20 years in the making, ‘Prendergast’ shines

E.J. Johnson, art history professor, discusses an image of Rome’s Capitoline Hill during a tour of WCMA’s show, ‘Prendergast in Italy.’
E.J. Johnson, art history professor, discusses an image of Rome’s Capitoline Hill during a tour of WCMA’s show, ‘Prendergast in Italy.’

On a drab and dreary weekend afternoon, the brightly colored flags and bustling canals of Venice provided some respite from the rainy autumn weather. The passport to this sunnier world was provided by the works of Maurice Prendergast, on display in the Williams College Museum of Art’s (WCMA) exhibit Prendergast in Italy. On Saturday, WCMA planned the Italian-themed “Gelato Debates” around the exhibit, which included a tour by E. J. Johnson, professor of art history, and a culminating culinary battle between ice cream and gelato.

The exhibit features both the finished work and personal recordings of the American artist during two trips to Venice in 1898-99 and 1911-12, along with over 60 pieces he created in Rome, Siena and Capri. Prendergast primarily used watercolors, but also dabbled in the then-fashionable monotype, a method of printing that produces only one work. While the Impressionist watercolors he painted on his first trip were not radically new in terms of technique, they were distinctive in their portrayal of an ancient city facing the changes brought on by the turn of the century.

In his tour of the gallery, Johnson pointed out that Prendergast was less concerned with the old architecture of the cities he visited than with the flow of people and colors in and around the buildings. He explicitly cropped out famous buildings by the likes of Michelangelo to focus on different elements of the scene. Prendergast inserted crowds of people into his landscapes to add movement while simultaneously portraying the modern age’s increasing number of tourists and travelers.

While Prendergast focused on the transition to modernity, he also paid homage to Venice’s ancient roots with his painting technique. Johnson noted that many of Prendergast’s works resemble the mosaics of medieval and early Renaissance Venetian art. One work on display, “Festa del Redentore,” is in fact accompanied by a mosaic rendition of the same scene, “Fiesta Grand Canal,” Venice, made of glass and ceramic tiles.

Prendergast’s second trip to Venice in 1910-11 produced markedly different works more in the style of post-Impressionists such as Cézanne and Matisse. Rather than documenting societal changes in a representational style, he followed the French style of experimenting with color choice and brushstrokes.

In addition to the artist’s works, Prendergast in Italy also includes more interactive media. One of the highlights of the exhibit is a map of Venice that marks all the locations of Prendergast’s paintings from his two trips. The map gives museum-goers a better sense of the artist’s travels, indicating clusters of paintings in his favorite spots and clearly differentiating his choice of locations on his two trips.

Prendergast in Italy is the culmination of 20 years of work, which began after WCMA received the world’s largest Prendergast holding of about 400 works by Maurice and his brother Charles. Gifted by Charles’ widow, Eugenie, along with the donation of Eugenie’s life trust for the collection’s maintenance, the works now included in the show make up the first exhibition devoted entirely to Prendergast.

In addition to drawing from their collection, WCMA partnered with over 50 institutions to borrow pieces for the exhibit, including from the second largest Prendergast collection at the Terra Foundation for American Art in Chicago, Ill.

Given the generous contributions from Eugenie Prendergast to the museum, it would be a waste not to put on such a show, and WCMA has thrown several events throughout the summer to promote it. It cannot be denied that Prendergast is not exactly a household name, nor even an Art History 101 name. The works on display are, for the most part, pleasant but unremarkable, and, given the dates of his trips, were not groundbreaking at the time. On the other hand, the exhibit successfully exposes the audience to a lesser known artist and provides insight into how an American was influenced by European art movements.

The events of last Saturday did cater to the audience, consisting mainly of older art aficionados from the Berkshire community. While many of the finer details of Venetian culture that Johnson mentioned in his tour went over my head, they were appreciated by most of the group. Considering that the exhibit ends on Sept. 20, the “Gelato Debates” were the show’s last hurrah, with the final gelato and ice cream tasting not surprisingly pulling in a much larger showing of students than the tour of the gallery. While not directly related to the exhibit, the event highlighted the American and Italian themes of Prendergast’s experience and provided a sweet end to the day.