Maurice Prendergast was one of America’s most original painters. His works, although labeled Impressionist, have both a European and American sensibility, but are unlike the works of other artists of his time.
Prendergast was, during much of his lifetime, a painter’s painter. It wasn’t until around the start of World War 1, about 1914, that art collectors and critics began to understand and appreciate his unique style and magnificent use of color.
In 1858, when Maurice Prendergast and his twin sister, Lucy, were born, the family lived in the city of St. John’s in Newfoundland. The family business, a trading post, did poorly, prompting the family to move to the South End of Boston. Prendergast’s brother, Charles was born in 1863. Charles, who was a fine artist and woodworker, was also more outgoing and social than his shy older brother, and became a supportive and stabilizing force throughout Prendergast’s life.
Prendergast left school at age fourteen and apprenticed in a shop, where he had the opportunity to practice commercial art. In 1886, the brothers worked their way to England on a cattle boat. They returned to Boston to save money for a return trip to Europe.
In 1891, they went back to Paris, where they studied at the Academie Colarossi and the Academie Julian. Prendergast was influenced by the works of Paul Cezanne, and one was of the first Americans to appreciate the bold way in which Cezanne used color and composition.
Prendergast returned to Boston in 1895. By then, he had an extraordinary mastery of the use of watercolor. He used dots of color to create patterns and shapes and used brushstrokes to outline the forms in his work.
Charles painted, but his main focus was woodworking. His work, done in the Arts and Crafts style, was so exquisite, that his hand carved picture frames were in demand by many artists, including John Singer Sargent.
Prendergast’s career began to take off after a two year stay in Venice, where he was inspired to intensify his use of color. He returned to the U.S. in 1900, had major exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago and at the Macbeth Galleries in New York.
As his reputation grew, Prendergast came into contact with more and more American painters of his generation. In 1908 he was invited to exhibit with The Eight, the group of Ashcan Painters who depicted realistic, every day life on the streets of New York. Prendergast’s work depicted people on the streets and he agreed with their philosophy of allowing artists to break out of the expectations of the American art establishment, but his work was very different than theirs and his association with The Eight was short-lived, though he did form a life-long friendship with William Glackens.
Prendergast was an American original, who could not be categorized. When he showed his work at the historic Armory Show in 1913, along with works by Cezanne, Matisse, Van Gogh and others, it was clear that Prendergast had created a style all his own, unlike any of the American painters that had come before him.
After his death, in 1924, The Met decided not to host a retrospective, believing his work was too avant-garde for museum patrons to understand. In 2015, The Met held an exhibition of Prendergast’s early works, from a sketchbook donated by his brother Charles’ widow.
The Legacy of Maurice Prendergast
Much of Prendergast’s works are in museums and private collections, including The Met, the Phillips Collection, The Smithsonian and the Williams College Museum of Art, which houses the Prendergast Archive and Study Center.
Maurice Prendergast at Surovek Gallery
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