Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924) was by far the most progressive and inspired of The Eight, the group of American artists known for careful observation, direct painting, and unabashed love of the American subject. The Eight only showed together once, but the talent on hand was extraordinary—Robert Henri, John Sloan, and Prendergast, most notably, but also Arthur Davies, William Glackens, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, and Everett Shinn. Yet Prendergast goes without due regard. The Whitney Museum of American Art mounted a Prendergast retrospective in 1990. Since then, a handful of exhibitions of somewhat limited scope have appeared, including one at the Metropolitan Museum in 2000 of its own holdings, but opportunities to study his work in depth have been few. Thus the lovely show at the Williams College Museum of Art, focusing on Prendergast's two Italian sojourns, is cause for joy. WCMA's resources regarding this subject are incomparable. The museum has its own Prendergast Archive and Study Center and employs a co-author of his catalogue raisonné. This exhibition emphasizes Prendergast's watercolors executed on site in Venice but also includes pictures from Rome, Siena, and elsewhere, and a suite of fine monotypes of Italian subjects that he may have made back in America.
Venice had already become a hackneyed subject by the time Prendergast made his first voyage there in 1898. A host of lesser artists had turned Venetian scenes into a professional specialty, and critics had largely despaired of ever seeing a fresh one again. A critic writing about one such specialist for The New York Times noted that the only change from his exhibition the year before was that
the artist had transferred his signature from the left to the right. Prendergast thus accomplished a feat by surprising them with his 1899 exhibition at Macbeth Gallery in New York City, which permanently elevated his reputation beyond the confines of his Boston origins. The panoply of hues that went into his watercolors awed even their detractors. Prendergast used a device that one can see in other watercolors of the time, in which a few blobs stand in for a tiny figure, but he applied it to bigger forms. Scaled up, the pools of color glow with distinct personality, yet they retain remarkable faithfulness to their subjects, thanks to the precision of Prendergast's line. In 1898 or '99 he painted a study of the Ponte della Paglia in sharp perspective. One can recognize it with ease, even as a parade of fancy, parasol-wielding tourists, rendered like a cloud of balloons, marches over it to and fro. A style that took root while painting the Boston masterworks of Frederick Law Olmsted bloomed in Venice, fed by the Mediterranean light and the most picturesque urban setting on the globe. No one ever again painted such a luscious rendition of the Basilica di San Marco, freshly doused with rain, glinting in its Byzantine glory, and sporting the Tricolore of the new republic.
Whereas The Eight all seized developments in European modernism, only Prendergast went in for the full embrace. Even while marveling at Carpaccio and Tintoretto, Prendergast studied all the new developments in painting on view at the third Venice Biennale in 1899. Between his first trip to Italy and his second, he encountered Matisse's work. At nearly fifty, he became an American Fauve, and began scalloping his forms in a bold line. As in a mosaic, these lines hold together an array of flickering colors. He had tried his hand at mosaic on his first Italy trip, of which the only example is in the Williams College show. Modeled after a watercolor of a nighttime festa on the Grand Canal, this delightful reinterpretation in glass and ceramic tiles is preternaturally abstract.
By the time Prendergast returned to Italy in 1911, the century had overtaken Venice. Coal-powered factories had sprung up on the Giudecca and new tourists crowded the city. He fell ill, convalesced, and thereafter longed for gardens, trees, and the company of his brother, Charles. But he pressed on, tackling unfamiliar neighborhoods, armed with a new technique that embedded structure into his images where there had been only bubbles of color. A brush loaded with ultramarine took over from the pencil, knocking forms apart with almost Cubist sensibility. White paper shone throughout. In one particularly striking view of the Ponte Rialto, he drew gondoliers with the elegance of handwritten Chinese, set the center of the bridge at the far left of the picture, and let them all but disappear into the gleaming boulevard along the bank and the cerulean Canal Grande below. Prendergast returned from this trip triumphant. William Glackens, writing in 1913, called him
consistently and thoroughly modern. And indeed, he produced an inimitable style, loaded not only with every artistic advance that he could reasonably adapt, but with unsurpassable charm.