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Exhibition of pioneering Modernist Maurice Prendergast opens at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art
St. Malo, No. 2, ca. 1907–1910, watercolor, graphite and crayon. Columbus Museum of Art, Gift of Ferdinand Howald.

BRUNSWICK, ME.- An exhibition at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art explores for the first time Maurice Prendergast’s lifelong fascination with the seaside in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The first retrospective of Prendergast’s work in over two decades, Maurice Prendergast: By the Sea is on view through October 13, 2013 and showcases a selection of more than 90 works in a variety of media, all of which were inspired by popular summer enjoyment of the seashore. Tracing the artist’s deepening interpretations of his favorite subject, the retrospective exhibition features works from more than thirty public and private collections and foregrounds Prendergast’s experimental style and leading role in the development of early American modernism. The installation spans five galleries, each painted differently to support the artist’s famous jewel-like colors, allowing visitors to dive into Prendergast’s fantastical world.

“No artist captured the holiday atmosphere of the New England coast better than Maurice Prendergast,” explains the exhibition’s co-curator Nancy Mowll Mathews, the former Eugénie Prendergast Senior Curator at the Williams College Museum of Art and co-author of the Prendergast catalogue raisonné. “Through the scope and complexity of the works that we are bringing together, Maurice Prendergast: By the Sea illustrates how Prendergast transformed the visible reality of seaside resorts and coastal villages into an imagined, Arcadian vision all his own,” adds co-curator Joachim Homann, Curator of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

The focus on the theme of seaside leisure allowed Prendergast to create works of modern and experimental character shunning anecdotal subject matter in favor of formal innovation. The exhibition sheds light on the artist’s creative process by including a selection of Prendergast’s rarely seen sketchbooks and oil studies. The sketchbooks provide visitors with an uncommon perspective on Prendergast’s extensive preparation of his compositions, highlighting his spontaneity and playfulness. In his oil sketches Prendergast heightened the sensual experience of beaches by liberating color.

Maurice Prendergast: By the Sea is the first exhibition to open under the leadership of the Museum’s new co-directors, Frank H. Goodyear III and Anne Collins Goodyear, who joined Bowdoin College on June 1. “It is an honor to begin our time at the BCMA with this important retrospective of Maurice Prendergast, whose visionary and trailblazing work drew inspiration from this very region,” noted Frank Goodyear. “Like Edward Hopper’s Maine (2011) and William Wegman: Hello Nature (2012), which explored the pleasures of summer through the eyes of insightful and rigorous artists, Maurice Prendergast: By the Sea continues to advance a fundamental part of the Museum’s mission to organize ambitious and accessible exhibitions that generate new scholarship and appeal to audiences both regionally and nationally,” said Anne Goodyear.

Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924) was one of the hordes of visitors who frequented New England beaches and resort towns between the 1890s and the 1920s. Prendergast was fascinated with modern life when it was most at ease, and his brilliant watercolors, animated oil sketches, and richly colored paintings provide insight into this age of leisure travel. Through his work, Prendergast articulated the promises of a society in “pursuit of happiness,” painting the public beaches of New England as the ideal venue for young and prosperous American society to celebrate its democratic values in communion with nature.

Among the highlights of the exhibition is a 1901 watercolor The Balloon, which is in a private collection and has not been included in earlier Prendergast retrospectives. The Balloon depicts a busy crowd watching a hot air balloon take-off and epitomizes Prendergast’s fascination with the new leisure activities that dominated the nation’s seashores. Another highlight is St. Malo, a vibrant watercolor created by Prendergast during his 1907 trip to France. On loan from the Williams College Museum of Art, St. Malo and its companion pieces were heralded as one of the first American introductions of the bold coloristic styles of the European Post-Impressionist avant-garde. With The Promenade, ca. 1913 a modernist masterpiece from the Whitney Museum of Art, Prendergast responded to the paintings by Cézanne, Matisse, and others who reinterpreted the tradition of Arcadian landscapes in daring compositions. His seven contributions to the International Exhibition of Modern Art of 1913, the so-called Armory Show that brought together cutting-edge art from both sides of the Atlantic, appeared very European and experimental in color and paint surface.

Prendergast was a cosmopolitan artist who trained in Paris and took every opportunity to travel to France, England, and Italy. Consequently, the sources of inspiration for his art were diverse and reached from the early Italian Renaissance to the French avant-garde. His ability to respond with a stream of innovations to art he revered earned Prendergast admirers among his peers. In the exhibition, a group of paintings by John Sloan (1871-1951), William Glackens (1870-1938), and Maurice Prendergast’s brother Charles (1863-1948) will represent the artist’s American cohort, while oils by Frenchmen Eugène Boudin (1824-1898) and Maurice Denis (1870-1943) will provide the European context for his work. The installation of works by Prendergast’s American and European peers throughout the exhibition will further demonstrate Prendergast’s commitment to modernism and experimentation.

Maurice Prendergast: By the Sea features a number of works from the BCMA’s own collection in addition to loans from over thirty American private and museum collections, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Phillips Collection, and the Addison Gallery, among others. The Williams College Museum of Art, home of the Prendergast Archive and Study Center, is the principal lender.

Maurice Prendergast (American, 1858-1924) was born in Newfoundland and grew up in Boston. He worked mainly in watercolor and monotypes, as well as in oil. His Post-Impressionist style—bright colors, flat patterning and rhythmic compositions—was influenced by an early apprenticeship to a commercial artist, studies in Paris and an extended journey through Italy. Sojourns in Normandy and Maine were also significant, as coastal scenes of leisure became his primary subject. Prendergast took part in pivotal exhibitions of modern art, including the exhibition of The Eight at Macbeth Gallery in 1908 and the 1913 Armory Show. His work was successful with early collectors of modern art in America and continues to be highly sought after today. Prendergast’s watercolors and paintings are represented in most major collections of American twentieth-century art. Exhibitions of his art have been popular with American audiences ever since the 1890s.

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