Charles Prendergast: Beauties...of a Quiet Kind

by Nancy Mowll Mathews



In 1911 Charles Prendergast decided to spend the summer in Italy. It had been years since he traveled abroad and the trip signaled a new financial and professional security. Since Charles went without Maurice (who would join him at the end of the summer), he was not merely tagging along on one of his brother's painting trips. From Charles' earliest surviving sketchbook ("Sketchbook D," CR 2409, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) we might postulate that he planned the sojourn as a springboard into the pictorial arts. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that Charles' frames at about this time broke new ground in their use of color (blue, gold, and rose) and of high relief rosettes, birds, and angels' heads. This experimentation with color and naturalistic form in his frames brought him to the threshold of a new medium: the carved pictorial panel.

Italy was a revelation to him; he loved the sensation of stepping into the past. He studied the frames and woodcarving he found in antique shops and those made by local craftsmen, bringing several of them home. He bought photographs of Italian art, architecture, and design to add to the brothers' study collection. And after he returned he began his first panel, Rising Sun, as if to capture the antique spirit so vividly conveyed in the rich Italian artistic tradition. For years afterward, he experimented with overtly Christian subjects, including angels, Madonnas, and other biblical images. While he drew his motifs from a variety of sources once he returned to the United States, his use of the gilded pictorial panel, which allows the viewer a glimpse of an exotic, timeless world, were drawn directly from the churches and museums he had seen in Italy.

Beyond the general notion that Charles Prendergast's 1911 trip to Italy was seminal, very little else is known about the origins, sources, and intentions of these new pictorial panels. He began producing them slowly, at the rate of three or four a year, dividing his days between work on the panels and his frame commissions. The first panels were created in Boston in the large studio he shared with Maurice at 56 Mount Vernon Street. It is not known whether he tried to exhibit them in Boston, or if he considered them more than just a casual departure from his professional frame work. Soon after he and Maurice moved to New York in late 1914, he was engaged to show two of his panels in a group exhibition of paintings, drawings, and sculpture at the Montross Gallery. This led to an increasingly active schedule of exhibiting, selling, and participating in artists' associations. As if to signal his new identity, the American Art Annual's 1915 "Who's Who in Art" lists Charles Prendergast as a painter.

In his first few panels such as Rising Sun, Prendergast attempted a sculpted relief effect that ties his panels to the tradition. of relief sculpture and also suggests a parallel with contemporary works by Paul Gauguin and Raymond Duchamp-Villon. But Charles soon abandoned the high relief of Rising Sun for the use of incised lines, suggesting low relief, as in Egyptian or Mesopotamian mural reliefs. The lower relief and incised panels also relate to sources in two-dimensional media, such as the one source Prendergast himself acknowledged: Chinese and Persian miniatures. Prendergast remembered studying them in the Museum of Fine Arts when he lived in Boston, and was struck by the effect of miniaturization and colorful simplification. The artist indulged his own childlike response to them in recalling the long-ago pleasure: "My, my!...I thought it was wonderful those little animals, those little trees, those little houses, all painted so slick and fine. I couldn't get over them."[3]

Prendergast's sources, in ancient, Oriental, primitive, and medieval art, were not unusual among the artists in the Prendergast circle in New York at that time. While there were no other carved panels in Charles' first exhibition, there were works that drew on some of the same sources. Maurice Sterne, for instance, had just returned to New York after traveling to Egypt, India, Burma, and Bali where he spent two years. In the spirit of Gauguin, Sterne painted large compositions of nude Balinese women in various contemplative poses.

Not surprisingly, the artist closest in style and subject matter to Charles Prendergast was his brother, although that was not always obvious from the works displayed side by side in exhibitions from 1915 onward; in fact Maurice and Charles probably chose works for public exhibition that would stress their differences. However, their studio made clear the many similarities in their work and their shared interest in many of the same ideas and motifs. From 1912 until 1915, they both explored the world of the antique and exotic, the childlike and the primitive. They drew on myriad sources, gleaned from visits to museums and galleries, as well as their avid reading of art books and periodicals. They both drew on these sources to evoke an idyllic world, a golden age that gave pleasure and solace to an audience increasingly burdened with the exigencies of modern life and the approaching world war.

Charles Prendergast, in particular, was drawn to subjects that symbolized fruitfulness, renewal, and rebirth, as in Rising Sun and Annunciation (Williams College Museum of Art). One might speculate that his interest in these themes arose not only from the deteriorating world situation, but also from his own joy in his second career. To be reborn as a figural artist and painter, at the time many of his friends were facing retirement, was a blessing for which he never stopped being grateful.

In 1921, after Charles had been producing panels for almost ten years, the brothers were asked to provide the inaugural exhibition for a new gallery in New York, established by the Frenchman Joseph Brummer. Brummer shared the Prendergasts' interest in mixing modernist and antique art, and he installed their works in a second-floor gallery above an exhibit of Greek, Egyptian, and Gothic pieces. The juxtaposition of old and new worked very well for the Prendergasts, particularly for Charles, whose eight panels were universally admired by critics. Three years later, Maurice Prendergast died, leaving Charles alone in their New York studio and apartment at 50 Washington Square South.

After Maurice's death, Charles' standing in the New York art world seemed to increase rather than decrease. This was partly because he was now the keeper of Maurice's flame, and the numerous. memorial exhibitions and tributes to Maurice in the next ten years required his generous participation. He began to associate not only with artists and dealers, but also with museum directors, curators, and art history writers. As in the past, Maurice's reputation opened doors for him, but Charles established himself on his own. For instance, the Kraushaar Gallery mounted the first memorial exhibition of Maurice's work in 1925, and then became the principal dealer for Charles. The Whitney Museum of American Art held a major retrospective of Maurice Prendergast in 1934, and its director, Juliana Force, became a close friend. Charles also drew closer to Lillie Bliss, an early collector of Maurice's work who then became devoted to Charles' work. He also came into the orbit of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller who not only bought Maurice's paintings for the Museum of Modern Art, but also collected and commissioned works from Charles. Albert Barnes, who had competed with John Quinn for Maurice's paintings, later became a close friend of Charles and a major collector of his work over the years.


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