BRUNSWICK, Maine — Ogunquit. Cohasset. Nantasket. Nahant. If you can’t hear poetry in the place names of New England’s popular seaside haunts, you are tone deaf.
And if you can’t see beauty in the images of those places by Maurice Prendergast, you are just as surely blind.
So the cleanest critical response to “Maurice Prendergast: By the Sea” at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art — the loveliest, most languid art show of this New England summer — is probably: See it. Drink it in. Then go find a beach, try to re-create some of the show’s simple joys.
But of course, critics hate to be clean and simple. (We have thought bubbles to fill!) And Maurice Brazil Prendergast, a phenomenon as anomalous and unlikely as his name, invites his share of chewy critical reflection.
The Bowdoin show, although it hinges on a single theme, the seaside, functions as a Prendergast retrospective (the first in over two decades) largely because the artist focused so intently, so nearly exclusively, on that theme. And like all good retrospectives, it poses questions.
The first — “How good, really, was Maurice Prendergast?” — is unavoidable. What’s curious is that no one has ever quite known how to answer it. That’s partly because this most consistent of artists was in reality a slowly moving target. If Prendergast kept painting the same subject — revelers by the water — by the second half of his career he was using that subject to articulate a very different vision.
The second question, which must be answered before the first, is less obvious. I would put it like this:
Is the undeniable beauty of Prendergast’s work increased or reduced when the poetic place names encountered in his early titles (“Salem,” “Boston Harbor,” “Nahant”) are replaced with more generic titles (“Summer Promenade,” “The Idlers,” “Sunset and Sea Fog”) and when the pictures change accordingly?
The question sounds superficial. After all, what’s in a title? But it hovers right over a major fault line running through art history — a fault line that violently slipped (in this country at least) exactly 100 years ago, more or less bang in the middle of Prendergast’s career. I am talking, of course, about the 1913 Armory Show, which set off an aesthetic tsunami and ushered in modernism in this country.
On one side of the fault line is realism, or the discipline of specific observation and description. (Think of the Northern European tradition, especially the Dutch.) On the other is idealism, or the musicality of abstraction. (Think of the Italians and French, of Raphael and Poussin.)
The problem is not, that is to say, about titles. It is about our preferences. Do we prefer specific details or poetic suggestion? Reality or imagination? Naturalism or abstraction? Arcadia or — Nantasket? (Can we have both?)
Maurice Prendergast was born in 1858 in St John’s, Newfoundland. His mother was from Boston, and when he was 10 the family returned here. Although his background was lowly (the cause of the flight to Boston was the failure of his father’s grocery store), he flourished in a city where, as Trevor Fairbrother puts it in an exemplary essay in the show’s catalog, “starchy Brahmins set the cultural tone.”
Boston, “to her credit,” adds Fairbrother, “proved cosmopolitan enough to keep this freethinking artist in residence” — until 1914, anyway, when Maurice and his younger brother Charles moved to New York. Whether it was Boston’s cosmopolitanism or the city’s easy access to New England’s harbors and beaches is difficult to say, but let’s agree it was probably some combination of both.
Prendergast worked as a commercial artist, before spending four years in fin de siècle Paris. Although he returned to Boston in 1894, Europe continued to beckon: He made trips to Italy in 1898-99 and 1911 (work from those trips was the subject of a terrific show at Williams College Museum of Art in 2009), and, crucially, to Paris again, in 1907.
In that momentous year, which saw the entire French avant-garde go crazy in response to a Cezanne retrospective, Prendergast’s idea of art underwent what Nancy Mowll Mathews, elsewhere in the catalog, calls “a sea-change.”
Before then, Prendergast had been painting leisure activities by the shore in an idiom that was at once delicate and nonchalant. In watercolors, monotypes, and oils, he seemed as indifferent to faces and other markers of individuality as he was alive to the poignantly free-form human instinct for community. A master of windblown dresses, pinafores, and parasols, he was also a tantalizingly tender colorist and an effortless designer.
“Evening on a Pleasure Boat” is an oil showing five girls and young women seated in a row on deck with the proximate harbor behind. Their faces are smudges, and the painting is dominated to an unusual degree (for Prendergast) by whites, creams, and browns.
But for all its sketchiness, the picture is full of specificity. See the way the girls’ bodies squirm as they turn for a better view of the harbor. Note the mauve dress of the middle girl, the bright blue ribbon at the back of the woman on the right, and the way that same woman holds onto her hat in the wind.
Other pictures, including Prendergast’s hauntingly atmospheric monotypes, are loaded with local observations: “South Boston Pier,” with its snaking rails and receding line of lamp posts is echt Boston, as is the summery “Float at Low Tide, Revere Beach.”
“Rocky Shore, Nantasket,” “Handkerchief Point,” and “The Stony Beach, Ogunquit” are the kinds of watercolors in which you can imagine people recognizing themselves. The rocks seem burnished by familiar hands and feet.
Around 1902, perhaps under the influence of Whistler’s aestheticism, some of Prendergast’s feeling for particulars begins to be submerged in a woozier, more romantic light. In works like “Yacht Race” (1902-04) his colors, too, brighten, becoming almost lurid.
But it’s really only after the 1907 trip to Paris that you can feel Prendergast greedily inhaling the heady fumes of late Cezanne and, just as importantly, late Renoir. Cezanne’s appeal is clear: structure, balance, flourishing sensuality held tightly in check by the reins of two-dimensional design.
What attracts Prendergast about Renoir? It’s more than just the Frenchman’s heightened color and his penchant for female nudity by the water’s edge. It’s his affinity for the 18th-century masters like Fragonard, Watteau, and Boucher, and his fondness for what Joseph Rishel, in the catalog, calls the “Cytherean world of the fete galante.”
Prendergast also shared, it would seem, Renoir’s distaste for industrialization and modernization. Increasingly — and especially after the Armory show, which Prendergast helped to organize — his pictures are filled, mosaic-style, with stylized horses, carriages, sailing boats, and female nudes rather than automobiles, ferries, or up-to-date fashions. The figures become flatter, more childlike. The compositions grow according to their own organic logic, like woven carpets, as the paint becomes thicker, more material.
All this is to say, they look — more than the work of any of Prendergast’s American peers at the time — like modern art.
Modernism, they remind us, carried in its heart a dream of Arcadia, even as the society that simultaneously supported and shunned it was rushing toward hell. That dream, which we see above all in Cezanne, Gauguin, and Matisse, accounts for the obsession shared by so many modern artists with the art of children, with so-called primitives, and with the ancients.
Of course, naivete, when it is cultivated and part of a wider program, is hard to measure, and harder still to assess as an aesthetic value. The strange thing is that, although they are technically more proficient, Prendergast’s earlier, less modern-looking watercolors — with their specific titles, their deft handling of perspective, their grown-up attitude to the Proustian social parade of fashion — can seem more truly naive than his later, self-consciously “naive” modern idiom.
Is that a reason to prefer them? Hardly.
But it is not a slight against Prendergast’s audacity, much less against modernism or the Arcadian imagination in general, to note that there is a willed, and occasionally strained, feeling to some of Prendergast’s later works that is missing from the earlier, more conventional ones, which balloon in the imagination like gusting shirts and dresses.
Curiously, there’s one late work in the show, dated 1918-1923, on loan from the Museum of Modern Art. It’s called “Acadia.” At first you think it’s a misprint. The painting, after all, is very Arcadian. It’s all about women, children, trees, shade, flowers, fruit, and the unity of all things.
But then you realize: It’s no mistake. Acadia is real. It’s a national park now. I’ve heard it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth.Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.