The Wall Street Journal looks at an exhibition of Maurice Prendergast’s paintings in Italy. Karen Wilkin takes us through the Williamstown Museum:
Prendergast made his first trip to Italy in 1898, remaining for about 18 months. He had already spent almost four years in Paris, studying at the popular Académie Julian and Académie Colarossi, seeking out new art and absorbing the lessons of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. In Paris, he developed an appetite for the clarity and simplifications of Japanese prints and adopted the broad paint-handling, bright palette and urban subjects that also attracted such young progressives as Bonnard and Vuillard at the time. After his return to Boston in 1899, Prendergast painted New England versions of the themes he addressed in Paris: crowds in public places, in parks and on beaches. His lively images, full of movement and flickering light, transubstantiate keen observations into airy patches of intense, flat color that seem to fuse only momentarily into details of setting, costume and gesture. These characteristics, which would define Prendergast’s approach, intensified in his lustrous watercolors and moody monotypes of Italian subjects.
In Italy, especially in Venice, Prendergast found powerful justification for his syncopated gatherings of evocative marks. The shifting light on the water, the mobile reflections on weathered stucco walls, the multiplicity of windows, shutters and chimneys, the bustling pedestrians and the boat traffic all found their equivalents in staccato touches of luminous hues. When the Italian watercolors and monotypes were shown in Boston and New York, they immediately established Prendergast as a leading vanguardist (and set him apart from other members of “The Eight”—”The Ashcan School”—with whom he was closely associated). That reputation was cemented when he was included in the American section of the 1913 Armory Show, the vast international exhibition that introduced modernism to startled American audiences.
Prendergast returned to Europe twice after his first Italian sojourn. In 1907, he went to France, where he admired the work of Cézanne and Morisot and probably saw the notorious Salon d’Automne where Matisse and the Fauves announced radically new ways of constructing images with saturated color. When Prendergast returned to Italy in 1911, mainly to Venice, he applied what he’d learned in Paris. Despite the considerable changes to La Serenissima since his first visit—which he deplored—he again found stimulus in light-dappled water, humpbacked bridges and crowds, interpreting them through a domesticated Fauvism, less audacious than his French colleagues’ version, but amazingly fresh and vivid.
Keen Eye, Staccato Brush (Wall Street Journal)