He carved out a nice career
The late-blooming art of the other Prendergast
WILLIAMSTOWN — What a curious figure is Charles Prendergast. The lesser-known younger brother of post-impressionist painter Maurice, Charles Prendergast cultivated his late-blooming second career as an artist by zealously studying art then perceived as primitive, such as Egyptian reliefs, Persian miniature paintings, and American folk art. His figures look drawn by a child. He abandoned deep perspective, flattening space. But was he a folk artist, or a savvy Modernist?
“Charles Prendergast: In Search of ‘Innocence’ ’’ at the Williams College Museum of Art examines some of the artist’s great works alongside objects similar to those that inspired him, drawn from the museum’s collection. It’s a juicy little show. The museum is the repository of an unparalleled trove of works by the brothers Prendergast, thanks to the generosity of Charles’s widow, Eugénie, who died in 1994, the year before she would have turned 100 — if there’s any place to get a sense of Charles’s oeuvre, this is it.
Charles, curator Nancy Mowll Mathews suggests, sought and cultivated innocence in his work, and perhaps in his personality. But what is innocence? Can it be attained? Was Prendergast an especially calculating artist hiding behind a sweet, boyish mask? For a time, he self-consciously tested out styles from around the world in his painted carvings, but as he matured as an artist, his art took on its own fresh, intentionally naïve style. He was grouped alongside folk artists such as Grandma Moses.
Born in 1863, Prendergast grew up in Boston steeped in the Arts and Crafts movement, which had its own back-to-nature agenda, spurning anonymously made industrial products in favor of handcrafted work.
While Maurice, five years Charles’s senior, went off to study in Paris and gained renown, Charles became a partner in a wood-carving business specializing in fireplace mantels. After Maurice returned to Boston in 1894, Charles carved frames for his paintings. There are several carved pieces here, including the frame for a possible collaboration with Maurice, “Decorated Mirror With Two Figures’’ (1915-17). The angelic figures, which may be Maurice’s handiwork, are hard to read on the cloudy mirrors, but the frame endures: gilded, with a simple, almost blunt floral motif.
In 1911, Charles Prendergast traveled to Italy, and found himself captivated by the art and architecture there. After that, he took to carving pictorial panels. The first, the gold-gilded “Rising Sun’’ (c. 1912) hangs near the anonymous, Italian piece “The Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi’’ from the 1400s. Prendergast’s wood relief features an angel with a deer walking through pine-cone-shaped trees before a brilliantly blue expanse of water and a radiant sun. While the gem tones are similar, Prendergast’s figures are clumsier than those in the “Annunciation,’’ which also sports a more sophisticated rendering of space. But there’s something undeniably audacious about Prendergast’s piece, a reclamation of techniques associated with sacred art to convey something less vaunted and classical and fusty, with the freshness of a child’s hand.
Prendergast wasn’t the only artist throwing classical figuration aside and skewing perspective: The Cubists, too, derived inspiration from non-Western “primitive’’ art. But the Cubists had a bitterer agenda; with two world wars and occasionally catastrophic economic conditions, the first half of the 20th century was not a time to be chipper. They slashed up their canvases with fractured spaces and jumbled human forms that reflected their cynicism and confusion. Not Prendergast. In wall text, curator Mathews refers to him as a “Peter Pan-type,’’ with a “childlike naiveté he cultivated in his personality and his art.’’ He sounds either charming or insufferable.
His works, certainly, are the former. He quickly gave up wood relief carving for incising on gessoed masonite, a technique which better fit his style, with its highlighted outlines and flattened perspective. A terrific piece, “Circus’’ (1940) hangs near an early 19th century Indian painting, “Lakshmi with attendant winged elephants rising from the ocean.’’ “Circus’’ represents Prendergast at the height of his powers; deftly composed, it captures a crowd and two elephants, each waving its trunk in the air, exactly like Lakshmi’s attendants.
For a time, Prendergast was associated with American Scene painting, a movement that sprang from artists’ desire to capture authentic, unaffected America. The sweet, layered “Skaters at the World’s Fair’’ (1940) shows more than 20 skaters and a small crowd of spectators, including a band, with a restaurant in the backdrop. It’s a remarkable work, full of compositional complexity.
But Prendergast wasn’t truly an American Scene painter, either. That group tended toward social realism, and Prendergast was a fantasist, not a realist. Even when he moved to Florida and started painting African-American migrant workers plucking oranges in the orchards — several of these paintings hang in concert with gorgeous Farm Security Administration photos of similar subjects — the results are sweet little idylls, not social commentary.
Charles Prendergast, like Grandma Moses, captured a particular zeitgeist that charmed the American art establishment. For a time before his death in 1948, his renown eclipsed that of his brother. That hasn’t lasted, in part because Charles’s works are fewer and more delicate than Maurice’s, but also because he fit into a much smaller niche than Maurice, focused more on storytelling and less on visual nuance. He displayed little of his brother’s wizardry with light, tonal pattern, and kaleidoscopic rhythm. But he homed doggedly in on his own beguiling style, and made work that is highly accomplished, if entirely faux-naïve.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org