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Laura Napolitano, “Maurice Prendergast/Landscape with Figures/1921,” American Paintings, 1900–1945, NGA Online Editions, (accessed August 11, 2022).

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Aug 09, 2018 Version

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Landscape with Figures depicts a crowded scene of brightly dressed men, women, and children socializing in a park along a rocky shoreline. The flattened figures outlined in black and described by colorful, textured brushwork are arranged in a rhythmic, frieze-like composition across a shallow foreground. The horizontal band of the park and people, like the registers of water and sky above, is punctuated by the verticals of the trees. The view is further animated by the overall patterning accented by repeating circles of heads, bodies, hats, parasols, and the setting sun visible through a break in the tree canopy. The painting exemplifies Maurice Prendergast’s works from the final decade of his life, when he almost exclusively created large-scale, highly stylized views of figures at leisure in generalized Boston waterfront park settings. Despite its joyful, decorative, almost mosaic-like appearance, scholars believe that Landscape with Figures and Prendergast’s other late works are not without deeper meaning. These paintings serve as elegies for a lost era of leisure activities and travel that was increasingly eclipsed by the rise of industrialization, technology, and war in early 20th-century America.

Throughout his career, the prolific Prendergast created vividly colored, idyllic scenes of people enjoying urban parks and seaside resorts, both in the United States and Europe. He rendered these at first in watercolor and monotype and then, beginning in 1902, also in oil. Incorporating lessons learned from his study of modern French painters such as Paul Cézanne (French, 1839 - 1906), Edouard Vuillard (French, 1868 - 1940), and Pierre Bonnard (French, 1867 - 1947) the artist developed a highly personal style that reached full maturity in such works as Landscape with Figures.


Landscape with Figures dates from the last decade of Maurice Prendergast’s life, when he dedicated himself almost exclusively to creating variations on the theme of group leisure in waterfront park settings. The artist depicted crowds at play throughout his career, having previously produced dappled watercolors of people gathered at New England coastal resorts, promenading along Venice’s canals, and enjoying New York’s Central Park. After his 1907 trip to France, where he studied the paintings of Paul Cézanne (French, 1839 - 1906), both Prendergast’s style and his interest in representing specific locales changed.[1] The artist later wrote to the critic Walter Pach (American, 1883 - 1958) that Cézanne’s work had “strengthened and fortified me to pursue my own course.”[2] Indeed, Prendergast absorbed Cézanne’s use of broken brushwork, emphasis on the contour of forms, and layering of color to create his own vision.[3] After 1914 he incorporated into his modernist idiom thematic aspects of the work of Giorgione (Venetian, 1477/1478 - 1510), Nicolas Poussin (French, 1594 - 1665), Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (French, 1824 - 1898), Auguste Renoir (French, 1841 - 1919), and Paul Gauguin (French, 1848 - 1903), producing scenes of classicized women in generalized landscapes based loosely on the coastal parks surrounding Boston.[4] These last paintings, Landscape with Figures among them, have been described by scholars as idylls that refer to a world removed from industrialization, technological advance, materialism, and war.[5]

Formally, Landscape with Figures exemplifies Prendergast’s large, late oils, which are consistent in composition and paint application. Horizontal banding, in which the frieze of figures in the park, the water zone, and the sky are stacked one on top of the other, contributes significantly to the overall flatness of the picture. The composition, although containing many disparate elements, is unified by several trees extending from the lower into the upper registers and by the decorative patterning of the repeating circles of heads, bodices, hats, parasols, rocks, and the sun.[6] The painting is also held together by its lively brushwork. Prendergast daubed, stippled, and dragged the paint, primarily muted reds, yellows, blues, and greens, to create a syncopated effect. Because he often skipped his brush over the heavily textured surface, which he had built up over time, Prendergast never completely obscured the paint layers beneath. Art historians have noted that this technique lends his paintings a sense of mystery and unreality.[7] In Landscape with Figures this can be seen most easily in the lower right, where the bottom half of a woman in a red dress appears to be spectral.

Nancy Mowll Mathews has argued persuasively that Prendergast’s idylls served as elegies for turn-of-the-century leisure activities, such as group excursions by train and long resort holidays. These traditions disappeared in the face of individualized automobile travel and limited vacation time, as well as a world war that destroyed belief in an increasingly civilized society.[8] According to Mathews, Prendergast retreated from reality in his late paintings by monumentalizing and making timeless the group leisure he and his audience no longer experienced.[9] Significantly, Landscape with Figures belongs to a subset of Prendergast’s idylls that features a low or setting sun [fig. 1].[10] The yellow light of the fading day that so forcefully falls on and between the legs of the women in Landscape with Figures suggests the waning of the type of leisure Prendergast valued.

In December 1923 the Corcoran Gallery of Art awarded Prendergast the Third William A. Clark Prize of one thousand dollars and the accompanying Corcoran Bronze Medal for Landscape with Figures, which he had sent to the Ninth Biennial Exhibition in a gilded frame probably made by his brother, Charles. The jury that honored Prendergast consisted of the artists Gari Melchers (American, 1860 - 1932) (chairman), Lilian Westcott Hale (American, 1881 - 1963), Rockwell Kent (American, 1882 - 1971), Ralph Elmer Clarkson, and Daniel Garber (American, 1880 - 1958). The award was one of the few official recognitions of this kind that Prendergast received in his lifetime (the other being a bronze medal at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, in 1901). When he received notice of the honor, he supposedly remarked to his brother: “I’m glad they’ve found out I’m not crazy, anyway.”[11] He wrote to the Corcoran’s director, “I shall prize it very much.”[12]

In truth, Prendergast had been receiving positive recognition for his work from progressive critics and collectors since the 1913 Armory Show had exposed Americans to European modernism, but reviews in the more conservative capital city were mixed.[13] Many admired the Corcoran’s canvas as “a pleasing example of futurism,” but others agreed with Leila Mechlin of the Washington Star, who complained that the painting “brings to mind nothing other than an old-fashioned hooked rug, or a composition in cremel worsteds, it is an uneasy composition at that, and one wonders. But one almost always does wonder at the decision of prize juries.”[14] Exhibition visitors voting for the popular prize that year picked, by a wide margin, Sidney E. Dickinson’s Nude, a realistic painting of a bare-breasted model [fig. 2]. Landscape with Figures received only one vote.[15]

In contrast to the ambivalent reception by the District’s art community, the Corcoran sought acquisition of Landscape with Figures just two days after the biennial opened. The staff most likely concurred with the jury of Prendergast’s artist peers, who, as director C. Powell Minnigerode explained, valued the painting’s “technical quality, originality, and execution.”[16] Prendergast agreed to sell Landscape with Figures to the gallery at a one-third discount, for, he wrote, “I prefer Washington to have it.”[17] The sale made the Corcoran the first public institution to recognize Prendergast’s important contribution to American art; previously, individual collectors such as John Quinn, Lizzie P. Bliss, Albert Coombs Barnes, and Duncan Phillips were his major patrons.[18] Other museums began purchasing Prendergast’s work only after he died, just two months after the Corcoran’s acquisition of Landscape with Figures.

Laura Napolitano

August 17, 2018


on the reverse: Maurice B. Prendergast / 1921[1]

Inscription Notes

[1] The signature and date are no longer visible because they were covered when the painting was originally lined sometime prior to a second lining done in 1964. The inscription was transcribed and photographed during the first lining; however, the photograph has not been located.


Purchased from the artist 15 December 1923 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.

Associated Names
Corcoran Gallery of Art
Exhibition History
Possibly Third Annual Exhibition - New Society of Artists, Wildenstein & Co., New York, 1921, no. 70.
Possibly Seventh Annual Exhibition of the Eclectics, Dudensing Galleries, New York, 1922.
Ninth Exhibition of Contemporary American Oil Paintings, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, December 1923-January 1924, no.144.
Thirty-Sixth Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture, Art Institute of Chicago, November-December 1923, no. 178.
Tenth Annual Exhibition, Detroit Institute of Arts, 1924, no. 34.
Maurice Prendergast Memorial Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1934, no. 104.
Inaugural Exhibition, Fort Worth Art Center, 1954, no. 80.
Twenty-Fifth Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Oil Paintings, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, 1957, no. 35, Historical Section.
Loan Exhibition. Masterpieces of the Corcoran Gallery of Art: A Benefit Exhibition in Honor of the Gallery's Centenary, Wildenstein, New York, 1959, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
The New Tradition: Modern Americans before 1940, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1963, no. 80.
Past and Present: 250 Years of American Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1966, unpublished checklist.
Corcoran [The American Genius]. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1976, unnumbered catalogue.
The William A. Clark Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 26 April - 16 July 1978, unnumbered catalogue.
Henri's Circle, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 20 April - 16 June 1985, unnumbered checklist.
Maurice Prendergast, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The Phillips Collection, Washington, 1990-1991, no. 110.
The Forty-Fifth Biennial: The Corcoran Collects, 1907–1998, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 17 July - 29 September 1998, unnumbered catalogue.
The Impressionist Tradition in America, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2003-2004, unpublished checklist.
Figuratively Speaking: The Human Form in American Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2004-2005, unpublished checklist.
Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 2005-2007, checklist no. 79.
American Paintings from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 June - 18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013 - 28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
Technical Summary

The painting was executed on a plain-weave, medium-weight canvas and was lined with a fiberglass fabric using a wax/resin adhesive. A smooth, thick, grayish-white ground appears to have been commercially prepared because the ground extends onto the tacking margins and was dry when the canvas was stretched. Furthermore, the tacking margins are intact, suggesting that the painting must be very close to its original dimensions, although the stretcher is a replacement. However the top tacking edge has a considerable amount of paint on it, suggesting that the artist began painting in a slightly larger format and later restretched the canvas to its present size. The signature and date on the reverse are no longer visible because they were covered up by the lining. The inscription was transcribed and photographed when the work was lined, but the image can no longer be located.

The artist’s technique is distinctive. He applied paint freely in a series of layers over previously dried layers of paint, eventually resulting in a very thick accumulation of paint in most areas. His technique of repeatedly dragging pasty paint across the surface of base layers has resulted in a very convoluted surface texture. By continually defining his forms with dark outlines the artist obtained a stained-glass effect. Many of the final touches of paint over this thick and largely opaque buildup were executed in deep reds and dark purples in thin, transparent paint. The work is coated with a clear synthetic resin varnish coating with a medium gloss.

According to the Corcoran’s conservation files, at some point L. J. Kohlmar had attached a lead-primed artist canvas as a lining to the reverse of the original canvas using a paste/glue adhesive. In 1964 Russell Quandt removed this lining and replaced it with a fiberglass fabric lining adhered with a wax/resin adhesive. Although Quandt does mention having inpainted the work in this treatment, recent ultraviolet examination shows little retouching. Quandt also probably removed the varnish and replaced it at this time. In 1966 Quandt surface-cleaned and revarnished the painting. Presently the appearance of the painting is quite good, although the extreme thickness of the paint has led to wide mechanical cracks and cupping.

Corcoran Gallery of Art Archives, Special Collections Research Center, George Washington University Libraries, Washington, DC: correspondence between C. Powell Minnigerode and Maurice Prendergast; 6, 7, 8, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, and 23 December 1923; RG2, Office of the Director records; Series 2, Minnigerode and Williams records, 1908-1968.
"383 Works Shown by 286 Artists at Corcoran Gallery." The Washington Post (17 December 1923): 4.
"Award Clark Art Prizes." The Philadelphia Public Ledger (7 December 1923).
"Awards at Biennial Are Like Chicago's." Art News 22, no. 10 (15 December 1923): 2.
Barker, Virgil. "Praise for Paintings at Corcoran Show." The New York Evening Post (22 December 1923): 5.
"Bellows Awarded First Clark Prize." The Washington Star (6 December 1923): 1.
"Bellows Winner of 1st Clark Prize." Brooklyn Daily Eagle (6 December 1923): 3.
"Bellows Wins First Prize in Corcoran Exhibition." Newark Evening News (6 December 1923): 5.
Brigham, Gertrude Richardson. "Art and Artists of the National Capital." The Washington Post (16 December 1923): Amusements: 9.
Burroughs, Clyde H. "Director Burroughs Gives Impressions of Big Show." The Detroit News (30 December 1923): 12.
"Clark Prize to Bellows." New York World (7 December 1923): 13.
"Corcoran Medals Awarded to Artists." New York Evenig Post (6 December 1923): 2.
Dorr, Charles Henry. "Milwaukeeans in Capital Art Show." Milwaukee Journal (23 December 1923): 5: 4.
Dorr, Charles Henry. unknown title. The Brooklyn Times (23 December 1923).
"Gallery Buys 11 Pictures on Show." The Washington Star (19 December 1923): 3.
"George W. Bellows Wins Clark Prize." New York Evening Mail (6 December 1923).
"G. W. Bellows Wins $2,000 Art Prize." The New Yrk Times (7 December 1923): 25.
Mechlin, Leila. "Notes of Art and Artists []." The Washington Star (16 December 1923): 2: 13.
Merrick, Lula. "In the World of Art [exh. review]." New York Morning Telegraph (23 December 1923): 9.
"New York Artist Wins." New York Herlad (7 December 1923): 13.
"N.Y. Painters Win Two Clark Awards." New York Evening Telegram (6 December 1923).
Perkins, Harley. "Contemporary American Art Shown at National Capital [exh. review]." Boston Evening Transcript (19 December 1923): 3: 2.
"Prizes in Washington." Boston Evening Transcript (17 December 1923): 10.
"The World of Art: Ninth Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting at the Corcoran Gallery [exh. review]." The New York Times (23 December 1923): Magazine section: 10, 11, repro.
"Thousands Attend Corcoran Exhibit." The Washington Star (16 December 1923): 1:3.
"Washington Turns to Art." New York Sun and the Globe (19 December 1923): 20.
Wright, Helen. "Ninth Biennial is a Brilliant Exhibit." Art News 22, no. 11 (22 December 1923): 2, repro.
"A Popular Prize." Boston Evening Transcript (21 January 1924): 2: 15.
Barker, Virgil. "Notes on the Exhibitions [exh. review]." Arts 5, no. 1 (January 1924): 38, repro.
"Dickinson Picture Wins Public Vote." The Washington Star (15 January 1924): 2.
Flambeau, Viktor. "Public Votes This Week on Prize Picture: Corcoran Biennial Exhibition Visitors Willl Select Their Favorites." The Washington Herald (6 January 1924): March of Events section: 5.
Mechlin, Leila. "Contemporary American Painting: Ninth Exhibition, Corcoran Gallery of Art [exh. review]." American Magazine of Art 15, no. 2 (February 1924): 66. repro., 67, 72.
"The Ninth Biennial at the Corcoran Art Gallery, Washington, D.C." Macon Telegraph (Georgia) (6 January 1924).
Milliken, William Mathewson. " Maurice Prendergast, American Artist [exh. review]." Arts 9, no. 4 (April 1926): 192.
Cochrane, Albert Franz. "Maurice Prendergast Memorial Exhibition: Harvard Society for Contemporary Art Sponsors Display 5 Years After Artist's Death [exh. review]." Boston Evening Transcript (24 April 1929): 3: 14.
Breuning, Margaret. Maurice Prendergast (American Artists Series). New York, 1931: 7.
Downes, William Howe. "Prendergast, Maurice Brazil." In Dumas Malone, ed. Dictionary of American Biography. New York, 1961: 186.
"Deaf Prendergast, Dead Ten Years, Presents His 'Still Domain' [exh. review]." Art Digest 8, no. 11 (1 March 1934): 10.
Read, Helen Appleton. "Prendergast Honored at the Whitney." Brooklyn Daily Eagle (18 February 1934): B-C: 12.
"Whitney Museum Opens Prendergast Memorial Display." New York Herald Tribune (21 February 1934): 21.
"Whitney Will Hold Prendergast Show." Art News 32, no. 20 (17 February 1934): 3.
Special Exhibition of Monotypes by Maurice Brazil Prendergast. Exh. cat. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1937: n.p.
Dooley, William Germain. "Prendergast Exhibit Planned for Andover [exh. review]." Boston Evening Transcript (10 September 1938): 3: 3.
Lewis, Elisabeth Ray. "Museum Treasure of the Week: The Corcoran Gallery Collection in Review: 'The Eight.'" The Washington Post (3 September 1939): A:5.
White, James T. "Prendergast, Maurice Brazil." In National Cyclopedia of American Biography. New York, 1943: 399.
Corcoran Gallery of Art. Handbook of the American Paintings in the Collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1947: 66.
Rhys, Hedley Howel. "Maurice Prendergast: The Sources and Development of His Style." Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, Cambridge, 1952: 164.
McKinney, Ronald. The Eight (Metropolitan Museum of Art Miniatures, Album ME). New York, 1954: n.p., pl. 22.
L. J. P. "Corcoran is Showing Works of 'Ashkan School.'" The Washington Post and Times Herald (5 October 1958): E7.
Corcoran Gallery of Art. Masterpieces of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1959: 60, repro.
Ashlander, Leslie Judd. "Backbone of the Corcoran Gallery." The Washington Post (25 June 1961): G6.
Rush, Richard H. Art as an Investment. New York, 1961: 201, repro.
Harithas, James. "250 Years of American Art [exh. review]." Apollo 84, no. 53 (July 1966): 71, repro.
Christensen, Erwin O. A Guide to Art Museums in the United States. New York, 1968: 148, 149, repro.
Phillips, Dorothy W. A Catalogue of the Collection of American Paintings in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Vol. 2: Painters born from 1850 to 1910. Washington, 1973: 36, repro., 37.
Green, Eleanor. Maurice Prendergast: Art of Impulse and Color. Exh. cat. University of Maryland Gallery, College Park, 1976: 76, 77.
Monneret, Sophie, L'Impressionnisme et son Époque. 4 vols. Paris, 1978-1981: 1: 682.
Scott, David W. Maurice Prendergast. Washington, DC; Phillips Collection, 1980, p. 13, pl. 20.
Selz, Peter. Art in Our Times: A Pictorial History 1890-1980. New York, 1981: 255, repro.
Broadd, Harry A. "The Unique Style of Maurice Prendergast." Arts and Activities 90 (January 1982): 29, repro., 30.
Wattenmaker, Richard J. Maurice Prendergast. New York, 1994: 141, 143, 144, repro., 147, 148, 154.
Cash, Sarah, with Terrie Sultan. American Treasures of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. New York, 2000: 166, repro.
Kennedy, Elizabeth. "Maurice B. Prendergast: the Modern Spirit." In The Eight and American Modernism. Exh. cat. New Britain Museum of American Art, 2009: 110, repro.
Napolitano, Laura Groves. "Maurice Brazil Prendergast, Landscape with Figures." In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 226-227, 280-281, repro.
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