Art Thoughts, Week 7 – Prendergast & Balance

(note: the above painting pictured is not from the Barnes Foundation, but it does exhibit the same characteristics as the one I discuss below...)

Beach Scene with Donkeys (or Mules), Maurice Brazil Prendergast, American 1858—1924, c. 1914—1915, oil on canvas, BF 116.

My first time hearing the name Prendergast was on an art-handling delivery trip in Delaware. My co-worker Dan and I were leaning on a chest-high crate, and he mentioned in passing that he thought the boxed painting was a Prendergast. After this fleeting introduction, I didn’t encounter the Prendergast brothers (Maurice the painter and Charles the frame-maker) until I began working at the Barnes Foundation. Dr. Barnes collected many fine examples of Prendergast’s painting, including several framed in his brother Charles’s Arts & Crafts frames. Now, after about three years of admiring the acuity of Maurice Prendergast’s craft, I would count him as one of my favorite American painters. He had an incredibly atypical style, and exhibited a preternatural sense for pattern, gesture, and meaningful color relationships.

In Beach Scene with Donkeys (or Mules) he is indulging in one of his favorite settings – a crowd in a defined space. These were usually beaches, picnic grounds, or other large gathering areas, where small cliques joined to make a larger pattern vacillating between connectedness and disconnectedness. And as much as Prendergast is not really interested in the facial expressions or emotions of the figures he paints, neither is he interested in their human interrelationships: he is simply interested in how they look together in the given space (including the canvas size). In essence, he is reducing his chosen scene to what any artist needs to reduce an observation to: the point at which what is being painted is in equilibrium with the artist’s own aesthetic aims (read: abstraction).

For example, in this painting, not a single figure’s face is dealt with in any more than a cursory interest – a quick, inch-long brushstroke from a filbert loaded with creamy-rose paint is all that suffices for one young woman’s face. What is really important to Prendergast, however, is her relationship (compositionally, as well as spatially and color-wise) to the adjacent figure, and her canary yellow dress opposed to that companion’s steel-blue dress… And so on it continues, to the weight of that particular corner of the painting to the rest of the painting, etcetera. There is a careful, overall balance to how Prendergast has arranged his brushwork, gestures and colors. Too many people on the left; too heavy a leaf texture on the right; too many blues on the top, and you’d expect the painting to suddenly tip over.

There is also a discreet balance between depth and shallowness. On the right, a seated man has his back to us, and his leg, back and neck positions are utterly convincing – he seems to be literally filling space, in a 3-D sense. On the other hand, the filled-in, coloring-book look of his clothing keeps him very flat, and close to us. Similarly, the side-to-side band of ocean clearly tells us it’s “out there”, but our eyes counter that it simply looks like a blue wall directly behind the figures. Again, there is a great stability among all the relationships in the painting, and perhaps this is why crowds had a continuing allure to Prendergast – they were a challenge to his innate desire to balance relationships within the intimate life of a painting.

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