Maurice Prendergast’s St. Malo, No. 2, circa 1907-1910. Columbus Museum of Art, Gift of Ferdinand Howald.
BRUNSWICK, MAINE - Having just returned from a weekend of driving along the sunny, spectacular Maine coast, I can tell you that the source of Maurice Prendergast’s inspiration is alive and well.
Prendergast (1858–1924) was a great painter who loved the shore, but not the rocks and seagulls and pine trees as much as the people who gathered there, as is ably demonstrated in “Maurice Prendergast: By the Sea,” the exhibition beginning Saturday at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick. It runs through October 13.
It’s an 80-work show with loans from major institutions like MoMA and the Whitney. I learned a lot from chatting with the museum’s curator, Joachim Homann, and the leading Prendergast scholar, Nancy Mowll Mathews, who contributed to the show.
“He was a coastal person, born in St. John, Newfoundland,” Mathews told me. “The seaside and coast was for him what Mont St. Victoire was to Cezanne.”
Maurice Prendergast’s Bathers, 1912-1915. William Benton Museum of Art, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Gift of the Eugenie Prendergast Foundation.
And his interest in New England’s seaside was of a different order from other artists who worked there, like Marsden Hartley. “So many artists came to Maine to get away from it all, to contemplate nature and the sublime,” Homann said. “Prendergast has a different perspective: He always paints in public spaces, always showing the crowds. He’s interested in the social space of the beach and park.
That’s the source of all those little round heads, never fully articulated in terms of features but creating a lovely overall pattern in many of his iconic American Impressionist paintings. I’m a big watercolor fan, and I think those were Prendergast’s best works. The exhibition includes a cache of watercolors from a private collection in Colorado, delicately extracted by Homann and his team—they are extremely sensitive, and they literally won’t see the light of day again anytime soon once this show is over (it doesn’t travel).
So if you’re looking for the perfect summery exhibition, look no further.