Sunday in the park with Maurice

THE century had just turned. It was to be the century that would see New York City emerge as the art center of the United States - replacing Boston and Philadelphia. Among those to initiate this change was Maurice Brazil Prendergast, who, with his brother, Charles, had recently moved from Boston. Robert Henri was to bring with him from Philadelphia a vital group including John Sloan, George B. Luks, William Glackens, and Everett Shinn. These, through their work and independent exhibitions, had an energizing effect on American art that has continued ever since. Prendergast liked to paint people at parks and other recreational settings. Unlike his friends of the ``Ashcan School,'' he rarely painted drab scenes of urban existence. It is not surprising that, on arrival in New York, he would be so charmed by Central Park that he painted a series of watercolors there. Brightly clad women and girls flutter up and down the huge staircase that connects the mall with the boating lake, accompanied by more soberly suited men. Or, in our scene, citizens ride, walk and sit - all with an air of quiet enjoyment - along one of the park's many roadways.

The artist enclosed the lively movement of his elegantly painted horses and carriages between two static bands - the stately trees in the background and the bench-sitters in the foreground. The bands share a monochromatic coloring. One expects the trees to be in varied shades of green. But the foreground band is subtly colored so that the front grass, the gray cement sidewalk under the benches, and the green-painted wooden slats echo those muted background shades. The hats and parasols of the seated parkgoers join the bright colors of the center band to further emphasize the lively, colorful motion of the bay and chestnut horses, red parasols and carriage wheels, and blue riding dresses.

All this is painted in a loose, undetailed, but virtuoso style. Maurice Prendergast had studied in Paris, where he was influenced by Manet and Whistler. Unlike some of the other painters arriving in New York, he had the opportunity to see a great many Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings firsthand. He is credited with being the first American painter to appreciate C'ezanne. What seems here to be a literal transcript of a sunny park promenade actually contains innovative examinations of the luminist and transitory observations of the Impressionists; the compact form and expressive color of the Post-Impressionists combined with a characteristically American regard for a familiar context. All media in art have their special demands on the artist, but none, except direct fresco painting, is as tyrannical as pure watercolor. The artist must get his color and his drawing right the first time. Repainting is hazardous. Colors usually can only be darkened or deepened. Even then retouching may show up badly.

The Prendergast brothers were born in Newfoundland and grew up in Boston, where Maurice studied art. He went abroad in his 20s. After studying in Paris, he sojourned in Venice, where he did other beautiful watercolors.

About 10 years after his return to Boston, he and Charles moved to New York City. Charles was a cabinetmaker of imaginative, highly finished work. While the great support that Vincent van Gogh received from his brother, Theo, is well known, it was by no means the only example of brotherly love. Charles Prendergast made handsome frames for Maurice's paintings. And it is more than likely that his craftsmanship supported the household during the lean years of a painter at the beginning of his career. A similar, more recent example is that of Diego Giacometti, who cast the sculpture of his more famous brother, Albert.

Charles Prendergast seems to have had the warmer personality of the two brothers; the son of William Glackens, writing about his father and fellow artists in New York, remembers Charles showing him his woodworking in an atelier redolent with rabbit glue.

Maurice Prendergast was quietly absorbed in his art. His later oil paintings intensify the broken surfaces and the colors until they resemble vivid mosaics reflecting, perhaps, his interest in the considerations of both Pointillists and Fauves. Always less traditional than his friends from Philadelphia, his paintings move easily toward the Abstract Expressionism of the third quarter of our century although he himself experienced only the first quarter.

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