Primrose Hill is a view of London just north of Regent’s Park. The poetic abstraction of this image makes abundantly clear why its maker, Maurice Prendergast, is among the first truly modern American artists and a printmaker whose monotypes have been called “the supreme artistic accomplishments in that medium…”
In 1891 Prendergast left Boston for Paris, where he received his only formal art instruction, at the Julian and Colarossi academies. Despite this training, he remained essentially self-taught, learning primarily from fellow painters. His friend Charles Conder introduced him to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Nabis, but he felt closer to the American expatriate James McNeill Whistler and his circle. This admiration is evident in Prendergast’s adoption of Whistler’s closely tuned color harmonies and grayed tonalities. In format and composition, Primrose Hill bears a marked resemblance to the 1893 decorative panels known as The Public Gardens by Nabi artist Édouard Vuillard. For the most part, these are vertically formatted compositions with high horizon lines punctuated with colorful, abstract silhouettes of figures receding into space. Prendergast shared with both Whistler and Vuillard a love of Japanese prints, which were exhibited in Paris throughout the 1880s and 1890s. Primrose Hill’s decorative border, verticality, and one-point perspective suggest his embrace of Japanese aesthetics as well.
Although he often depicted outdoor scenes, Prendergast was not a true plein-air artist. Rather, he made art in the studio, referring to sketchbooks (he would end up filling eighty-eight). Using monotype, Prendergast had no choice but to work indoors, since the oil pigments he applied to the plates dried too quickly outside. Even inside, he worked with a spontaneity and speed that make his monotypes as formidable and fresh as his open-air watercolors and higher in quality than many of his later, often overworked, oil paintings.
Prendergast hinted at his monotype process to Mrs. Oliver Williams in 1905: “Paint on copper in oils, wiping parts to be white. When [the] picture suits you, place on it Japanese paper and either press in a press or rub with a spoon till it pleases you. Sometimes the second or third place [a cognate] is the best.” According to Van Wyck Brooks, Prendergast could not afford a regular press and had no room for a workbench, which forced him to create his monotypes on the floor. He used the large spoon to which he referred above to rub the back of the sheet, and, “thus transfer the paint from the plate to the paper.” The artist’s use of this utensil may explain why his monotypes never have sharply defined plate marks and indicates another similarity between his work and the Japanese woodcuts he so admired: both were hand-printed.
Cecily Langdale proposed that Prendergast made Primrose Hill during an undocumented second trip to London presumably during the course of Prendergast’s 1891-94 residence in France, as opposed to his first trip in the summer of 1886. Her theory is supported by the appearance of his Street Scene in London in an 1893 issue of The Studio. In any case, during the period when he made Primrose Hill, Prendergast was focusing much of his energy on the monotype. His exhibition history suggests that he regarded this painterly printmaking technique as a primary part of his artistic endeavor. His first major show in Boston, at Hart and Wilson’s gallery in December 1897, included only monotypes. Likewise, his first museum exhibition, at The Art Institute of Chicago in January 1900, featured fifteen of them. In 1902, when Prendergast ceased making monotypes, he stopped exhibiting them.
Mark Krisco, Graphic Modernism: Selections from the Francey and Dr. Martin L. Gecht Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago with Hudson Hills Press, 2003, pp. 18.