Colorful Celebrations of Public Life : Notes on Maurice Prendergast
Oct. 10 is the birthday of an American artist whose vibrant paintings can give us a welcome little escape from the stresses of pandemic life.
Paintings done by Maurice Prendergast (1858–1924) often remind me of a scene in the movie “Mary Poppins.” In it, Mary Poppins, Bert and the Banks children jump through a sidewalk chalk drawing into a more colorful and joyous scene.
Prendergast shows us urban parks and plazas and beach scenes painted in a style that often brings to mind stained glass and mosaics.
In his best paintings, there’s a sense of motion. Prendergast gives us places where we’d like to spend an afternoon. Even a rainy day in Venice becomes a marvel.
Prendergast immersed himself in his painting career fairly late in life. Born in Newfoundland, Canada, he moved with his family around age 10 to Boston. He worked in a dry-goods store and graphic design as a young man, saving money for travels abroad.
Prendgergast was about 33 by the time he made it to Paris in 1891. There he studied at the Académie Julian, which also was the training ground for some of the painters who called themselves the Nabis, borrowing a Hebrew term for prophet.
Like the Nabis painter Pierre Bonnard, Prendergast would embraced warm and vibrant colors in his work. Prendergast also seem aligned with painter J.M. Whistler’s devotion to art for art sake. Prendgergast remained in France until 1894 when he returned to Boston.
With the financial backing of Sarah Choate Sears, a collector and artist herself, Prendergast traveled in Italy in 1898 and 1899. The art of Venice made a strong impression on him. He took inspiration from the city’s Byzantine inheritance of glorious mosaics.
A return trip to Paris around 1907 sparked Prendergast’s interest in the works of Paul Cézanne. The painting below shows the influence of that painter, but still maintains Prendergast’s personal stamp.
The colors of the fruit almost vibrate off the canvas. The fruit looks as if it is waiting expectantly to be swept into a basket for one of the many picnic scenes you can spot in Prendergast’s work.
Gritty Urban Realist?
Descriptions of Prendergast’s career often highlight his participation in a 1908 show of work by a group known as the Eight.
Led by painter Robert Henri, the Eight also included included Everett Shinn, John Sloan, Arthur B. Davies, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, and William J. Glackens. Working together, these painters helped established one of the main currents in 20th-century painting in the United States, according to the authors of particularly nicely written entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica. (There is a link at the end of this essay to my bibliography on American artists, including details on sources used in this essay.)
“The group’s determination to bring art into closer touch with everyday life greatly influenced the course of American art,” the authors of the Encyclopedia Britannica wrote.
That’s certainly a broad description of the work of the Eight that well suits Prendergast. True, he celebrated the emerging leisure class, but there are few if any gods or grandees in his work. We see prosperous American families enjoying free time together.
But several members of the Eight would become affiliated with what’s called the Ashcan School of painting. Careless descriptions sometimes sweep Prendergast into this group as well.
The Ashcan School, which would also include George Bellows, a student of Henri’s, focused on how the poor adapted to life in growing cities.
Here’s how the Wikipedia entry for the Ashcan School describes the Eight’s pivotal show. It says New York City’s Macbeth Gallery “gained notoriety in 1908 when it put on an exhibition protesting the restrictive policies and conservative tastes of the existing art establishment in New York, exemplified by the National Academy of Design.”
“The exhibition showcased the work of eight artists who were known for portraying gritty scenes of daily life, especially of poorer communities in New York: Robert Henri, William Glackens, George Luks, Everett Shinn, John Sloan, Arthur Bowen Davies, Ernest Lawson, and Maurice Prendergast,” the Wikipedia entry reads.
Below are two examples of Ashcan School paintings.
I’d argue it make more sense to play up Prendergast’s role with an even more important American art exhibition, and extricate him from overly broad descriptions of the Ashcan School. After all, he’s not really a painter of “gritty” scenes. But Prendergast served on the selection committee for what’s known as the Armory Show.
“On Feb. 17, 1913, an art exhibition opened in New York City that shocked the country, changed our perception of beauty and had a profound effect on artists and collectors,” Tom Vitale of National Public Radio said in a retrospective on the 100th anniversary of the Armory Show.
Officially titled the International Exhibition of Modern Art, the show was held in a National Guard Armory and thus gained its more popular name. It introduced Americans to painters such as Henri Matisse. Many of the viewers and critics, though, focused on another work in the show, Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase (1912).
Duchamp’s work now is seen as a masterpiece, breaking down the motions of a person descending a staircase in basic shapes in a style known as Cubism. But the work shocked critics at the time, who deplored it as “an explosion in a shingle factory.”
Prendergast’s work received the same rough treatment from critics at the 1913 show, notes an essay posted on the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s website.
“Not surprisingly, Prendergast’s brilliantly unorthodox offerings were decried as resembling ’an explosion in a paint factory,’…suggesting either a failure of critical imagination or a case of collegial plagiarism,” says an essay, attributed to Emery Battis, written for the exhibition American Impressionism: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
“Who can now pass a playground teeming with brightly dressed children or wander through a public park where the varicolored garb of its occupants does not call to mind the stirring images Maurice Prendergast has left us?” the essay adds.
Among the works Prendergast exhibited at the 1913 show was “Landscape with Figures, 1910–12,” shown below.
I’d bet that this painting comes alive for those who get a chance to stand before it. But I confess that this work as seen online doesn’t impress me much.
That’s been the case with many of the images I considered for this essay. I rejected many photos of Prendergast paintings. Even paintings I have very much liked when I saw them “in the paint” on visits to museums looked blah as images on the web.
You need to stand before Prendergast’s paintings and take them in to fully appreciate them. Then they come alive with all of the fine qualities that collector Albert C. Barnes (1872–1951), who created the Barnes Foundation, describes well in his book, “The Art of Painting.” Writing on Prendergast, Barnes notes “the freshness of his resplendent color and the vigor of his rugged pigment — qualities which give to his best pictures, sometimes, the glowing vitality of the great mosaics and, at other times, the charm and delicacy of the finest of early tapestries and frescoes.”
“Few painters ever had as fine a feeling for pure color, both in its direct sensuous quality and in the possible variety of its uses,” Barnes wrote about Prendergast’s skill. “It is rich, juicy, glowing, alive, and harmonious.”