Reluctant rebel — Frank McNally on America’s ‘first modern’ painter, Maurice Prendergast

An easy-going personality with a radical reputation

You’ve probably never heard of the Irish-American artist Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924), who died 100 years ago this week.

Or at least I hadn’t, until the centenary nudged him back into the spotlight. But he was an important, occasionally controversial, figure in his time. And although not always appreciated then, he has since been called “America’s first modern”.

Reviewing a posthumous exhibition of his work in 1960, Time magazine also referred to him in a headline as “The Gentle Rebel”, noting the paradox between an easy-going personality and his radical reputation.

It reported that he was already on his death-bed in 1923 before the art establishment finally acknowledged his worth, via a bronze medal from a Washington gallery. His reaction then, typically, was mild amusement: “Well I am glad they’ve found out I’m not crazy, anyhow.”


Maurice Brazil Prendergast grew up in St John’s, Newfoundland, “the son of an Irish-born odd-job man” (according to Time, although genealogists suggest his father had been born in St John’s too and that it was grandfather who had emigrated from Carrick-on-Suir).

His parents ran a trading post in the remote Canadian city. When the business failed, they moved to Boston where, at the age 14, the future artist was apprenticed to a commercial sign painter.

He didn’t leave Boston again until his late 20s, in 1886, when he and his brother Charlie worked their passage to England on a cattle boat, a trip documented only by a few sketches.

But he spent the early 1890s studying art in Paris, absorbing the ideas of the post-impressionists including Gauguin, Seurat, and Cézanne. He later also visited Italy, where he came to love the colourful pageantry of 16th-century Venetian Vittore Carpaccio, another lasting influence.

Back in the US, he abandoned the realism that had dominated American art until then. And yet, always too much the individual, he never quite fell into line with the post-impressionists either.

His image as a misfit was soon cemented by involvement with the “Ashcan school”, a group of painters who, as one of them explained, “wanted art to be akin to journalism” and paint “to be as real as mud, as the clods of horse of horseshit and snow that froze on Broadway in the winter.”

As with the impressionists, their nickname was a sort of insult, arising from the supposed prevalence of ashcans in their pictures. But theirs was not really a school in the usual sense of having any unifying style or beliefs. And whatever it was, Prendergast had almost nothing in common with the others.

He just shared their dislike of the powerful National Academy of Design and its conservative policies. And he and the Ashcans were thereby lumped together in a slight larger group, “the Eight”, which in 1908 held a joint protest exhibition in New York.

The show attracted mixed reviews but much interest. It did more for the others, however, than it did for Prendergast.

He got the worst of the criticism. Reviewers complained of his “whirling arabesques that tax the eye”, suggested his work was “the product of much cider drunk at Saint-Malo” (where he had recently spent time), and damned it as “unadulterated slop”.

Prendergast’s misfit status, meanwhile, was only underlined. As one commentator has put it: “[His] irrevocable association with The Eight left him stylistically isolated in genealogies of modern art.”

Still, he was also well represented in the epochal International Exhibition of Modern Art, aka the Armory Show, in New York in 1913. America’s first large-scale exhibition of modern art, that featured all the big European names including van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, (and Jack B Yeats). But Prendergast had seven pictures in it and, considered in the context of the work that had inspired him, his reputation improved steadily thereafter.

The painter’s exotic middle name has puzzled art historians. But presumably that’s another Irish inheritance, via the surname Brazil or Brassil, also found in Tipperary.

Which, according to my copy of the Oxford Dictionary of the Family Names of Ireland, derives from “an Irish poetic term meaning ‘strife’ (or ‘brave of strong in conflict’)”. This may or may not have been apt, because despite their ground-breaking reputation, Prendergast and his art both seem to have been conflict-averse.

“Timid by nature and without a shred of temperament,” the Time profile concluded, “he painted a sunshine world of parks, picnics and parasols, and peopled it with a race of doll-like creatures who seemed on perpetual holiday.”

He had also been the first US artist to paint with “broken colors” and had helped organise the show that had “clamorously launched” modern art in America.

But he was a quiet revolutionary. “His big trouble since,” suggested Time in 1960, “has been that his touch was so light and his brush so gay that not everyone has been able to see that he was a rebel at all.”