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Charles Prendergast Panel Paintings, ca. 1912-30s

After his 1911 trip to Italy, Charles began to incorporate color and high relief carving into his frames, which led to his exploration of an entirely new medium in 1912: the carved pictorial panel. Marking the beginning of a second and highly successful career as a painter, Charles’s carved panel paintings depict pastoral subject matter evoking bygone fantasy worlds and an idyllic “Golden Age” when man was one with nature. These diverge from Maurice’s works in their ethereal, otherworldly subject matter; their use of framing materials (wood, gesso, and gold and silver leaf); and their simplified pictorial language, imbued with the naïveté of folk and primitive art.

Early panels (1912-25) are said to comprise the artist’s “celestial period”—so named because of Charles’s frequent use of gold leaf, reminiscent of late medieval panels in which gilding suggests heaven or sacred subjects. These works were inspired by a host of eclectic sources, including Egyptian art, Etruscan wall paintings, Byzantine mosaics, Early Christian and Renaissance art, Persian miniatures, Arts and Crafts objects, the paintings and carvings of French Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin, and the work of his brother, Maurice. In particular, Charles was drawn to subjects that symbolized fruitfulness, renewal, and rebirth.

Charles executed his panel paintings slowly, at a rate of three or four a year, dividing his days between work on the panels and his frame commissions. He worked out his designs on paper first, then transferred them to gessoed panels by rubbing the back of his paper sketch with charcoal and tracing over the drawing so the charcoal rubbed off onto the gesso.

Charles created his first panels in Boston in a large studio he shared with Maurice. In late 1914, the brothers moved to New York, where Charles actively exhibited and sold his work and participated in artists’ associations. His paintings immediately attracted the attention of important art collectors, including Lillie Bliss, John Quinn, and Albert Barnes, all of whom collected work by Maurice and other leading modern artists.

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