Charles Prendergast: Beauties...of a Quiet Kind

by Nancy Mowll Mathews

 



 

In the early months of 1946, after a period of ill health, Charles and Eugenie took a winter vacation in Florida, where he rejoined old artist-friends and was once more inspired to work. Driving around Winter Park and the small towns nearby, he zealously took to his sketchbook to record local scenes. The result was a series of eighteen watercolor sketches that he painted at that time, and four gesso panels that he executed when he returned to his studio in Westport, Connecticut, and on a subsequent trip to Florida the following winter. This group of works, including Florida Grove, continued his folk-art style of the later 1930s, but was strongly influenced by Haitian folk art. Prendergast borrowed the Haitian artists' strong coloring and active gestures to paint the African-American workers in the orange groves of central Florida. He felt that these workers were of more artistic interest than the whites: ''The men dress in such a manly way-in real, pure colors. And what material for a sculptor, especially their faces, men and women both! The colors of the women's clothes are wonderful. I got all excited over those Negroes. I even got excited by their roosters."[6]

After exhibiting the Florida art series at another one-person exhibition at Kraushaar in the spring of 1947, Prendergast's health declined to the extent that he was no longer able to work. he died on August 20, 1948, at the age of eighty-five. Although Charles never achieved the standing among American artists that his brother enjoyed, he had the good fortune to have attained success in two careers. And, to have begun his work as a pictorial artist at the age one is now considered a senior citizen, and to have maintained it for over thirty-five years, was an extraordinary accomplishment. Furthermore, he had the rare pleasure of receiving major tributes in the form of exhibitions and glowing publications until his very last years. He did not live to see his work go out of style, because he had long ago bowed out of stylish, avant-garde circles and was content to address his work to a small circle of educated laymen. To a large extent, his reputation has been preserved by subsequent generations of this circle. But, with the increasing fragility of his aging gesso panels, frequent exhibitions (as he had in the last years of his life) have become impossible, and his admirers have therefore become an even smaller elite.

Charles Prendergast was an artist who chose his directions carefully, so that his own skills and interests would be used to best advantage. As the brother of Maurice Prendergast, he had a guaranteed audience among the most influential dealers, collectors, and museum directors, and so he could afford to be quiet when other artists resorted to being loud. In the end, he used his talent and his circumstances well; he produced an art that exerts an undeniable charm, that is unusually original, and that has the power to last through the generations, celebrating as it does the cycle of rebirth and renewal.

 

Notes

1 Hamilton Basso, "Profiles: A Glimpse of Heaven-II (Charles Prendergast)," The New Yorker 22 (August 3, 1946), p. 29.

2 Charles Prendergast, "Revival of Wood-Carving," House Beautiful 26 (August 1909), p. 70.

3 Hamilton Basso, "Profiles: A Glimpse of Heaven-I [Charles Prendergast]," The New Yorker 22 (July 27, 1946), p. 25.

4 Suzanne Lafollette, Art in America (New York, Harper & Brothers, 1929), p. 312.

5 Lewis Mumford, ''The Art Galleries," The New Yorker 11 no. 38 (November 2, 1935), p. 69.

6 Basso, "Profiles: A Glimpse of Heaven-1," p. 28.

 

© 1993 Williams College Museum of Art

 

About the author

Nancy Mowll Mathews is Eugenie Prendergast Senior Curator of 19th and 20th Century Art and Lecturer in Art at Williams College Museum of Art

 

Resource Library editor's note:

The above 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

If you have questions or comments regarding the article please contact the Williams College Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Suzanne Augugliaro of the Williams College Museum of Art for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

This article was also previously published in American Art Review, Volume V, Number 6, Winter 1994.

 

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