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Maurice Prendergast: The First American Modernist

In the history of 20th-century art, Maurice Prendergast is considered by many to be the “First American Modernist,” a remarkable reputation earned through the artist’s sheer embrace of the new. How, indeed, did he achieve such recognition?

Of all the American artists working or studying in Paris at the turn of the century, Maurice was the first to bring the new ideas back to the American scene. In his Paris sketchbook, Maurice drew Post-Impressionist and Fauvist paintings he saw on exhibition there, including work by Matisse, and upon his return in 1907, these drawings were among the first reproductions of such paintings to enter the United States. Photographer and gallery owner Alfred Steiglitz, on the other hand, did not begin showing contemporary French art in New York until the spring of 1909.

Maurice is acknowledged to be among the first Americans to recognize and actively promote the art of modern Europeans—notably Cézanne—both through his enthusiastic communications with his brother, fellow artists, and collectors, as well as through his own work. Maurice entered his Paris and St. Malo paintings in exhibitions in cities across America, gaining great exposure. Although at first, Maurice’s work of the early 1900s unsettled the critics, who described his paintings as “a jumble of riotous pigment” and “an explosion in a color factory,” it was on the basis of these paintings that most critics and viewers came to understand what Maurice had absorbed artistically in France: the freedom of color and abstraction that was the hallmark of the French Modernists.

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