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Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1859-1924)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller
Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1859-1924)

Steps of Santa Maria d'Aracoeli, Rome

Details
Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1859-1924)
Steps of Santa Maria d'Aracoeli, Rome
signed 'Prendergast' (lower left)
watercolor and pencil on paper
20 ¼ x 14 1/8 in. (51.4 x 35.9 cm.)
Executed circa 1898-99.
Provenance
The artist.
Mr. and Mrs. J. Montgomery Sears, Boston, Massachusetts, acquired from the above.
Mrs. J.D. Cameron Bradley, Southboro, Massachusetts, 1935.
Acquired by the late owners from the above, 1961.
Literature
"American Dealers Hold Third Annual Show," Art News, vol. 27, March 1929.
A.F. Cochrane, "Maurice Prendergast Memorial Exhibition (Harvard Society for Contemporary Art Sponsors Display 5 Years After Artist's Death)," Boston Evening Transcript, April 1929, p. 14.
J. Barnitz, et al., The David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection: Art of the Western Hemisphere, vol. II, New York, 1988, pp. 52-54, no. 18, illustrated.
C. Clark, N.M. Mathews, G. Owens, Maurice Brazil Prendergast: A Catalogue Raisonné, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1990, pp. 132-33, 399, no. 749, pl. 26, illustrated.
N.M. Mathews, E. Kennedy, Prendergast in Italy, London, 2009, pp. 71, 177, nos. 82, 749, illustrated.
Exhibited
Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard Society for Contemporary Art, Maurice Prendergast 1861-1924: A Memorial Exhibition, March 19-May 9, 1929, no. 17 (as Steps of the Ara Coeli).
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. 10.
Boston, Massachusetts, Boston Society of Water Color Painters, Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition, April 18-May 14, 1939, no. 294.
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Lot Essay

Steps of Santa Maria d’Aracoeli, Rome is among the finest examples of Maurice Brazil Prendergast's watercolors, celebrating the pageantry and modernity of public life at the turn of the century. Like the Impressionists in Paris where he studied from 1891 to 1894, Prendergast took his primary inspiration from daily life, using crowded public spaces, such as beaches and sidewalks, to create paintings modern both in style and in subject. According to the artist's biographer Nancy Mowll Mathews, "Leisure was promoted as the hallmark of a progressive society. Social reformers and the labor movement fought for the universal acceptance of the eight-hour workday and guaranteed paid holidays. They argued that increased leisure time for the individual would bring improvements in health, education, and productivity, which, in turn, would fuel the growth of an enlightened, modern society...True to his age, leisure became the great theme of Prendergast's art. Over time, attitudes and values changed, but he never lost his reverence for a subject that he felt made people more civilized and more human. Nor did he forget that art itself was a leisure-time spectacle. Like a movie producer or an amusement park carney, he was a showman in the best sense of the word. He produced art to seduce and charm his audience--all the while asking them to sharpen their senses and broaden their horizons." (The Art of Leisure: Maurice Prendergast in the Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1999, pp. 15-16)

Set at the highest point of the Capitoline Hill, one of the Seven Hills of Rome, the basilica of St. Mary of the Altar of Heaven and its monumental staircase served as the inspiration for Steps of Santa Maria d’Aracoeli, Rome. Here, Prendergast captures the activity and movement of the scene as men, women and children congregate on the steps, the entrance to the basilica looming at the top of the composition. Mathews writes, "By far the most extraordinary aspect of the Italian watercolors is Prendergast's use of detailed architectural structures as decorative backdrops for the parade of human life seen throughout the tourist's Italy at the turn of the century...he made it plain in his pictures that he had come as a tourist and aimed to capture the excitement of tourist haunts. As with his beach scenes, he presents a beautiful setting and then populates it with figures that are as lively and interesting as the sights confronting them." (Maurice Prendergast, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1990, p. 17) Richard J. Wattenmaker adds, "In his Italian watercolors, Maurice used walls as natural grids; among their intervals he packed the spaces full of picturesque activity, a tradition that Carpaccio, the Bellinis, and the eighteenth-century Venetian view painters, especially Canaletto, followed in their large scale set pieces." (Maurice Prendergast, New York, 1994, p. 52)

In Steps of Santa Maria d’Aracoeli, Rome, Prendergast groups the figures in various sections throughout the composition. "Prendergast's crowds have a very particular character. They are anonymous as all crowds really are, but a Prendergast crowd is not just a mass of undifferentiated humanity, as in many Impressionist paintings. No one stands out by virtue of either personality or action, yet the people in it are individuals, each doing something of his own within the context of a group." (M.W. Brown in C. Clark, N. Mathews, G. Owens, Maurice Brazil Prendergast, Charles Prendergast: A Catalogue Raisonné, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1990, p. 16) The dynamic and complex composition also illuminates the artist's mastery of perspective, similar to his works painted from an elevated vantage point, such as Monte Pincio, Rome (1898-99, Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, Illinois). In Steps of Santa Maria d’Aracoeli, Rome, Prendergast uses strong compositional lines derived from the steps, cast iron fence, trees and buildings to create a watercolor at once complex and harmonious. Prendergast’s unique painting style, characterized by vivid color, intriguing composition and a richness of detail, is best represented by his Italian watercolors, and Steps of Santa Maria d’Aracoeli, Rome stands as a tour de force from this period.

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