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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Maurice Prendergast

The Grove, 1915, Maurice Prendergast,
possibly the painting fought over by collectors
Most of us consider ourselves lucky when we sell a painting, though of course "luck" is only part of the equation and we could debate forever how big a part it might be. Imagine yourself in the enviable position, however, of having two noted collectors fighting over one of your paintings. WE WISH!  That was the case in 1915 when Maurice Prendergast exhibited sixty-one oils and watercolors at a big show in New York. It was a welcomed recovery from his disastrous participation in the historic and controversial Fifty-ninth Street Armory Show just the year before, which he'd helped organize. For all his efforts he'd sold absolutely nothing. The show did make headlines however, but most were negative. Despite this, some work by other artists did sell, and the show served to introduce American's, with a cold splash in the face, to Modern Art. Prendergast jokingly attributed his own poor showing to "...too much OMIGOD art."

The Tuileries Gardens, Paris, 1895,
Maurice Prendergast

Prendergast was born in St.Johns, Newfoundland, in 1859, but grew up in the progressive public schools of Boston where he studied mechanical drawing and grew adept at sign painting. For a time he worked as a display card artist before he and his brother, Charles, earned enough money to work their way across the Atlantic aboard a cattle boat. Then for three years in France, they absorbed Impressionism and Post-Impressionism (in all its various manifestations). Maurice was especially impressed by Cezanne and Seurat, developing a style of "dappled" painting largely free of the many passing "isms" he saw infect the careers of some of his artist-friends, causing them to rise meteorically and fall just as fast once something newer came along. It was in Paris, often painting in the parks or on the street, that he developed his love for painting large crowds, employing vertical and horizontal compositional patterns of color applied very thickly, often wet over dry to create a mottled texture.

Central Park, 1908-10, Maurice Prendergast
Back in New York, Prendergast discovered Central Park. His 1908-10 painting bearing that name is a delightful exposition of color subjugating illusion, making Prendergast, for a time, one of the most progressive painters in this country; so much so that inevitably, one critic dubbed his work, " explosion in a paint factory." It was probably the same critic who had commented that Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase looked like " explosion in a shingle factory." (So much for journalistic originality.) In New York, the dapper Prendergast brothers collaborated, Maurice painting the pictures, Charles framing them. Though allied with Robert Henri and the Group of Eight, Prendergast's east coast crowd scenes enjoying their leisure were much more closely aligned with the middle and upper-class subject matter of William Glackens and Stuart Davies than the Social Realism of Henri's Ashcan school. His work serves as an important bridge between traditional American Academic painting (which he detested) and the European Avant-garde which he helped introduce to the American public. One might even dub him the "American Cezanne."

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