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Charles Prendergast (1863-1948)

Three-Panel Screen

Charles Prendergast (1863-1948)
Three-Panel Screen
oil and gold leaf on gessoed wood
each panel, 75 x 27¼ in. (190.5 x 69.2 cm.)
Painted circa 1916-17.
[With]Kraushaar Galleries, New York.
Duncan Phillips, Washington, D.C., acquired from the above, 1926.
Mrs. Duncan Phillips, gift from the above, 1926.
By descent to the present owner, 1985.
S. LaFollette, Art in America, New York, 1929, p. 271, illustrated.
Phillips Memorial Gallery, Catalogue of Paintings: January 1932, Washington, D.C., 1932, n.p.
Phillips Gallery, The Phillips Collection, A Museum of Modern Art and its Sources: Catalogue, Washington, D.C., 1952, p. 81.
R. Wattenmaker, The Art of Charles Prendergast, exhibition catalogue, Boston, Massachusetts, 1968, pp. 14, 25-26, no. 51, illustrated.
A. Goldin, "The Brothers Prendergast," Art in America, March 1976, p. 90, illustrated.
D.W. Scott, Maurice Prendergast, Washington, D.C., 1980, n.p., no. 17, illustrated.
M. Komanecky and V.F. Butera, The Folding Image: Screens by Western Artists of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, exhibition catalogue, New Haven, Connecticut, 1984, pp. 189-93, no. 18, illustrated.
W.A. Gengarelly and C. Derby, The Prendergasts & The Arts & Crafts Movement, exhibition catalogue, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1989, pp. 66-67, figs. 1, 2, illustrated.
C. Clark, N.M. Mathews and G. Owens, Maurice Brazil Prendergast, Charles Prendergast: A Catalogue Raisonné, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1990, pp. 88-89, 195, 673, no. 2235, pl. 88, fig. 2, illustrated.
New York, The Gallery of American Art Association, Spring Salon, May 21-June 9, 1923, no. 47a.
Washington, D.C., Phillips Memorial Gallery, First Exhibitions: Season 1930-1931, October 5, 1930-January 25, 1931, no. 108.
Washington, D.C., Phillips Memorial Gallery, Where Classic and Romantic Meet in Painting, October 1931-January 1932.
Washington, D.C., Phillips Gallery, Exhibitions, February-June 1932.
Andover, Massachusetts, Phillips Academy, Addison Gallery of American Art, The Prendergasts: Retrospective Exhibition of the Work of Maurice and Charles Prendergast, September 24-November 6, 1938, no. 21.
New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Art Gallery, and elsewhere, The Art of Charles Prendergast, October 2-November 3, 1968, no. 51.
New York, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., The Art of Charles Prendergast, March 5-22, 1969, no. 38.
New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Art Gallery, and elsewhere, The Folding Image: Screens by Western Artists of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, March 4-September 3, 1984, no. 18.
Washington, D.C., The Phillips Collection, Duncan Phillips: Centennial Exhibition, June 14-August 31, 1986.

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Lot Essay

Decorated across the surface in a characteristically whimsical, highly imaginative style, Three-Panel Screen from 1916 to 1917 is a magnificent example of Charles Prendergast's painted panels and most likely the first of only three screens the artist created during his prolific career. Although his reputation was first established as one of America's greatest frame makers, Prendergast began a second career as a painter in his fifties which flourished into his early eighties.

Without precedent in the history of American art, Prendergast's style is immediately recognizable, yet his art did transform and change over time and can be divided into three, fairly distinct periods or styles. Prendergast's first painted works were produced around 1912, following a highly inspiring trip to Italy the year before. As Nancy M. Mathews points out, "Italy was a revelation to him; he loved the sensation of stepping into the past." (The Art of Charles Prendergast from the Collections of Williams College Museum of Art and Mrs. Charles Prendergast, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1993, p. 15) In addition to the wonderful frames and antique carved furniture he saw, Prendergast was struck by the brilliancy of the gold leaf shimmering on the surfaces of the quattrocento and cinquecento masterpieces. From this point forward, gilding not only embellished his frames but became a prominent element in his paintings, as seen in the present work.

Prendergast leads the viewer into his world through a row of interchanging horizontal bands of land and water, unifying the entire composition with a consistent horizon and decorative sky motif. The interplay of figures and animals alternate with expressive flowers, branches and blossoms in full bloom enlivening the surface with a constant flurry of motion and color. Prendergast's wit and spontaneity freed him from employing an expected symmetry and perfection in this carefree arrangement, "reflecting the Ruskinian preference for asymmetry, irregularity and roughness." (R. Anderson, "Charles Prendergast," Maurice Brazil Prendergast and Charles Prendergast: A Catalogue Raisonné, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1990, p. 90) These details may recall Prendergast's earlier interest in subjects suggesting fruitfulness, renewal, and rebirth. However, "it is probably unwise to look for precise iconographic meaning or deliberate intellectual content in his is more likely that Charles chose these motifs primarily because they charmed him on a simple visual level and struck him as a happy antidote to contemporary realism." (R. Anderson, "Charles Prendergast" in Maurice Brazil Prendergast and Charles Prendergast: A Catalogue Raisonné, p. 90)

Throughout the entire screen, Prendergast's love of decorating a surface is expressed over and over revealing the artist's paramount interest in filling a surface with rich color and pattern, likely stemming from his work in frame design and combined influences of Italian, Byzantine and Arts and Crafts traditions. The flat, two-dimensional quality of Three-Panel Screen lends the picture a simplicity and clarity, which lies at the heart of its charm. Prendergast's delight in creating the work is displayed across the surface where no one focal point presides. The artist's spontaneous hand is seen in the lavish application of flowing color and gold leaf and delicate punch work and incised lines to add surface texture and detail. The overall structure and vertical form of the screen is broken up by the sweeping lines of the twisting trees, the rounded forms of the shapely terrain, and most obviously by the marvelous shapes of the bold arrangements of flowers, animals and figures. Together these wonderful vignettes, balanced by the splendid angels painted on the reverse in a watchful manner, create a virtual playground for the eyes, the creation of an artist capturing the pleasures of idyllic life in a decidedly modern aesthetic.

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