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Maurice Brazil Prendergast

Born: 1858, St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada
Died: 1924, New York, New York, United States of America
Gender: Male

Biography

In the decades around the turn of the twentieth century, Maurice Brazil Prendergast experimented with the boundary between representation and abstraction in paintings that celebrate the vibrancy of modern leisure and urban life in flat patterned arrangements of jewel-like color. Prendergast was born in Saint John's, Newfoundland, but moved with his family to Boston when he was ten. He worked in a dry-goods store and subsequently as a graphic designer. In 1886 he began sketching scenery on a visit to Wales in the company of his younger brother Charles Prendergast, a fellow artist and designer with whom he enjoyed a lifetime's close relationship. Maurice was already over thirty when in 1891 the brothers together began studying in Paris at the popular Académie Julian and Académie Colarossi. With his friend James Wilson Morrice, he was attracted to James McNeill Whistler's promotion of pure design over narrative content. He also admired the intimate contemporary scenes painted in patterns of spotted color by the French avant-garde artists known as Les Nabis ("the prophets").

On his return to Boston in 1894 Prendergast began creating scintillating watercolor images of busy urban parks and beaches, did book illustrations, and continued the practice he had begun in Paris of making monotypes. Exhibited locally, his watercolors soon established Prendergast as an innovative interpreter of modern life. During an eighteen-month stay in Italy in 1898–99, he was inspired both by his surroundings and by the pageantry represented in Renaissance art to portray the colorful crowds and architecture of Venice and other cities, using divided strokes of pure watercolor that captured the sparkling effects of light and movement. These works were well received when exhibited in New York and in Chicago.

In the 1910s Prendergast began to paint on a large scale, using oils in a more expressive manner that reflects the influence of French post-impressionist artists, notably Paul Cézanne (1839–1906), which he absorbed on a 1907 visit to France. The following year he exhibited with the iconoclastic realist artists known as The Eight at New York's Macbeth Galleries, and in 1913 he helped organize and contributed work to the groundbreaking exhibition of European and American modernist art known as the Armory Show. Prendergast turned increasingly to the traditional theme of nude figures within the landscape, inspired by Asian and folk art but interpreted in an abstract, decorative manner. Finding few buyers for these modernist works—with the notable exception of collector John Quinn—he relied financially on Charles, now a successful frame designer and maker.

In 1914, the artist revisited Paris and also worked in the seaside resort of St. Malo, whose crowded beach inspired a new series of watercolors. That year, he and Charles finally moved to New York City. Prendergast painted on the New England coast during summers, but his oils and watercolors increasingly reflected a dream-like space, with objective form yielding to tapestries of intense pure color. After 1920, his work met with renewed appreciation, and just before his death he was awarded the Corcoran Bronze Medal by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
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