imagine stories about the lives of their fish.


    • One copy of The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister
    • One pre-cut fish shape per student (stenciled fish would be appropriate for students who are able to cut out the shape themselves)
    • Glue
    • Scissors
    • One medium sheet of dark colored construction paper per student
    • Metallic paper cut into small squares to be glued to the fish as shiny scales: gold, silver, and bronze
    • Movable eyes or cut out construction paper eyes for each fish
    • Lyrics to the two songs: I’m a Little Fishy and Three Brook Trout
    • About the Art section on Still Life with Fish
    • One color copy of the painting for every four children, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


    CO Standards
    • Visual Arts
      • Invent and Discover to Create
      • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
      • Relate and Connect to Transfer
    • Language Arts
      • Oral Expression and Listening
    21st Century Skills
    • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
    • Information Literacy
    • Invention
    • Self-Direction

    Still Life with Fish

    about 1913
    William Merritt Chase, American, 1849-1916
    Born: New York
    Work Locations: New York
    About the Artist

    William Merritt Chase was born in Williamsburg, Indiana, and began his formal art training in New York before heading to Germany, where he studied at the Munich Royal Academy for six years. While Chase identified himself as a realist, painting realistic still-lifes and portraits, others classified him as one of America’s best artists painting in an impressionistic style. His body of work spans a wide range of subject matter: still-lifes, portraits, landscapes, and impressionistic views. He always championed skillful technique over distinguished subject matter, and delighted in turning humble or inelegant common objects into pleasing images. In Chase’s words, “If you can paint a pot, you can paint an angel.”

    Chase taught for over 38 years and was very proud of his role as a teacher. His teaching career included the Art Students League in New York and his own outdoor art school on Long Island. Chase would tell his students, “Be in an absorbent frame of mind. Take the best from everything.” One of his well-known students, Georgia O’Keeffe, once described him: “There was something fresh and energetic about him that made him fun…To interest him, paintings had to be alive with paint and a kind of dash and go.” Even though he received recognition and honors throughout his career, Chase relied on teaching to support his family and to give him the financial stability to avoiding painting works for the mere sake of marketability. Chase died at the age of 66 after several months of illness.

    What Inspired It

    William Merritt Chase enjoyed turning mundane subjects into pleasing images. As he said, “Paint the commonplace in such a way as to make it distinguished.” Because fish were objects of great beauty to Chase, he painted them frequently. In 1913, he remarked, “I enjoy painting fishes; in the infinite variety of these creatures, the subtle and exquisite colored tones of the flesh, fresh from the water, the way their surfaces reflect the light, I take the greatest pleasure…It may be that I will be remembered as a painter of fish.” Chase’s impressive technique drew attention and acclaim to his work, placing his still lifes with fish in high demand. His affinity for a dark palette and bold brushwork were influenced by his studies at the Munich Royal Academy.

    Chase was notorious for painting quickly. His dashing painting demonstrations, in which he completed a major composition within a few hours, were legendary. A fish painting like ours usually took him less than a day to complete. He would douse the fish he used as models in ice water to keep them from smelling. Story has it that Chase once rented a fish in order to paint it and returned it still fresh enough to be sold.


    Related Elements

    One scholar refers to this painting as a “kitchen piece” because of its lack of “elegance,” its association with daily life, and because the elements depicted are related to the preparation of a meal. The fish is displayed with objects that might be used to prepare it.

    Fish Paired With Pot

    Chase enjoyed painting copper pots, so his choice of including one in the composition was not only practical but also aesthetic. The pot creates a play of color and shine between its burnished gold and the shimmering silver fish, and also a play of texture between the slithering fish and the firm structure of the pot.

    Signs of Speed

    Chase was able to achieve a strong sense of realism without a high degree of detail. In this work there are several examples of his quick vigorous brushwork. Chase creates a convincing fin by simply dragging a flat, dry brush through wet paint. There are several spots on the copper pot where the canvas is still visible.

    Dark Background

    Chase admired many 17th century Dutch artists and hung copies of their paintings in his studio. By recreating the characteristic dark background used by these artists, Chase was able to better highlight the light silvery tones of his fish.


    Chase used color carefully in this painting to create a rich, warm atmosphere. The golden-brown foreground and background accentuate the silvery-grey fish, while the bright red of the lobster and onion balance and enliven the composition.

    Repeated Curves

    A group of dead fish gave Chase an opportunity to compose an elegant series of related curves. And by including the cooking pot and white plate, he could take the echoing shapes a step further.

    Funding for object education resources provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.

    The images on this page are intended for classroom use only and may not be reproduced for other reasons without the permission of the Denver Art Museum. This object may not currently be on display at the museum.