Editor's note: The following article was reprinted, without accompanying illustrations, in Resource Library on April 3, 2006 with the permission of the Williams College Museum of Art. This text was written in conjunction with an exhibition titled Beauties...of a Quiet Kind; The Art of Charles Prendergast from the Collections of the Williams College Museum of Art & Mrs. Charles Prendergast held in 1993 at the Williams College Museum of Art

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Charles Prendergast: Beauties...of a Quiet Kind

by Nancy Mowll Mathews

 



 

Charles Prendergast (1863-1948), younger brother of the American modernist painter Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924), produced just over one hundred finished pictorial works. Based as they were on ancient motifs and contemporary folk art subjects, these painted and carved objects have so few parallels in the art of Prendergast's time that they stand outside the established history of American art and have earned their creator a small, but very passionate, following among connoisseurs and art historians. His works will probably always be the province of the very few because, by their very nature, they are fragile and precious, beautiful to look at and elusive in meaning. But when examined carefully, they reveal a rich world of wit and symbol that is unexpectedly universal in its appeal.

Prendergast's works are exceptional also because they constitute a second career for the artist who first rose to prominence as a craftsman and framemaker. It is more common for the the artist to begin his career as a painter and then later turn to the decorative arts, as did Louis Comfort Tiffany and John LaFarge. But Charles Prendergast established himself as a premier American framemaker by the age of forty-five and then began his career as a fine artist (painter and sculptor) when he was in his fifties.

Baptized Charles James Prendergast in the Roman Catholic Basilica of John the Baptist in St. Johns, Newfoundland, the artist was the youngest of six children born to Maurice and Malvina Germaine Prendergast. The family was solidly middle or uppermiddle class; his father was the owner of a general store and his mother the daughter of a Boston physician. Of Charles' five brothers and sisters, only the two eldest, Maurice and his twin sister Lucy, survived childhood, and only Maurice survived with Charles into adulthood. The family business failed, and the Prendergasts moved to Boston when Charles was four years old. Both Charles and Maurice had developed refined tastes as children, were known to be facile with drawing pencils, and gravitated to artistic circles when they left school. Maurice found his way into a commercial art firm and by age twenty-one was a professional designer.

Charles, by his own admission, was less directed than Maurice. He became an errand boy for the art gallery Doll & Richards when he was in his teens, but he left to make two voyages to England as a deck-hand on a cattle boat. When he returned to Boston in 1887 he recalled working for another (unnamed) art gallery and was listed for the first time in the Boston City Directory as "clerk." In 1890 he shipped out again, this time to Paris with Maurice where the brothers began taking art classes. Maurice, although now in his thirties, applied himself to the art student regimen, studying at the well-known academies of Colarossi and Julian. Charles, a handsome young man in his late twenties, was less dedicated to his studies and soon returned to Boston.

Charles may have been discouraged from pursuing a fine arts career after seeing the high level of work produced in the classes in Paris and seeing his brother's career quickly take off in that competitive atmosphere. Unlike Maurice, he had not developed his early talent in drawing by working in the commercial arts, and instead had gained more experience in the business side of the fine arts. By 1892 Charles had become a partner in a firm that produced decorative wooden moldings, especially for fireplace mantels. He may have joined the firm as a salesman, since his experience lay in that field, but by the time his brother returned from Paris in 1894, Charles had gravitated toward the manufacturing side, gaining experience in all aspects of the carving of decorative wood objects.

The change in Maurice's life after four years in Paris inevitably caused a change in his brother's life as well. Maurice moved back into the family home, which now consisted only of Charles and their father (their mother died in 1883). Maurice had entered the world of high art -- his pictures were now on view at Charles' former employer, Doll & Richards -- and his friends were the artists whose work Charles had handled and sold. In comparison, Charles' woodwork business seemed unbearably mundane and, as he told his biographer, he slipped into a depression: ''I was so damn miserable, so damn unhappy, so damn aggravated, that I plain got sick of having myself around."[l]

Maurice and his painter friends ultimately suggested a solution to Charles' dilemma. They needed frames, particularly frames made by someone "artistic;" someone who understood the effect they were trying to achieve in their paintings and who had the skill and the creativity to carve a frame that would enhance that effect. Maurice's new artist-friends, such as Hermann Dudley Murphy and Sarah Choate Sears, were also independently wealthy and could afford handmade frames for their own works and the works of the other artists they collected. The art world in Boston, with its aristocratic make-up and its emphasis on refined taste, was perfect for an artist-framemaker. As Prendergast put it, ''Wood-carving is a beautiful art, and it requires a refined taste to appreciate it. Its beauties are all of a quiet kind."[2]


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