Maurice Brazil Prendergast was a Post-Impressionist American painter from the turning of the XXI century who worked mostly with oil and watercolor painting, as well as monotype print. Born in 1858, at his family's subarctic trading post in St. John, Newfoundland, a colony in British North America. His father's business failed in 1861, leading his family to move to Boston, where he grew up, at the South End. He was taken as an apprentice by a commercial artist in his youth, which surely influenced his mature work, regarding his brightly colored, flat pattern effects.
Maurice was the oldest child of 5 siblings. One of his brothers, Richard, died by the age of 6, and his twin sister, Lucy, died when he was still young. Maurice and his younger brother, Charles, who would later become a Post-Impressionist painter, had finished their education by the age of 14.
While Prendergast worked at a dry-goods establishment wrapping packages, he manifested his interest in art by sketching subjects such as cattle and landscapes during his free time. During this period, he would attend free art classes during the evenings. He eventually worked lettering show cards for the theater. During his apprenticeship under a local artist, Prendergast was introduced to designs with flat patterns and bright colors, an influence that would crystallize strongly on his later paintings. At the age of twenty-eight, the artist was employed as a card designer. After working in temporary jobs in order to save enough to go to Europe, Prendergast arrived at his intended destination in 1891, Paris.
In the capital of avant-garde art, the artist studied at the Académie Colarossi and the Académie Julian, under the teachings of Gustave Courtois and Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant. The young student worked mainly with models during this period and showed interest in depicting urban life, a common motif among modern artists that tried to embody the movement of capitals in their works. He was part of an 1893 publication called The Studio and had a good reception of his sketches. Still, unfortunately, those submissions were stolen from his studio and submitted under another name. After spending four years in Paris, he then returned to Boston.
In Paris, the artist made acquaintances like the Canadian painter James Morrice, British artists like Walter Sickert and Aubrey Beardsley, and later, Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, which firmly placed him in the Post-Impressionist field. He studied the art of Vincent van Gogh and Georges Seurat as well. Prendergast is regarded as an American artist that understood and utilized an expressive use of form and color like Paul Cézanne.
Cézanne, even though nowadays he is regarded as one of the most important artists from Modernism, he was considered very divisive at his time. Eventually, his contribution was assimilated and expanded upon by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque while they were developing Cubism. Cézanne brought to the center of the pictorial practices the notion of painting not as a window to another world, but as a surface which should be worked upon, harmonized, and then re-worked again as an incessant practice.
Cézanne's influence can be strongly felt in Prendergast's mature work. Not only did the artist have a taste for the depiction of natural scenes, exploring themes similar to Cézanne's masterpiece The Large Bathers, but he also brought his knowledge of design into his production. Not only that, but the American painter's Impressionistic influence enabled him to work with fragmented colorwork and visible brushstrokes dictating the rhythm. The human figure is simplified, and the surface and shapes era emphasized.
Returning to Boston in 1885, Prendergast worked mainly in watercolor and monotype. He established himself in the U.S.A. as an artist by being part of exhibitions in New York, Chicago, and Boston. He also worked as a designer during this time, something other artists of this period did, such as Henri-Toulouse Lautrec, creating illustrations and posters. While Maurice was making his connections in U.S. territory, his brother Charles was helping him by running a shop, making and selling frames. The shop earned them enough money so they wouldn't worry while putting them into contact with individuals related to the art world.
Three years later, he made a trip to Venice, which exposed him to Vittore Carpaccio's genre scenes, encouraging him to experiment with more complex and rhythmic arrangements. This was the propeller to one of his most appreciated work today, his watercolors of Venice. Back in the U.S., he had major exhibitions in 1900, at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Macbeth Galleries, in New York, earning him critical acclaim. He became friends with the painters William Glackens, Robert Henri, and John Sloan, at an exhibition at the National Arts Club, in 1904.
Around 1905 Prendergast started manifesting hearing problems. This would later become a severe situation, resulting in his deafness. The artist tried several different treatments, including leaving painting aside to dedicate himself to outdoor swimming, but this didn't improve his case. By 1907 Prendergast traveled again to Europe, this time finding a radically different art. Around this period, the Post-Impressionists were developing many different ways of dealing with color, trying to approach an almost scientific understanding of it. It is known that Impressionists tried to break down the varying effects of lighting, but painters like Seurat, one of Duchamp's favorites, for instance, radicalized even more this quest.
In 1899, Paul Signac published the manifesto of the Neo-Impressionism movement: From Eugène Delacroix to Neo-Impressionism. This publication was a complete theory of color that pointed to the emphasis of luminance and color relation since Delacroix until then. This perspective affected even a singular artist like Matisse, who would, for some years, adopt Divisionism and Pointillism to then develop the visuality of the Fauves. This was certainly assimilated by Prendergast, who at the time even wrote that he wasn't certain of what exactly would influence him, mesmerized by the variety of treatments found in the exhibitions.
After meeting and exhibiting with three members of the group at the National Arts Club, Prendergast joined George Luks, Everett Shinn, and Arthur B. Davies to create the foundations of the collective The Eight. The group, led by Robert Henri, had a common objective: To not resign themselves to the impositions and restrictive norms of the National Academy of Design. The painters advocated for, just as other Modernist influenced groups around the world, an art that was closer to daily life and less restricted to academicism. The group had their only exhibition at the Macbeth Galleries in 1908.
It is important to note that Prendergast's work was much more vivid and colorful than most of The Eight artists. The group searched for authentic American painting, something that would arguably only happen much later, during Abstract Expressionism. Three of the artists were cartoonists, a factor that made them already work directly with themes of the day to day life. Some of the painters tended for a more Realist and Courbet-like approach. In contrast, others shared the same amusement for the scenes of modernity and cities as Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec, depicting slums, bars, and other mundane ambiances. Others, like William Glackens, shared the more colorful approach that Prendergast had, even though in a different manner. In regards to the public, the exhibition was a success. Critically wise, they were very polarizing, which is expected from a group that was straying away from the norms and had a plural production among them.
Sometime after their exhibition, The Eight grew into another collective, arguably more influential: the Ashcan school. Along with the original painters, the Ashcan school also counted with Edward Hopper, Jerome Myers, George Bellows, Glenn Coleman, and Eugene Higgins. The reformed group had an even more significant emphasis on the contradictions of city life: gritty scenes were the norm, the attempt to portray the routine of the working class, a gestural realism that could counter the fakeness that the Academy was falling into. Even though the group was fundamental in this search for an American identity, they eventually grew to become overly strict and conservative when manifestations of Modernism were not preoccupied anymore with their brand of Realism.
Although his poor health hindered his work, Prendergast continued showing in major exhibitions. One of them was the International Exhibition of Modern Art in 1913, which later became known as the Armory Show. The exhibit featured sculptures and paintings and happened at the 69º Regiment Armory of New York. Arthur B. Davies, who was part of The Eight, became president of the National Academy of Design, which allowed for a selection that favored the most progressive American painters.
To organize the show, Davies spent a year in Europe along with Walter Pach and Walt Kuhn. He favored the most radical art that he found but also included the work of masters as Ingres and Delacroix, side by side with Impressionists, Fauves, Cubists, and Post-Impressionists. It was the first time that the American audience was exposed so strongly to what European artists were producing at the time. The show even included Marcel Duchamp's striking Nude Descending a Staircase, nº 2.
The exhibition had 1,600 works and happened in New York, Chicago, and Boston. The audience consisted of around 300.000 people. Prendergast, showing many examples of his stylistic maturity and being seen in company with the most experimental painters of Fauvism and Post-Impressionism, eventually favored his critical reception.
In 1914, Maurice and Charles Prendergast moved to New York. After his association with The Eight, the painter was now enjoying commercial success, as demands from collectors increased. Prendergast increased his scale during this period and opened himself to classical themes, something that was amiss on this other phase. Fifty at Montross was a show he participated in at the Montross Gallery in 1916. The exhibition also included works by Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Vincent van Gogh, and Georges Seurat.
In 1923, the artist received a high honor: the Corcoran Bronze Medal for a work exhibited in Washington, D.C. Sadly, at this time, he couldn't receive the award since he was suffering from circulation issues and couldn't leave the hospital. Although he already was critically acclaimed, the Metropolitan Museum declined to host a retrospective exhibition on Prendergast's memory after his death, claiming his work was still too advanced and demanding for the Metropolitan's trustees. Maurice Brazil Prendergast died on February 1, 1924, at age 65.