Early Modern Masters: The Prendergasts At New Britain

Maurice Brazil Prendergast, "Festa del Redentore," ca. 1899, watercolor and pencil on paper, 11” x 17”, Williams College Museum of Art. Photograph by Jim Gipe-Pivot Media and Stephen Petegorsky.

by Kristin Nord

“American Post-Impressionists: Maurice & Charles Prendergast,” now at The New Britain Museum of American Art (NBMAA), serves up a bounteous survey of these two important, early modern masters. More than 100 works — including paintings, sculptures, frames, sketchbooks, photographs, letters and tools — have been drawn from the NBMAA permanent collection and the Prendergast Archive & Study Center at Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown, Mass.

The exhibition begins with Maurice’s early watercolors and a marvelous mosaic, inspired by his encounter with Italy’s Festa Del Redentore (ca. 1898). In just a few years, Maurice would be hailed as a leader of the American avant-garde, while his younger brother, Charles, would be Boston’s top frame maker, sought after by such luminaries at John Singer Sargent and Isabella Stewart Gardner.

The two were born in St. John’s, Newfoundland, but settled as children with their family in Boston’s South End. At the time, the city was a major center for the flourishing American Aesthetic Movement. Bostonians were responding to the writings of English art critic John Ruskin, and had come under the spell of Japonisme, the oriental art craze ignited by the Philadelphia centennial exhibition of 1876. Japonisme’s flat compositional pattern, full colors and decorative line worked well with English industrial design principles being promulgated by a mandatory industrial arts curriculum in the city’s public schools.

Maurice’s abstract patterning as a young commercial designer underscored this early training. In just a few years, as he set off for Paris, and later Italy, with the intent of becoming a serious painter, it became clear that modernity itself would become primary subject matter. But unlike the painters of “The Eight,” known generally as “The Ashcan School,” which focused on urban realism, Maurice would be drawn to the newly fashionable. Soon he was producing paintings of a well-dressed middle class, promenading at the seaside with umbrellas to shield their skin from the sun. Elements from the landscape, whether its high horizons, or its pattern of rocks, or the implied movement of men, women and nature, would become integrated. From brilliant watercolors, such as “Low Tide, Nantasket” (ca.1896-97), he would move on to oil paintings that melded his exposure to Japanese prints, Art Nouveau works and the art of James McNeill Whistler, Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse and the Nabis artists Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard and Maurice Denis. If his work from his first trip to Italy catapulted him to national attention in 1900, his paintings on succeeding trips led to a more formalist style.

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