The Bay (Figures by the Shore)
watercolor and pastel on paper
15 5/8 in. x 22 1/2 in. (39.69 cm x 57.15 cm)
Gift of Eleanor Briggs,
Maurice Brazil Prendergast
Maurice Prendergast was perhaps the first major American artist whose primary reputation came from his achievements in the demanding medium of watercolor. Born in Newfoundland, Canada, and raised in Boston, he was trained as a painter of signs and advertisements, developing early on a proficiency with water-based mediums. Although he would work in oils all his life, until 1900 watercolor was his preferred mode of expression and experimentation. Even after that time, when his art moved from an Impressionist-inspired style to a more avant-garde, modernist one, some of this most daring works were in watercolor.
Regardless of the style or medium in which he was working, Prendergast again and again chose to paint the urban parks and seaside resorts to which city dwellers gravitated for recreation. Franklin Park, represented in The Stony Pasture
, is a large, hilly preserve laid out in the 1880s as part of Boston's famed "Emerald Necklace" by the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. It contained a "Country Park"; dedicated to the enjoyment of natural scenery, and areas for sports, for a zoo, and for promenading. The terrain was characterized by the huge boulders that fill the foreground here. The park was enormously popular in Prendergast's day, and the artist painted a number of watercolors featuring middle- and working-class Bostonians enjoying the various facilities of the park. The Stony Pasture
is unusual in that it seems to depict the "Country Park"; Prendergast generally preferred the livelier sections of the park where carnivals, sporting events, and other activities took place.
The figures in The Stony Pasture
are dressed in their Sunday best. They form bright patterns of color against the transparent layers of green wash that define the meadow. Grouped in narrative vignettes, the figures create a chain of activity leading the eye back to the pavilions along the horizon. In the foreground, little girls seem to make a game of traversing the boulders, while at center, their mothers (or older sisters), their parasols held high, lift their skirts and gingerly navigate the rocky field. Elsewhere, fathers carry small children or hold the hands of older ones. Prendergast's subject was the human parade; his skillful rendering of people moving through a public space makes this scene feel spontaneous and directly observed.
Between The Stony Pasture
and The Bay (Figures by the Shore)
, Prendergast made several trips to Europe. On the first trip, in 1898-99, he discovered Italy; on the second, in 1907, he was struck by the work of the French avant-garde artists. He admired the schematized figures, the festival atmosphere, and the pure, brilliant color in the work of Matisse and Derain but reserved his greatest enthusiasm for the watercolors of Cézanne, whose simplicity and suggestive qualities he strove to emulate. The Bay
represents a return to one of Prendergast's favorite subjects, a holiday by the sea, but it is also informed by the idealized images of bathers produced by the French masters. His rhythmically grouped figures, with their thick contours and liquid shapes, demonstrate his delight in patterns of color, shape, and movement. Although this watercolor was undoubtedly painted on Massachusetts's North Shore, where Prendergast took his working vacations almost every summer, the precise location cannot be identified; the generalized landscape here likewise indicates the triumph of suggestion over representation. During this period, Prendergast's technique was as adventurous as his style. Here he combines grainy pastel with very wet watercolor. The broad areas of wash create depth and luminosity, while the chalk reinforces the bathers' outlines, gives a rough texture to tree trunks, and appears in the sky on the underbellies of fast-moving clouds. The alternation of textures-translucent wash and dense, opaque pastel-enlivens the surface of the painting. The result is an image that is at once idyllic and quite animated, a distillation of the experiences of a summer's day.
Carol Clark, Nancy Mowll Mathews, and Gwendolyn Owens. Maurice Brazil Prendergast, Charles Prendergast: A Catalogue Raisonné
. Munich and Williamstown, MA: Prestel-Verlag and Williams College Museum of Art, 1990. Cat. nos. 613, 1105.
1985 Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, NH, "Watercolors from the Permanent Collection." June 4 - Aug. 25.
1987 Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, NH, "Watercolors from the Permanent Collection." May 19 - July 19.
1989 Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, NH, "Glistening Washes: American Watercolors from the Permanent Collection." May 9 - July 9.
1995-1997 "American Art from the Currier Gallery of Art." Organized by the Currier Gallery of Art and the American Federation of Arts. Traveled to: Orlando Museum of Art, Orlando, FL, Dec. 3, 1995 - Jan. 28, 1996; Society of the Four Arts, Palm Beach, FL, Mar. 15 - Apr. 7, 1996; Art Museum of Western Virginia, Roanoke, VA, Aug. 10 - Oct. 13, 1996; The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, TN, Feb. 2 - Mar. 30, 1997; Frye Art Museum, Seattle, WA, Apr. 25 - June 22, 1997; Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester, NH, July 18 - Sept. 8, 1997, cat. no. 22. (Not shown at Orlando, Pam Beach or Roanoke).
2010 Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH, "From Homer to Hopper: American Watercolor Masterworks from the Currier Museum of Art." March 6 - June 7.