Maurice Prendergast arrived in Paris in 1891 and was greeted by a burgeoning and sophisticated cultural center. Although the young artist studied at the Académies Colarossi and Julian, it was from the surrounding urban environs that he drew his inspiration, developing a swift, expressive style to capture the energy and spirit of the vibrant city. Nancy Mowll Mathews notes that the artist "gravitated toward the more progressive fringe of the Parisian art establishment," (Maurice Prendergast, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1990, p. 13) and, indeed, the highly personal and modern style of Elegant Woman in a Blue Dress represents a departure from the traditional academic manner and demonstrates the influence of avant-garde artists James McNeill Whistler and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Executed circa 1893-94, the present work depicts a fashionably dressed woman strolling down a boulevard and is exemplary of Prendergast's ability to capture fleeting moments of urban modernity. A woman raising her long dress is a leitmotif in Prendergast's Parisian works and according to Van Wyck Brooks, "When short skirts came into fashion...he spoke of the beautiful movement that women had made when, at a street-corner, they turned round to lift up their skirts before they scurried across the street: 'that's a lost art,' he said." (as quoted in R.J. Wattenmaker, Maurice Prendergast, New York, 1994, p. 23) In Elegant Woman in a Blue Dress Prendergast employs subtle lines and rich washes in the woman's dress, capturing her movement and distinguishing her from the crowd on the boulevard, who are depicted in more muted tones. The delicate, subtly modulated washes of the street and buildings define the pictorial space without detracting attention from the central figure of the woman. In this strikingly beautiful composition, Prendergast renders a quotidian sight in a manner that is evocative not only of the experience of an individual in a bustling city, but also of the spirit of the city itself.
The four years that Prendergast spent in Paris served as the foundation for the development of his mature style. "In Paris Maurice was exposed to an enormous variety of styles, from the posters of Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard, Jules Chéret, and their contemporaries to the watercolors of Constantin Guys and Johan Barthold Jongkind and the drawings of Degas' followers such as Jean-Louis Forain, Jean-François Raffaelli, and Théophile Steinlen. Prendergast's style was an amalgam of his personal observations and a distillation of all he saw around him--major and minor--from the academics, whom he quickly dismissed, to the Whistlerian Englishmen, as well as the great Frenchmen from whom their work ultimately derived." (Maurice Prendergast, pp. 26-27) In its energy and sophistication, Elegant Woman in a Blue Dress manifests Prendergast's integration of his passion for contemporary life with various artistic influences into a highly individual, strikingly modern style.