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The Subject of Leisure in the Progressive Era

Many of the parks and resorts that Maurice depicted in the mid-1890s and after were newly constructed during the Progressive Era (1890s–1920s), a period of widespread social activism and political reform, which sought to eliminate problems related to industrialization and urbanization. Proponents of the Progressive Era argued that increased leisure and outdoor time for the individual would bring improvements in health, education, and productivity, which, in turn, would fuel the growth of an enlightened, modern society. American artists such as Maurice Prendergast capitalized on subjects of leisure, tourism, and other forms of relaxation as central motifs of modernity.

During these years, the American Park Movement advocated for the construction of new park space across the country. Most of the first city parks and public beaches in America date back to the late 19th century. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted contributed enormously to this effort, designing and building park space from New York to New Britain and beyond. One of Olmsted’s most celebrated park designs was the “Emerald Necklace” of Boston, which traversed the city, linking the original downtown park—the Boston Common—to new recreational areas in the suburbs, such as Franklin Park, and then returning to the sea at South Boston Pier. As each section of the Emerald Necklace opened to the public in the 1890s, crowds of novelty seekers, including Maurice and Charles Prendergast, were drawn to visit.

Maurice, perhaps more than any other artist of his time, could be considered a chronicler of the culture of leisure that emerged during the Progressive Era. Maurice’s local scenes of Boston’s parks and nearby beaches were received in Boston with great acclaim. They served as a point of civic pride when exhibited, and helped establish the city’s progressiveness when shown in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and elsewhere. Over time, Maurice helped transform the national perception of Boston and New England as maritime powers and industrial giants to picturesque vacation destinations.

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