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Charles Prendergast’s Rare and Exquisite Decorative Panels

Charles E. Prendergast (American, 1863-1948) Untitled (Vase with Flowers and Birds) (Lot 382, Estimate $30,000-50,000)

A skilled and inventive frame maker, admired by artists and collectors for his ability to create frames that corresponded perfectly to the style and intention of the canvases they surrounded, Charles Prendergast (1863-1948) did not begin working on his own artworks in earnest until he was in his fifties. After having spent years as a woodworker and craftsman, he created his painted panels, like Lot 382 in our upcoming Fine Paintings and Sculpture auction, with many of the same materials and techniques he had used for his frames. He first applied a layer of gesso (a mixture of chalk and glue) into which he incised the outlines of figures and forms; then, he colored the image with tempera paint. Finally, he added gold or silver leaf to highlight certain areas and burnished the decorated surfaces to achieve a weathered effect. He often finished his panels by creating simple frames using the same techniques. Working slowly, at first while still accepting commissions for frames, Prendergast produced just over one hundred finished panels in his lifetime. Because of their delicate nature, the panels are rarely exhibited, yet especially prized.

Through his brother, artist Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924), Charles met fellow American artists such as Hermann Dudley Murphy, Sarah Choate Sears, and Robert Henri, and participated in avant-garde art circles in Boston and New York in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Maurice and his friends commissioned Arts and Crafts-style frames from Charles and included him in their discussions about art. The Prendergast brothers lived and worked together, sharing a studio and an extensive library. They usually traveled together, as well; however, in the summer of 1911, Charles crossed the Atlantic alone to visit Italy. Inspired by the Christian imagery in Italian art, Charles returned home to create his first panel, Rising Sun, now in the collection of the Williams College Museum of Art. For subsequent panels, Charles drew inspiration from such sources as Egyptian and Mesopotamian mural reliefs and Chinese and Persian miniatures, all of which he studied at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Charles Prendergast, Rising Sun, 1912. Courtesy of The Art History Archives

In 1914, Charles and Maurice moved from Boston to New York. They continued to share a studio-residence and had the opportunity to participate in several joint exhibitions. Their work had many similarities, including an attention to brilliant colors and pattern and a flattened sense of perspective. Upon Maurice’s death in 1924, Charles began to manage his brother’s estate and to meet and work with artists, art dealers, museum directors, curators, and art critics. These new connections broadened Charles’s own career, and introduced him to collectors of American folk art, like Juliana Force and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, who appreciated the neo-primitive style of his painted panels. Juliana Force, the director of the Whitney Museum of American art, befriended Charles after mounting a major retrospective of Maurice Prendergast’s work at the Whitney in 1934.

Charles had married shortly after Maurice’s death, and his widow, Eugénie, continued the work of promoting Maurice’s legacy along with Charles’s when the latter died in 1948. She gave the brothers’ papers and many works of art to the Williams College Museum of Art, and she created an endowment for research, exhibitions, publications, and programs. The museum created the Prendergast Archive and Study Center which sponsored the Maurice and Charles Prendergast catalogue raisonné. The co-author of the catalogue raisonné, Carol Clark, will join us in our Boston gallery on May 17th for the lecture Charles Prendergast: A Glimpse of Heaven. Please come to learn more about the work of this talented artist-craftsman, who, along with his brother, helped shape American art in the first half of the twentieth century.

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