BRUNSWICK, MAINE — What is it about the sea that appeals to so many of us? For an answer, new Bowdoin College Museum of Art co-director Frank Goodyear cites the first chapter of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. There, Ishmael, Melville’s protagonist, muses about the lure of the sea: “[In Manhattan], right and left, the streets take you waterward….[T]he Battery is washed by waves, and cooled by breezes….Look at the crowds of water-gazers there….Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries….[A]s everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded forever.”
One of our most gifted artists, Maurice Prendergast’s fascination with late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century seaside scenes is showcased in a gorgeous exhibition, “Maurice Prendergast: By the Sea,” on view at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art through October 13. Comprising more than 90 works drawn from 30 public and private collections, it traces the artist’s evolving interpretations of popular enjoyment of seashores, particularly along the coasts of New England and France.
The exhibition is the first to open under the leadership of the museum’s co-directors, Frank H. Goodyear III and Anne Collins Goodyear, who joined Bowdoin College on June 1. “It is an honor to begin our time at the BCMA with this important retrospective of … Prendergast, whose visionary and trailblazing work drew inspiration from this very region,” observes Frank Goodyear.
“No artist captured the holiday atmosphere of New England coast better than Maurice Prendergast,” says exhibition co-curator Nancy Mowll Mathews, former senior curator at Williams College Museum of Art and preeminent authority on Prendergast. Her co-curator, Joachim Homann, the museum’s curator, adds that “the scope and complexity of the works…[assembled in] ‘By the Sea’ illustrate how Prendergast transformed the visual reality of seaside resorts and coastal villages into an imagined, Arcadian vision all his own.”
Born in Newfoundland, raised in Boston, where he launched his career, and finally based in New York City, Prendergast (1858–1924), worked primarily in watercolor, with some works in oil and monotypes. His brightly colored, flat patterned, rhythmic Post-Impressionist compositions were influenced by training in Paris and extensive travels in Italy. As coastal scenes of leisure became his major subject, he also spent time in Normandy and Maine.
Prendergast’s focus on seaside leisure encouraged him to create modern, experimental works that avoided anecdotal subjects in favor of formal innovation. The exhibition sheds light on the artist’s creative process by including a sampling of his rarely seen oil studies (showing liberation of his color sense) and sketch books (offering glimpses into extensive preparations for his compositions and highlighting the spontaneity and playfulness of his oeuvre).
Unlike Winslow Homer, painting around the same time in Prouts Neck, Maine, Prendergast “was not interested in timelessness or making the grand statement,” says Mathews. Prendergast’s agenda was “about the moment, the here and now, the modern moment.”
Consistent with his concept that modern art should reflect modern times, Prendergast joined throngs that frequented New England resort towns and beaches between the 1890s and 1920s. Intrigued with manifestations of modern life at ease, his brilliant, animated watercolors and vibrantly colored paintings offer jewel-like glimpses into this age of leisure travel and activity. Under his brush, beaches, particularly in New England, became ideal venues for a young and prospering American society to celebrate its democratic values in communion with nature.
Starting in 1894, his first year as a professional artist, Prendergast began visiting piers and beaches around Boston, filling his sketchbooks with studies of men, women and children reveling at the shore. For three decades he depicted multiple, usually faceless figures by the sea, chronicling the culture of leisure that flourished on both sides of the Atlantic.
Prendergast’s earliest works were often associated with specific places — Cohasset, Nahant, Nantasket Beach, Revere Beach and Salem. Prendergast hit his stride in the late 1890s with the colorful “Stony Beach, Ogunquit,” in which the rocky shoreline is punctuated with white dresses, red parasols and a greenish, boulder-strewn beach backed by an open stretch of water and a pier and boats.
As Homann points out, the “younger Prendergast delighted in sketching ruffled dresses,” as in his color-filled “South Boston Pier,” depicting young and old strolling along that local landmark. His style was constantly evolving, however; in later years he depicted female figures in the nude, although he remained, above all, intrigued by seaside crowds.
The artist’s interest in new leisure activities is suggested by an early watercolor, “The Balloon,” showing a colorful crowd watching a hot-air balloon take off.
During a sojourn in Paris in 1907, Prendergast absorbed details of Paul Cezanne’s powerful style and his predilection for repeated subjects, like Mont Sainte-Victoire. “Cezanne is my God,” Prendergast once declared. In addition, according to Nancy Mathews, “From Matisse and the Fauves he learned that color could be liberated from visual reality to have an emotional or symbolic meaning all its own.” She adds that when he experimented with these new ideas, they “exploded into the extraordinary oils and watercolors of the St Malo shoreline,” like the vigorous, colorful watercolor “St Malo,” circa 1907.
Particularly notable are two absolutely brilliant watercolors, “On the Beach, St Malo” and “St Malo, No. 2,” which showcase Prendergast’s adroit use of vibrant colors to suggest beach lovers in the foreground, looking out to the ocean, land and skies beyond. The jewel-like profusion of colors seem to leap off the paper at viewers, leaving an indelible impression.
There are numerous paintings of Maine, some created during an extensive stay with fellow artist Carl Gordon Cutler in Brooksville. They include color-filled evocations of a lake in autumn, coastal villages and beach scenes with gaily garbed women clambering among seaside boulders. The Maine works tend to share stylistic similarities with his scintillating St Malo works, and underscore his close study of Paul Cezanne’s oeuvre. A standout is an oil, “Lake in Maine,” in which Prendergast applied an especially rich palette to convey the ambience of a lake ringed by trees in glorious autumnal colors.
In addition to painting New England coastal villages, Prendergast depicted in expressive gray tones “Boston Harbor,” with tugs, sailboats and sailing vessels jostling for space on turbulent water. By the time he painted “The East River,” 1901, Prendergast had created a series of New York City scenes that resonated with the gritty pictures of Robert Henri and the Ashcan School. Although he did not pursue raw themes of city life, he participated in the famous exhibit of “The Eight” at Macbeth Gallery in 1908.
Following his final sojourns in France, Prendergast began to incorporate Cezanne-esque nude bathers into his New England beach scenes. Like Cezanne, Prendergast’s nudes tend to look awkward, their nakedness somehow incongruous with rocky shorelines. “Bathing” and “Beach Scene, Maine” are populated by faceless, nude women in and out of water and on rocky shorelines. Critics and art collectors questioned these exotic additions to his images. As his friend and fellow painter Charles Hovey Pepper wrote to William Macbeth of Macbeth Gallery, Prendergast “is shocking good old Boston with a picture of ladies bathing in the garb of nature by a very dangerous craggy shore.”
In his exhibition catalog essay, Philadelphia Museum of Art curator Joseph Rishel makes a strong case for the influence of Pierre-Auguste Renoir on Prendergast’s work, especially “where nude bathers abound.” There are striking similarities.
Prendergast used many elements of Cezanne’s style — astute connoisseur Walter Pach said, “Cezanne’s lessons were evident in every stroke he makes” — but adjusted them to blend with his Old Master instincts in brighter colors and more freely brushed forms and shapes, especially evident in a series of still-lifes with apples.
Sometimes Prendergast created friezelike compositions like “Along the Shore,” about which art historian Richard J. Wattenmaker observes, “The procession of figures is interwoven with three donkeys and riders, and the whole broad ensemble is fixed in a colorful frieze by the varied strokes that make up the sea.”
“Change had always been a positive attribute of Prendergast’s art,” posits Mathews, “but in late canvases such as ‘Sunset and Fog’ one senses an elegiac tone, as if he was praising a way of life that was now in the past.” Indeed, the faceless figures, woman on horseback, purple-sailed boats and bright red sun, give this circa 1918–23 oil a nostalgic feel.
Wattenmaker, noting Prendergast’s ability to create “complex symphonies of sparkling color mixtures in unorthodox juxtapositions,” calls him “one of the greatest innovators of American art….” Critic and friend Forbes Watson’s obituary noted Prendergast’s “unique” position in our art, suggesting that he “was a man who cannot be replaced.”
A respected, admired and popular artist, Prendergast participated in pivotal exhibitions of Modern art, notably the show of The Eight at Macbeth Gallery in New York in 1908 and the Armory Show of 1913. He attracted a large following of avant-garde collectors early on, and his work continues to be sought after today. Exhibitions of his art have attracted large audiences since the 1890s, and his works are represented in most major collections of Twentieth Century American art.
By imaginatively capturing the sunlight, color and joy of beach scenes years ago, Prendergast left for posterity enduringly appealing, indeed beautiful, records of people at leisure. This splendid exhibition does full justice to the unique seaside art of Maurice Prendergast. Melville’s Ishmael would be impressed.
The 176-page catalog, fully illustrated and with perceptive chapters by Prendergast scholars, is published by DelMonico Books-Prestel and the Bowdoin Museum.
The Bowdoin Museum is on the college campus at 245 Maine Street. For additional information, 207-725-3275 or www.bowdoin.edu/art-museum.