Picnic by the Inlet
Although he had worked with oil paint since the earliest days of his career, after the turn of the century Maurice Prendergast turned his attention to the medium with new enthusiasm and ambition. The subjects of his oils paralleled those of his watercolors: adults and children promenading and playing in parks, along harbors, and at seashores. During the first decade of the twentieth century he tended to paint small-to-medium sized panels that were only rarely bigger than his largest watercolors. Around 1910 he began working on canvas and on a greater scale. His subject matter became more and more reductive, gradually crystallizing into compositions that consisted of figures in the foreground, trees in the middleground, and a body of water (perhaps flanked by hills) in the distance. Incidental details were greatly simplified or omitted altogether. For Prendergast, subject had now become merely the template upon which he could construct paintings of formal sophistication.
During the early years of the twentieth century a fertile and challenging mix of artistic influences was available to any artist with an open mind and discerning eyes, particularly if they could see at firsthand what was happening in Paris. Prendergast visited Paris in 1907 and in 1914, and his drawn and written observations indicate that he saw and pondered a great deal.1 He studied the works of Cézanne, especially his watercolors; the neoimpressionist paintings of Paul Signac, Henri Edmond Cross, and others; and the controversial canvases of Matisse and other fauve painters he saw at the 1907 Salon d'Automne.2 In Paris Prendergast witnessed the extraordinary aesthetic fermentation that would, in the work of Picasso, Braque, Matisse, and others, lead to a wholesale revision of the very nature of painting. As Prendergast sensed, he would need to take stock of all this after he had returned home.
In 1914 Prendergast moved to New York, and over the last decade of his life he created his most formally complex and ambitious oils. He rarely dated his works, making it difficult to establish a certain chronology, but his efforts culminated in a series of monumental, almost totemic, paintings from about 1918 onward, of which Picnic by the Inlet is a prime example. Though in many ways similar to works of just a few years earlier, it more obviously asserts its reality as paint on a flat surface. The figures loom larger than they did earlier, filling more of the composition and rising higher in it, so that they overlap the background sky. Spatial recession is forcibly denied by brushwork that is unmodulated and equally vigorous all over the surface of the canvas. Forms overlap unpredictably, blurring the distinctions between near and far space. Prendergast's interlocking and overlapping mosaic of richly textured pigment creates a vibrant and shimmering surface, but the tightly controlled composition locks forms securely in space and prevents their disintegration. Picnic by the Inlet, like Matisse's great essay on a similar theme, Luxe, calme et volupté, is at once wonderfully animated and yet solemnly still, fusing the immediacy of perception with the permanence of rigorously controlled structure.
Curator of American and British paintings
1. See Nancy Mowll Matthews, "Maurice Prendergast and the Influence of European Modernism," in Carol Clark, Nancy Mowll Matthews, and Gwendolyn Owens, Maurice Brazil Prendergast and Charles Prendergast: A Catalogue Raisonné (Munich, 1990), 35 - 45.
2. Dianne H. Pilgrim, American Impressionist and Realist Paintings and Drawings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Howowitz [exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art] (New York, 1973), 106, dates Prendergast's exposure to Signac to a trip to France of 1909 - 1910, but he was not abroad that year.