Picnic Party is among the finest examples of Maurice Prendergast's unique watercolor style, 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 beaches and parks to create paintings modern both in style and in subject. The present work depicts the bustle of New York City's Central Park and demonstrates the artist's fascination with everyday activities of the leisure class, while simultaneously exhibiting his Modernist approach to painting.
Picnic Party illustrates Prendergast's fascination with crowds found in popular public places of the new middle class. Nancy Mathews writes, "His talent and personality drew him to the kind of experiences turn-of-the-century leisure offered: the colorful jostling of holiday crowds, the experience of nature mediated by parasol and windswept banner, and the lowering of class and gender barriers to foster a sense of inclusiveness--however fleeting...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." (The Art of Leisure: Maurice Prendergast in the Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1999, pp. 15-16)
In Picnic Party, Prendergast depicts women and children enjoying a beautiful, sun-filled day in the famed urban oasis. In his distinctive style, he includes several vignettes and focuses on the inherent patterning of the figures and their surroundings, including only enough distinguishing characteristics to create a lively and engaging scene. "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. Within this urban throng there are some indications of class distinction in dress, activity, and means of locomotion, but it is exactly the democratization of people in a Prendergast crowd that gives it its character." (C. Clark, N.M. Mathews, G. Owens, Maurice Brazil Prendergast, Charles Prendergast: A Catalogue Raisonné, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1990, p. 16)
Picnic Party poignantly illustrates Prendergast's particular approach to composition, color and brushwork. Keenly aware of the Post-Impressionist's aesthetic attitudes of composition and space, Prendergast used an array of devices to emphasize the flatness of the surface, which in turn heightened the overall decorative effect. In the present work, Prendergast uses a method of banding and trellising whereby the artist stacks compositional elements in horizontal bands, which are interlocked by strong vertical forms. In Picnic Party, there are two bands of figures, portrayed in a frieze-like manner across the work, while the densely knit treetops act as the upper band of the composition. This three-band horizontality is broken up by the verticality of such prominent motifs as the figures' brightly colored hats and parasols, interlocking the composition.
In addition to the purposeful arrangement of composition, Picnic Party is enhanced by the powerful use of color and a bold display of brushwork. Prendergast elects to use an arbitrary choice of color and defines his palette locally. The varied, neutral washes of the park's landscape create a backdrop from which emerges a resplendent display of contrasting, yet harmonizing color. Here Prendergast employs his typical color scheme of reds, blues, greens and yellows to convey the bustle of activity. This brilliant color scheme is applied in thin, fluid washes. Prendergast's brushwork takes on "an abstract quality apart from the underlying forms they are supposed to define, moving in independent directions, and varying in size and shape. But, while obscuring and overriding those forms, they succeed in unifying the pictorial surface." (M. Brown in Maurice Brazil Prendergast, Charles Prendergast: A Catalogue Raisonné, p. 22) In Picnic Party, these variations in brushwork and color are freely expressed and enhance the textural quality and pattern of the work.
Picnic Party exhibits Prendergast's predilection for capturing glimpses of picturesque crowds relishing a leisurely day in the park. Bringing together several of Prendergast's favored devices and tools, this superb watercolor manifests his unique and modern style.