Charles Prendergast: Beauties...of a Quiet Kind

by Nancy Mowll Mathews



From the time of Maurice's death until about 1932, Charles' art followed a number of disparate directions. One was the familiar route of the fantasy panels that he had begun in the teens (Fairy Story, Donkey Rider, and Bathers Under the Trees). Another was the revival of his interest in the decorative arts, particularly in making carved and painted chests and small boxes that evoked both Italian Renaissance cassone and American folk crafts (Box). He also created a number of painted and gilded pictorial compositions on glass such as Decoration on Glass. Finally, he painted a series of watercolors of the hill towns along the southern coast of France during two trips he made with his new wife, Eugenie, in 1927 and 1929.

The hill towns, as seen in watercolors and panels such as Holiday Beach Scene, were not only a new subject for Prendergast, but also signaled a new phase in his art. Critics no longer praised his skill in the evocation of antique or medieval art, instead they spoke of him as if he were an antique or medieval artist. As Suzanne Lafollette, author of Art in America, put it "a true primitive."[4] Prendergast's earlier panels, with their rich allusions to the art of other cultures, were obviously the product of a learned and clever craftsman. His work, from the late 1920s onward, reduced the number of art historical allusions and stressed instead the artist's own "naive" vision. The distortion of anatomy and natural forms, the flattening of perspective, and the use of simplified outlines could no longer be attributed to a study of this or that exotic art form, but seemed to be the creation of the artist himself. Later, in the thirties, Prendergast would marry this approach to scenes of everyday American life and become an identifiable American folk artist, but in the late twenties and early thirties he applied the style to a number of subjects in what he described as his "transition" period.

Prendergast's new naive or primitive style paralleled the growth of interest among artists and collectors in American folk art at this time. Interest turned to passion for such collectors as Juliana Force and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who would later found her own museum of American folk art in Williamsburg, Virginia.

In the 1930s, Charles Prendergast found a secure niche in the New York art world; and in 1935, at the age of seventy-two, he was given his first one-person exhibition. This exhibition came on the heels of the major retrospective showing of Maurice's work at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1934. No doubt the renewed appreciation of his brother, ten years after his death, brought new attention to Charles as well. When the Kraushaar Gallery arranged an exhibition of his work, Charles took the opportunity to show the range of pieces he had created over the years. He included such works from the teens as The Riders and brought the viewer up to-date with his most recent works such as Holiday Beach Scene. He also included at least two paintings on glass and one painted screen to represent his continuing interest in decorative arts.

The exhibition was well received and led to later exhibitions at Kraushaar in 1937 and 1941, as well as a joint exhibition with Maurice's work at the Addison Gallery of American Art in 1938. Charles no longer held a place in New York avant-garde circles, nor could he be called "famous" -- even to the degree that his good friend William Glackens continued to be -- but he was well-respected by the artistic community. Furthermore, he was dearly loved by the educated and refined audience of magazines such as The New Yorker, in which Lewis Mumford rhapsodized that "each of these pictures is a fresh glimpse of Heaven." [5]

After the 1935 exhibition at Kraushaar, Prendergast increasingly concentrated on the American scene, particularly parks, country fairs, horse and boat races, and special days in small-town life. Now, when he painted animals, as in Circus and Polo Players, he placed them in familiar settings like circuses, zoos, or local parks, rather than in exotic forests or prancing in front of medieval castles. He joined the growing ranks of the so-called American folk artists of the 1930s, including Grandma Moses, Florine Stettheimer, and Horace Pippin. This naive style was encouraged and supported by high art collectors and museums, particularly the Whitney. American folk artists of this period were generally thought of as having had no academic training, a criterion that Charles technically met. But like many others, Prendergast brought his considerable knowledge and experience to a style that only appears to be naive, lifting the simple technique to a higher, more sophisticated level of expression.


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