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.
He found much richness outdoors in New England, especially during the summertime.
His art featured familiar scenes of parks and beaches, holidays, festivals and picnics. But his paintings resembled delicate mosaics more than the representational art then popular in the United States.
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.
He and his twin sister Lucy were born in a subarctic trading post in St. John’s, Newfoundland, on Oct. 10, 1858. (Perhaps that’s why light and summer attracted him so.) The trading post failed and the family moved to Boston’s South End. He then left school at 14. Prendergast was apprenticed to a commercial artist who painted show cards – advertising point-of-sale displays. By the time he reached 24, he could support himself painting flat, colorful advertisements — much the way his art would look.
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. Back then, one generally studied in Europe if one wanted to pursue art. The brothers in 1886 worked their way to England on a cattle boat.
Maurice then 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.
When he returned to Boston in 1895 he had some modest success. By 1897 he acquired patrons who sent him to Italy to work for several years. But he suffered from poor health, and he’d lost nearly all his hearing 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. He especially liked Revere Beach, Marblehead, the 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. But not everyone liked his work.
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.
This story was updated in 2022.