Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924) was one of the most sophisticated and individual American painters of the early 20th century. Son of a St. John's, Newfoundland grocer, the family moved to Boston (USA) in 1868 when his father's business failed, and Maurice was enrolled in public school. After graduation in 1872 he worked as a dry goods clerk while attending the Free Evening Drawing School, then found employment lettering show cards and posters. He also produced several artworks with his younger brother Charles Prendergast (1863-1934), who would be his lifelong companion and collaborator. At the urging of local patrons impressed by their talent, the brothers journeyed to England and Wales in 1886-87; both made a second trip to Paris in 1891 where they studied at the Colarossi studio. His brother returned to Boston to start business as a woodworker; Maurice enrolled at the Académie Julian and remained in France until 1894. During this sojourn he produced many monotypes and watercolors, and became familiar with the Post-Impressionists, Japanese art, and members of The Nabis, such as Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) — all influences that emphasized a flat visual design marked by expressive use of color and bold visual patterns. Upon his return to Boston, he began work as a commerical illustrator, and during 1895-97 mounted well received watercolor exhibitions in Boston, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (Philadelphia), the Chicago Art Institute and the New York Water Color Club. In summer, 1898 he quit work as an illustrator and made his first trip to Italy, where he remained for 16 months, working primarily in Venice. Shortly after his return, he took up residence with the brother Charles in Winchester (MS), and continued painting and exhibiting; subsequent to a show of his Italian watercolors in New York, museums in Chicago, Detroit and Cincinnati began exhibiting his works as well. In 1903 he and Charles moved to a studio in Boston, where Maurice earned a living by helping his brother carve wooden frames. By 1904 he was exhibiting with Robert Henri, William Glackens, Arthur B. Davies, and other members of "The Eight" or "The Ashcan" painters. In 1907 he returned again to France, and was deeply impressed by the summer exhibition of watercolors by Paul Cézanne and other paintings at the Salon d'Automne. He joined in the inaugural exhibition of The Eight in 1908, but Prendergast's work was seen as quaint and out of place. Though burdened by encroaching deafness and a decline in favor among Boston patrons, Maurice continued to paint and improve his reputation through exhibitions and personal acquaintances in New York. In 1911 he made yet another trip to Italy, this time with Charles; the trip was cut short when Maurice fell ill and required an operation for prostate cancer. He was elected to the Association of American Painters and Sculptors in 1912 and served on the selection committees for the Armory Show of 1913, where he also exhibited several paintings. The following year he made his final trip to France, touring Normandy and Brittany; on his return he and Charles moved to New York City. In 1915 he exhibited 50 works at the Carroll Galleries, New York, and soon made the first of many sales to modern art collectors such as Albert Barnes, John Quinn and Duncan Phillips. He continued to paint, receive professional honors and participate in artistic institutions up until his death in New York, at age 66.

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Prendergast's surviving watercolors do not show a laborious progress toward a mature style; they almost begin with the best — the many marvelous paintings he made of Venice, just after he had quit work as an illustrator and had embarked in earnest on his artistic career. This trip was entirely subsidized by the wealthy Boston collector and photographer Sarah Choate Sears, and Prendergast produced dozens of paintings that are considered to be the height of his achievement. Piazza del San Marco (1898, 41x38cm) is atypical for its long distance view of public clusters of people, but the visual joy in the three enormous Venetian triumphal banners, painted in vermilion and chromium oxide green, is irresistible. The view is toward the base of the Campanile (bell tower), and outward toward the column of St. Theodore and the lagoon; the people are shown at a much greater distance than is typical for Prendergast, but the group and scatter (including a man feeding a flock of pidgeons) is placed with his usual subtle and intuitive skill. The flags, the interlocking blocks of architecture and shadow, and the crowd of people moving to and from the gondolier docks, form three compositional elements that Prendergast weaves into an exquisite balance. The image is knit together with overlapping brushstrokes and wash fields of color, a method unusual for Prendergast at this stage, but this fluent style and the hasty indication of the small forms suggest the exhilarated inspiration in which the painting was created. I imagine that it was painted out of doors in a spate of concentration.

An example of Prendergast's seashore studies of women and children, attired in white frock dresses and carrying colorful parasols, would be more characteristic of his subjects and style, but these are too commonly reproduced. Instead, I'll offer West Church, Boston (1901, 28x39cm), one of three pairs of watercolors Prendergast painted of this building, a relic of old Boston that was reopened in 1894 as a local branch of the Boston Library. The former church minister, who commissioned the paintings, was displeased with this version because too little of the facade is visible; but the boxlike space of the painting emphasizes the flat pattern on the picture plane, and allows Prendergast to focus on the little girls and their attending adults who frolic in the public space. The lawn, brick walk, facade and autumnal trees are all blocked first with a pristine wash of ochre or sienna, then textured with single touches of darker paint, spaced just enough to reveal the lighter color underneath. These warm colors contrast to the intense ultramarine blue of the church doors. The figures are cannily distributed to suggest the natural flow of public crowds, provide visual interest, and insert specific color accents (such as the small girl in the vermilion dress at center); these groupings are played against the crisp vertical accents of the iron fence, tree trunks, and sprightly fountain. Close up, the entire surface dissolves into separate, carefully placed single touches of the brush, separated by a web of white or tinted cracks; yet from a distance all these touches cohere into a perfectly judged plane of value and color. It is astonishing how much control of value and color temperature Prendergast could achieve with separate touches of the brush. He knew enough to test his mixtures first, and stir them often as he worked: unlike today's watercolorists, who are just taught to glaze many layers of paint until they finally get the color and value they want.

Toward the end of his life, Prendergast's painting technique became looser, more schematic and less virtuosic; the brushstrokes are drier, longer and less evenly spaced, showing more of the paper's texture; colors are more likely to bleed into one another when brushstrokes overlap, producing wet in wet color mixtures; there is more drawing with the brush, outlining or texturing large areas rather than covering the painting surface with an even tiling of small strokes; and several areas appear unfinished, or are outlined with ink and pen. As Carolyn Troyen points out, this direct, unfinished, almost calligraphic style was probably influential on young modernists such as Georgia O'Keeffe and Arthur Dove. At the same time, Prendergast often returned in his late works to the seashore themes of his early years. Long Beach (1920-23, 39x57cm) is probably a middle class resort beach near Glouchester, Massachusetts. For all its apparent looseness, the painting is carefully planned, based on several surviving sketchbook studies. Unfortunately, Prendergast's works fell out of fashion soon after his death, and seemed tentative against the bolder experiments of younger generations. But his emphasis on watercolors, his cosmopolitan experience, technical sophistication and individualistic experiments in visual design made him an important bridge between 19th and 20th century, and European and American, artistic trends. Across a century's span of years, his paintings still impress and charm with their delicious color, beautiful craft, and celebration of social relaxations within the tranquil blessings of nature.

The standard reference is Maurice Prendergast by Richard J. Wattenmaker (Harry N Abrams, 1994). Interesting additional reproductions and commentary appear in Awash In Color: Homer, Sargent and the Great American Watercolor by Sue Welsh Reed & Carolyn Troyen (Bulfinch Press, 1993).