Making the Commonplace Distinguished and Beautiful

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

Students will learn how William Merritt Chase aimed to portray commonplace objects in ways that made them appear distinguished and beautiful. They will then create a written description of a commonplace object that makes it appear distinguished and beautiful.

Intended Age Group
Elementary (grades K-5)
Standards Area
Language Arts
Lesson Length
One 50 minute lesson

Students will be able to:

  • examine the artistic characteristics of Still Life with Fish;
  • explain how William Merritt Chase makes commonplace objects in his artwork appear distinguished and beautiful; and
  • create a written description of a common object that makes it appear distinguished or beautiful.


  1. Display Still Life with Fish and invite the students to look carefully and share what they observe. What do they notice about the painting? What colors do they see? What items do they recognize in the painting? Where can they see reflections of light? Why do they think the artist included these particular subjects in the painting? If you zoomed in on the fish and looked at its colors and textures, what else could it be?
  2. Explain to the students that William Merritt Chase enjoyed turning mundane subjects into pleasing images and aimed to “paint the commonplace in such a way as to make it distinguished.” Indeed, one contemporary critic made a similar comment about Chase’s work: “Mr. Chase’s paintings of onions and fish make you see the beauty that is onions and fish for the first time.” Discuss the word “distinguished” and how these two comments are similar.
  3. Ask the students to share their responses to the following question: In what ways does Chase make the objects in his painting appear distinguished or beautiful?
  4. Invite the students to select a commonplace object in the classroom (e.g., pencil, lunch bag, pair of shoes) and create a written description of the object that makes it seem distinguished or beautiful. Students may choose to write a narrative description or use a more poetic approach, such as creating an ode.
  5. Ask the following questions to inspire the students’ imaginations: What exhilarating adjectives could the students use to describe their object? What similes, metaphors, or analogies could they use to enhance the description of their object? Of what significance and value is their object? How does this object enhance the quality of their daily lives? Where did the object come from? Has it traveled to many distant and nearby lands? You may want to share some inspirational examples from the website Ode to Ode.
  6. Provide the students with plenty of time to write, and make sure that they have access to plentiful tools of the writing trade, such as dictionaries, thesauruses, word walls, and so forth.
  7. Once students have written their first drafts, have them trade papers with a classmate for constructive feedback on how their writing could be improved. Remind students that the objective is to make the commonplace appear distinguished or beautiful.
  8. When students are completely finished with their written pieces, be sure to have them share their creations and display their pieces in a prominent place in the classroom.


  • Lined paper and pen/pencil for each student
  • Map of the United States and map of the world, visible to all students in the classroom
  • Internet access to the website Ode to Ode
  • About the Art section on Still Life with Fish
  • One color copy of the painting for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards
  • Social Studies
    • History
  • Visual Arts
    • Observe and Learn to Comprehend
    • Relate and Connect to Transfer
  • Language Arts
    • Oral Expression and Listening
    • Research and Reasoning
    • Writing and Composition
    • Reading for All Purposes
21st Century Skills
  • Collaboration
  • 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.