The much-loved American artist Maurice Prendergast once wrote in his notebook,
Art is the great stimulus of life -I find it year by year more rich, more desirable, and more mysterious.
His art, though, featured familiar scenes of parks and beaches, holidays, festivals and picnics. He was ahead of his time, creating bright, light-filled paintings that resemble delicate mosaics when representational art was still the norm.
Maurice Prendergast and his twin sister Lucy were born in a subarctic trading post in St. John’s, Newfoundland, on Oct. 10, 1858. The trading post failed and the family moved to Boston’s South End. He left school at 14. Prendergast was apprenticed to a commercial artist who painted show cards – advertising point-of-sale displays. He supported himself painting flat, colorful advertisements by the time he was 24.
His brother Charles, an artist with whom he was close, said he always knew he wanted to be an artist and he didn’t let anything get in his way. The brothers in 1886 worked their way to England on a cattle boat.
By 1891 he saved enough money to go to Paris, where he studied for four years. He was exposed to James McNeill Whistler, Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Edgar Degas and Claude Manet. He returned to Boston in 1895 and had some modest success. By 1897 he acquired patrons who sent him to Italy to work for several years. He was nearly deaf by the time he returned home.
Back in New England, he painted in watercolor on the coast in summer, then recast his work in oil in the winter. Some of his favorite spots were Revere Beach, Marblehead, South Boston Pier and the Boston Public Garden.
His naïve, cheerful paintings sold well, and he began to exhibit in New York to find a wider audience.
Maurice Prendergast was one of the first American painters to paint in a manner inspired by the French Post-Impressionists like Vincent van Gogh, Georges Seurat and Paul Cezanne.
In 1908 he exhibited with a renegade group of artists called The Eight. One critic dismissed his paintings as ‘artistic tommy-rot, unadulterated slop, the show would be better if it were that of The Seven rather than The Eight.’ Another compared his work with ‘an explosion in a color factory.’
Eventually he moved to New York City, where he often painted Central Park scenes. He continued to work in New England in the summers.
Maurice Prendergast died on Feb. 1, 1924.