Prendergast in Italy

July 18 - September 20, 2009


Gallery guide text for the exhibition by Nancy Mowll Mathews


Prendergast in Italy

In 1898, Maurice Prendergast went to Italy as an up-and-coming artist full of the latest styles from Paris, and he returned the next year with a body of work that made him a star. The art from his two trips to Italy, in 1898- 99 and 1911-12, was inspired by the clash of modernism and modernization, time and timelessness that was unique to that country at the turn of the twentieth century. The Williams College Museum of Art is fortunate to count many extraordinary works from both trips in the collection of approximately four hundred by Maurice and Charles Prendergast that came to the college from Charles Prendergast's widow, Eugénie. Organized in partnership with the Terra Foundation for American Art, which also holds a major Prendergast collection, the exhibition Prendergast in Italy explores the artistic and cultural implications of this great body of work.


Modern Venice, 1898-99

Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924) was raised in a middle class family in Boston and had to scramble to acquire the training necessary to become an artist. He joined a commercial design firm at the age of fourteen and took art classes at night. By his early thirties, he had saved enough money to leave commercial art behind for the heady Parisian world of high art. After working there for four years, he returned to Boston where, in the mid-1890s, he stood out as a master of the Impressionist style depicting the subject of fashionable modern life. But it was his trip to Italy in 1898-99 that brought him national recognition as a modern artist. These works formed the largest part of his first one-artist show in New York in 1900 and opened doors to the most advanced art circles. Prendergast not only became one of The Eight, the progressive artists who exhibited together in 1908, but he was an organizer of the Armory Show in 1913 and continued to be at the center of modern art in the United States until his death in 1924.

Italy attracted artists of all kinds. James McNeill Whistler had brought Venice into the realm of modern art with his pastels and etchings from 1879-80, inspiring American artists to try their hand at the crumbling, picturesque bridges and canals. An offer of travel money from the Boston photographer and modern art patron, Sarah Sears, sent Prendergast back to Europe. Partly inspired by Whistler and partly challenging him, Prendergast sought out the "modern" Venice that most artists tried to ignore.

The result was a group of works in which the monuments of Venice, such as the familiar landmarks of the Piazza San Marco, are faithfully portrayed. But rather than stressing the age of these "stones," as Ruskin called them, Prendergast brings them into the modern day-surrounded by the fashionably dressed tourists and the bright new flags that signal a new era. The war of independence from Austria and the establishment of a unified Italy in the 1860s had brought city states such as Rome and Venice onto the uneasy path of nationalization and modernization. The green, white, and red flags of the Kingdom of Italy were now flying in front of San Marco, pushing aside the old flags of the city state of Venice. With their jarring, bright modern palette, they symbolized the modern political situation in which old identities were altered to suit new realities.

Ironically, the distinctive Venetian festivals, which had their roots in the past, were now the most visible face of Venice at the turn of the twentieth century. Because these festivals had been suppressed during the Austrian occupation, their revival signaled Italian independence and the new unified nation. They also served as a great tourist attraction, adding to the charms of a canal city with few visible signs of modernity as seen in other cities: automobiles, electric and telephone wires, and skyscrapers. Prendergast caught the mixture of historic and modern in these festival scenes. The flags along the streets during the day and the lighted gondolas on the canals at night delighted tourists from all over the world. Venice's emerging cosmopolitan identity included fashionable urban boulevardiers, residents in local costume, and Japanese colored lanterns. Prendergast's mastery of the "heroism of modern life" and his study of Japanese prints gave these historical festivals a freshness that captured the unusual combination of old and new in Venetian life.

Moreover, in 1895, the Venice Biennale was founded, causing tourists to flock to the national pavilions in the Public Gardens every two years to see the latest in international contemporary art. Modern artists like Prendergast split their time between the galleries of the Accademia and the Biennale, learning the secrets of both the Old Masters and the avant garde.


Sightseeing in Italy

In the winter of 1898, Prendergast left Venice for a trip south to the island of Capri, stopping to paint in Siena, Assisi, and Rome. He gravitated toward the signature sites-the arches of Sienese buildings, the grand staircases of Rome, the "Hill of Paradise" of Assisi, and the open piazzas and docks of Capri. Prendergast's depictions featured local costumes and customs more prominently than his cosmopolitan Venetian works did.

Prendergast also created monotypes relating to these Italian compositions. By 1895, he had given his own modern signature to the monotype process, in which printer's ink is painted directly onto a smooth printing surface and carefully transferred onto a sheet of paper. While it is not known whether Prendergast executed these in Italy or afterward, they serve as an experimental tangent to the watercolors-as if they were his own personal souvenirs of Italy.


Second Trip, 1911-12

In 1911, Maurice Prendergast returned to Venice with his brother Charles, who was known for his hand-carved and gilded frames. The probable impetus for the trip was the exhibition of a work by Maurice at the International Exhibition in Rome. After traveling through Italy to Capri and back up to Venice, Charles returned to Boston and Maurice buckled down to create a second series of watercolors of the canal city. In the intervening decade, Prendergast had transformed his own style from the painting of modern life to the radical exploration of pure form that he learned from studying Cézanne, Matisse, and the Fauves. Once again charmed by the graceful architectural forms and the interaction of sea and sky, Prendergast departed from his previous naturalism and applied bolder colors and more fragmented surfaces. That fall, he spent several weeks reading art books while recovering from an illness; the result was a new thoughtfulness about combining older, mythological subjects with his exaggerated palette and form. A work like Horseback Rider (ca. 1912), which heralded a new period in his art, was executed on the back of an unfinished sketch of the canals.


Prendergast at Work

Prendergast arrived in Italy in 1898 with the techniques of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism at his fingertips; he returned to Italy in 1911 after adopting the new vision of modern art proposed by Cézanne and Matisse. During both trips, Prendergast was extremely conscious of his working methods, learning from the Old Masters in the Accademia and the contemporary art in the Venice Biennale. He brought back a number of unfinished works that allow us to see how he combined traditional Venetian color with modernist abstraction. For example, Prendergast's keen eye for abstract structure is visible in the strong horizontal and vertical divisions that will serve as armature for his lively color and brushwork. Also, the color is applied only after marking out the overall design in pencil, starting with strong accents at the focal points. In these works, we can appreciate the deliberation that is not always noticeable in the resulting watercolor. The Prendergast collection of the Williams College Museum of Art includes many such unfinished, preparatory, and archival materials that provide insight into the artist's creative process.

- Nancy Mowll Mathews, Eugénie Prendergast Senior Curator of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Art and Lecturer in Art


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on July 30, 2009, with permission of the Williams College Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on July 29, 2009.

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

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