Time to Reassess Maurice Prendergast, First Modernist

With the Vuillard retrospective still on view in Montreal and the recent Bonnard exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington still vivid in our memory, this is an auspicious moment for a fresh look at the American painter Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924), whose work is comparable in quality and spirit. Indeed, for museumgoers of my generation in New York, it was in the company of Vuillard and Bonnard that we first glimpsed Prendergast at the Museum of Modern Art.

Back then, in the installation of MoMA’s permanent collection organized by the late Alfred H. Barr, Prendergast’s Acadia (1922) was hung near Vuillard’s Mother and Sister (circa 1893) and Bonnard’s The Breakfast Room (circa 1930-31). This inspired placement effectively removed Prendergast from the uncongenial company of Robert Henri, John Sloan and other realists of the Ashcan School, with whom he’d won attention in 1908 as a member of a group called “The Eight.” For some viewers, anyway, Barr’s installation had the effect of establishing Prendergast as a painter whose work belonged to a very different order of aesthetic experience.

Prendergast had never, of course, been a realist of the Henri persuasion. His own artistic loyalties had been shaped by, among much else, the combined legacies of Cézanne, Puvis de Chavannes and the Nabis group. Yet as far as I’ve been able to discover, Acadia was never again similarly exhibited at MoMA after Barr’s installation of the permanent collection was dismantled.

Given the number of latter-day curators who have displayed either ignorance or indifference in regard to Prendergast’s achievement, I have sometimes wondered if Acadia became the casualty of yet another deaccession blunder at MoMA. Fortunately for us, it has not. And at the moment, this late masterpiece can once again be seen in New York in the exhibition called Maurice Prendergast: Paintings of America , which Warren Adelson has organized at the Adelson Galleries. While the show is not, to be sure, the definitive museum retrospective that Prendergast aficionados, myself among them, have long been awaiting, its survey of some 58 paintings and watercolors is more than sufficient to serve as an introduction for the many people who remain unacquainted with his achievement.

The uninitiated need to be cautioned, however, that Prendergast is not the kind of painter who goes in for what Picasso once described as “the big clash of the cymbals.” As reported by Françoise Gilot in her memoir, Life with Picasso , the artist uttered those words in the course of a tirade in which he denounced Bonnard as “just another neo-Impressionist, a decadent; the end of an old idea, not the beginning of a new one.” Picasso was clearly phobic on the subject of Bonnard-he even arranged for a blistering assault on Bonnard’s reputation to be published in Cahiers d’Art -but he wasn’t stupid. The very terms he used in denouncing Bonnard provide us with a remarkably accurate account of what we now admire in this great painter, and, with certain modifications, it may also illuminate some key elements in Prendergast’s paintings.

“Another thing I hold against Bonnard,” the quotation in Life with Picasso continues, “is the way he fills up the whole picture surface, to form a continuous field, with a kind of imperceptible quivering, touch by touch, centimeter by centimeter, but with a total absence of contrast. There’s never a juxtaposition of black and white, of square and circle, sharp point and curve. It’s an extremely orchestrated surface developed like an organic whole, but you never once get the clash of the cymbals which that kind of strong contrast provides.” What you do get in Prendergast are paintings of extraordinary chromatic invention and subtlety, and paintings that at the same time give us a highly poetic, almost dreamlike account of turn-of-the-century American life.

It has sometimes been claimed that Prendergast was the first American modernist. Be that as it may, he’s certainly one of the greatest, and was recognized as such by an earlier generation of American critics, collectors and connoisseurs of modernist painting-among them, besides Alfred Barr, John Quinn, Albert Barnes, Henry McBride and Duncan Phillips. Here, for example, is a passage from Phillips’ obituary tribute to Prendergast in 1924:

“Prendergast was an unprecedented colorist in that the gamut of colors under his masterly control was apparently boundless. He did not load excessive quantities of pigment, but produced delectable variations of subtle hues. Nor did he obtain these variations at the expense of brilliancy through mixing his tones, but through the interweaving of separate stitches of pure clear color, laying in his designs in a melody of many colors and finishing them with a harmony of superimposed touches, the undertones and overtones mingling. He organized his colors and marshaled their arrangement, but he did this spontaneously, on the inspiration of the moment. The chosen colors recur in precisely the right places on the pattern, and they are all a happy family with special affinities and inseparable association. The end which he had in view as he apparently improvised so lightheartedly with his mosaics in aquarelle, or with his many tubes of perfect pigment on whatever shreds of old canvas happened to be at hand, was to make each decoration a unit of colorful design by making each vividly suggestive little figure in his foreground frieze a functioning part of the complex pattern. This decorative unity is a comparatively simple matter when an artist is content to confine himself to the organization of two or three closely related or effectively contrasted tones; but Prendergast, especially in his latest and best works, achieved a unified tonality which fills our eyes and delights and satisfies our minds and senses with an array of no less than a dozen variously colored spots which he distributed and balanced with positive assurance and blended in exactly the way Nature blends the world’s many colors in the harmonizing element of air. It is the same old principle of the Luminarists, but applied with the emphasis on fantastic decoration rather than on realistic illusion.”

Maurice Prendergast: Paintings of America remains on view at the Adelson Galleries in the Mark Hotel, 25 East 77th Street, through June 20.