Maurice B. PrendergastAmerican, 1858 - 1924
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Maurice Prendergast . . . plays with his public his usual baffling little game of pretending to repeat himself and never doing it. That psychically sensitive public continually is hypnotized into thinking that because the little figures continue satisfactorily to exist without features and to picnic joyously upon a sunny shore there is nothing new to be got out of the Prendergast designs. Let them invent a little game for themselves and practice tracing the composition in pure line. Hardly a painter can be found to give more variety of linear pattern.1
In the work of Maurice B. Prendergast (1859 - 1924), the ongoing theme is a crowd of people at leisure in public places. His early work usually featured flocks of small figures, rendered as masses of brilliant mosaic-like touches of color, thronging through parks, streets, and beaches. As time went on, his subjects remained basically the same, but the figures became larger, their poses more emphatic and differentiated. Indeed, as the figures grew in size and decreased in number, it became easy to believe that Prendergast replicated the same compositions over and over again. Yet one searches in vain through the vast catalogue of his work for repeated compositions. One finds endless variations on the familiar themes, but not strict repetition. For him, the subject matter was essentially a vehicle for his constant pursuit of a fresh orchestration of color, line, pattern, and compositional design.
Recent scholars have recognized that Prendergast's emphasis on formal elements over subject matter, his use of brilliant color, the flattening and patterning of forms, and his free handling of mediums (which at times approached abstraction) are characteristics that link his art closely with European Post-Impressionism and modernism. Yet somehow, in the fifty or so years after his death, Prendergast was portrayed in the literature as a reclusive character who functioned "outside the mainstream of American artistic life."2 Indeed, a great deal about his art and reputation seems to have been lost, confused, or misinterpreted. It was not until 1980 that Patterson Sims recognized how misunderstood Prendergast's contribution had become, when he wrote: "Because of his association with The Eight, Prendergast's commitment to modernism and his real achievement as a modernist have been minimalized and misunderstood."3 A decade later, in the catalogue raisonné of Prendergast's work, Nancy Mowll Mathews plumbed the depths of this issue, revealing in detail Prendergast's lifelong attraction to modernism and his incorporation of many of its principles into his work, and showing that he had been recognized during his lifetime as a modernist.4
Born in St. John's, Newfoundland, in 1857, Prendergast moved with his family to Boston in 1868. Beginning in the early 1890s and until 1914 he traveled several times to Europe. Largely self-taught, he received his most sustained artistic training in Paris in 1891-94 at the Académie Julian and the Académie Colarossi. As early as 1900, when he received a solo exhibition at the esteemed Macbeth Gallery in New York, Prendergast already was using the bold brushwork and luminous color that foreshadowed the watercolors of John Marin.5 More important, however, would be the influence of Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, and the Fauves on the work that emerged after his 1907 Paris sojourn, causing him to heighten the intensity of his color, the freedom of his brushwork, and increasingly to flatten and simplify forms. In the 1910s Prendergast became an active participant in the New York art world, exhibiting his work there nearly every year, joining organizations of artists, and visiting exhibitions such as those of Matisse, Auguste Rodin, and others at Alfred Stieglitz's gallery 291, which had an evident influence on his work.6 Prendergast's membership on the committee that selected work by American artists for the Armory Show, to which he contributed seven of his own works, gives further testimony to the fact that during his lifetime he was recognized by his contemporaries as a leading American modernist artist.7Innis Howe Shoemaker, from Adventures in Modern Art: The Charles K. Williams II Collection (2009), pp. 233-235.
3. Patterson Sims, Maurice B. Prendergast: A Concentration of Works from the Permanent Collection, exh. cat. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1980), p. 4. The other members of The Eight were George Luks, Arthur B. Davies, Ernest Lawson, John Sloan, Robert Henri, Everett Shinn, and William Glackens.
4. Nancy Mowll Mathews, "Maurice Prendergast and the Influence of European Modernism," in Clark, Mathews, and Owens, Maurice Brazil Prendergast, Charles Prendergast, pp. 35-58. In the same publication, Dominic Madormo, "The 'Butterfly' Artist: Maurice Prendergast and His Critics," pp. 59-70, shows that Prendergast's critical fortune also fell victim to misinterpretation in the years following his death.
5. Brown, "Maurice B. Prendergast," p. 20.
6. Nancy Mowll Mathews, "Thoroughly Modern Maurice," in Maurice Prendergast: Paintings of America, exh. cat. (New York: Adelson Galleries, 2003), p. 171.
7. Brown, "Maurice B. Prendergast," p. 15.