Prendergast in Italy

July 18 - September 20, 2009


Wall text for the exhibition



Italy, the land of the past, seemed an unlikely destination for an American artist who specialized in the styles and subjects of the present. But at the turn of the twentieth century, Italy grappled with the political and cultural changes that made it emblematic of the worldwide clash of the old and the new. Prendergast's experiences there challenged his assumptions about art, inspiring him to produce his greatest body of work and the basis for his future experimentation with modern styles.

In this exhibition, the range of watercolors and monotypes from his first trip (1898-99) as well as watercolors and pastels from his second trip (1911-12) have been brought together for the first time since they left Prendergast's hands. This exhibition is organized by the Williams College Museum of Art in partnership with the Terra Foundation for American Art. Terra Foundation for American Art is the lead sponsor with additional funding from the Eugénie Prendergast Endowment. The exhibition was curated by Nancy Mowll Mathews and Elizabeth Kennedy of those respective institutions.



By the time Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924) went to Italy, he had been a practicing artist for almost twenty-six years. Beginning his career in commercial art at the age of fourteen, he had made the leap into fine art with an extensive study trip to Paris. Soon after his return in 1894, he was recognized as one of Boston's most progressive artists and secured funding for his first trip to Italy in 1898. His work was based on French Impressionism, but like most American artists, he also studied Whistler's atmospheric style, particularly in preparation for Venice.

In 1900, after a year and a half in Italy, Prendergast exhibited the Italian works in New York, and the positive reception cemented his standing in the American modern art community. However, he still kept an eye on developments in Paris. After spending about six months abroad in 1907, he adopted the increasingly abstract styles of Cézanne, Matisse, and the Fauves. He applied this new approach to the watercolors of his second trip to Venice in 1911 and continued to experiment with combinations of old and new in the monumental oils painted during the last decade of his career.



Venice was Prendergast's primary destination in 1898 and again in 1911. By the 1890s, it had become the cultural capital of modern Italy, attracting modern artists as well as tourists and expatriates, especially from the United States, Great Britain, and Germany. Bostonian art patrons such as Isabella Stewart Gardner and Mr. and Mrs. Daniel Curtis hosted American salons in Venice; and writers like William Dean Howells and Henry James wrote vividly of the city they knew intimately. Prendergast's trip was funded by the modernist artist and patron, Sarah Choate Sears, allowing him some distance from the more traditional Boston circles, but still in the embrace of artistic Venice. On his first trip, he chose a variety of motifs, from the familiar sights in and around San Marco to hidden corners of canals that are still difficult to identify with certainty. On the second trip, he concentrated mainly on bridges, including the famous Rialto Bridge, and many sites on the Dorsoduro, across the Grand Canal from San Marco.



In most of his views of the piazza, Prendergast features the three grand flags that fly in front of the church of San Marco. While these green, white, and red abstract shapes play an extraordinary role in the composition, their importance to the modernity of the watercolors does not end there. They also signify the new identity of Venice as part of the unified Kingdom of Italy and show the Italian tricolor with the crest of the House of Savoy in the center, a motif that was removed from the flag after World War II. For the proud Venetians, the flag of Italy aroused mixed emotions. On the one hand, it displaced the flag of Venice that had flown in front of San Marco for five hundred years in favor of a state flag ruled from the new capital of Rome, Venice's ancient enemy. On the other hand, it signaled the new prosperity of Venice as the official port of Italy after a century of humiliating poverty. Because the flags were only hoisted on Sundays and holidays, the festive qualities of the bright banners perhaps overshadowed the uncomfortable political message. But in their very ambiguity, Prendergast uses them to bring the old "stones" of Venice unmistakably into the present day.



When Venice was liberated from Austrian rule and joined unified Italy in 1866, the old festivals and religious processions were revived. The city had always celebrated religious and civic holidays interchangeably, and each parish had its own church and family ceremonies. To this day, it is difficult to not to see a procession of some sort on the streets or canals. When Prendergast was there, the festivals had emerged as one of the top tourist attractions of Venice and had become even more theatrical. Many commentators noted the lack of local participants in the nightly musicales on the Grand Canal. Prendergast, skilled at depicting the urban crowds in Paris and Boston, noted the processional character of the Venetian crowds, combining the banners and festive dress of the participants with the observers. Tourists, flowing through the city on sight-seeing pilgrimages, created a new version of that old Venetian tradition.



Venice offered Prendergast not only a spectacle of colorful effects throughout the canal city but galleries full of Old Venetian Masters whose fame rested on their mastery of color. As a color specialist himself, Prendergast spent about a year studying the art and the motifs that he found there. In a city of 150 canals and 378 bridges, he had ample opportunity to craft the reflections, boats, pedestrians, flags, and palazzi into compositions of pure form and color. As Henry James wrote in 1882 "I simply see a narrow canal in the heart of the city, -- a patch of green water and a surface of pink wall." The modern emphasis on color to evoke "ordinary" Venice was also felt to be a continuation of Old Master technique. Prendergast especially admired the Renaissance artist Carpaccio, whose works were featured in Venice's Accademia, for his ability to use jewel-like colors to depict the Venice of his day.



Maurice Prendergast returned to Italy in 1911 with his brother Charles, who was a well-known maker of hand-carved and gilded frames. The impetus for the trip was the inclusion of a painting of Prendergast's in the International Art Exhibition in Rome that year. Arriving in Venice in the fall, Maurice settled down to paint the canals and bridges once again. Although illness prevented him from creating as extensive a body of work as on the first trip, he nevertheless managed to produce about twenty-five watercolors. The watercolors, sometimes heightened with pastel, show the influence of Cézanne and the Fauves, which had transformed Prendergast's work after 1907.

They also show twentieth-century Venice, in that Italy had lost much of its romanticism in the intervening decade. Not only had tours to Italy become increasingly available to middle-class Americans, but Italians had become the most numerous immigrants to the United States, making Italian culture much less exotic to Americans. In his 1911 work, Prendergast celebrated the shapes and colors of Venice but gave less emphasis to the people in their now ordinary dress and activities.

Although the second Venetian series did not have the impact of the first, it reinforced Prendergast's place in the modernist circles of New York, where transgressive art was increasingly valued. As one critic wrote in the New York Times when these watercolors were exhibited in 1912, "They are like a cluster of red-cheeked hoydens bursting into a mid-Victorian assembly of anemic ladies."



When the cold dampness muffled Venice in December of 1898, Prendergast headed south to paint in the rest of Italy. He stopped in Padua, Florence, Siena, Orvieto, Assisi, and Rome on his way to and from the island of Capri, where he recovered from the intense period of study and painting of the previous fall. By the beginning of the summer, he was back in Venice, where he stayed until his departure for home in December of 1899. Although he probably sketched in all of the cities he visited, we can now only identify finished works from Siena, Assisi, Rome, and Capri.

As in Venice, Prendergast was on the lookout for the recognizable motif of each of these places. Traditional boats, flags, and special articles of dress (such as shawls) marked each location and can be seen carefully depicted in Prendergast's compositions. Oddly missing, however, are the flags of the Kingdom of Italy, which evoked the uneasy political situation of modern Venice. Perhaps Prendergast was not as interested in the "modern" situation in the rest of Italy. On this trip he may have been content to leave modern effects to his art and enjoy the subjects of the picturesque past as much as any tourist.



Producing over 200 monotypes in less than a decade, Prendergast can be considered the only American painter of the time to fully integrate the monotype into his total artistic production. Approximately 150 Prendergast monotypes survive, presumably all executed between 1891 and 1902 -- the earliest and latest dates inscribed in his colored prints, as he preferred to call them. The exhibition history of Prendergast's monotypes indicates that he regarded them as serious and fully independent works of art.

Sixteen of Prendergast's monotypes are linked to his first Italian trip either by the title of the work, which he inscribed on the plate, or by the subject matter. Despite their small number, these monotypes are critical to exploring the complexities of the artist's entire monotype production because of their experimental nature. The muted colors and expressionistic style of the Italian monotypes vary considerably from his meticulously detailed and high-key Italian watercolors. These monotypes display some of his most innovative and diverse aesthetic techniques.


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