Maurice Prendergast 1858 – 1924

Maurice Prendergast, was an American Post-Impressionist artist who worked in oil, watercolour, and monotype. He exhibited as a member of The Eight, though the delicacy of his compositions and mosaic-like beauty of his style differed from the artistic intentions and philosophy of the group.

Maurice Prendergast and his twin sister, Lucy, were born at their family’s subarctic trading post in the city of St. John’s, in Newfoundland, then a colony in British North America. After the trading post failed, the family moved to Boston. He grew up in the South End and was apprenticed as a youth to a commercial artist. This conditioned him from the start to the brightly coloured, flat patterning effects that characterized his mature work. He was also inspired by the example of Boston Impressionist Childe Hassam.

Prendergast studied in Paris from 1891 to 1895, at the Académie Colarossi with Gustave Courtois and Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant and at the Académie Julian. During one of his early stays in Paris, he met the Canadian painter James Morrice, who introduced him to English avant-garde artists Walter Sickert and Aubrey Beardsley, all ardent admirers of James McNeill Whistler. A further acquaintance with Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard placed him firmly in the Post-Impressionist camp. He also studied the work of Vincent van Gogh and Georges Seurat at retrospectives held in Paris in 1891 and 1892. Prendergast was additionally one of the first Americans to espouse the work of Paul Cézanne and to understand and utilize his expressive use of form and colour.

Prendergast returned to Boston in 1895 and worked mainly in watercolour and mono-typing. A trip to Venice in 1898 exposed him to the genre scenes of Vittore Carpaccio and encouraged him to experiment with even more complex and rhythmic arrangements. His inventive watercolours of Venice are among his most appreciated works today.

Prendergast exhibited at the Macbeth Galleries in 1908 with the short-lived association of artists known as “The Eight” because he supported their protest against the academic bias and restrictive exhibition policies of the powerful, conservative National Academy of Design. He believed in a “no jury, no prizes” openness that would allow independent or unconventional artists greater opportunities to find a wider, appreciative audience for their work. This controversial exhibition, which acquired legendary status in American art history, is seen as a seminal moment in the public response to Ashcan realism, as that form of gritty urban representational art was the style practiced by five of the participants (Henri, Sloan, Luks, Shinn, and Glackens), but Prendergast has nothing in common, in style or content, with that school of painting.

Prendergast was far more a Modernist than any of the other seven members of The Eight. His ties to The Eight did not necessarily help his reputation in the long run. He developed early in his career and continued throughout his life to elaborate a highly personal style, with boldly contrasting, jewel-like colours, and flattened, pattern-like forms rhythmically arranged on a canvas. Forms were radically simplified and presented in flat areas of bright, unmodulated colour. His paintings have been aptly described as tapestry-like or resembling mosaics.

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