The Spirit of the Hunt is like a fairy tale told in an unfamiliar dialect. It is tantalizingly familiar and yet difficult to understand completely. This, the largest of the Prendergast panels, seems childishly simple in style and meaning. But coming to an adequate explanation of the subject portrayed, or the techniques used--or even the circumstances of the collaboration between Maurice and Charles Prendergast--leaves the work veiled in mystery. Like all good storytellers, the Prendergasts deliberately created it that way.
In trying to decipher the story itself, we immediately encounter the difficulties that will face us at every turn. The sheer multiplicity of references suggested by the people, animals, and landscape is humbling. For example, the three central doll-like women dressed like peasant princesses seem at first to be the heroines of the story. But, as the eye grows accustomed to the complexities of the design, we see that it is the man on the white horse and the black and gold deer in front of him who must represent The Spirit of the Hunt
We then realize that the women are onlookers (one holds a flower) and we quickly associate them with the Three Magi or the Three Graces. The two men on the right also seem to be celebrants--one carries a basket of fruit; the other gestures to the golden deer. The style and motifs of offering suggest other origins of the story-- Egyptian, Assyrian, and Persian art spring to mind--to add to the welter of possible sources.
The mood of celebration and the loving depiction of the deer in turn seem to contradict the idea of a hunt. In other panels by Charles Prendergast, armies of hunters clearly intend to kill the deer which bound gracefully through stylized landscapes in the manner of Assyrian ritual hunting scenes. But the sources that the Prendergast might have used for this panel tell stories of hunters who do not kill. The Vision of St. Eustace, for instance, which is depicted in a well-known painting by Pisanello (The National Gallery, London, England) and which the Prendergasts knew through reproduction, tells of a hunter--St. Eustace--who sees the cross in the horns of stag and refuses to kill it. Another popular legend of a hunter, St. Julian l'Hospitalier, which originally appeared in the thirteenth-century golden legend and was later re-told by Flaubert in Trois Contes, relates the story of a hunter who ignores the warning of a miraculously talking deer and later atones for his bloodthirstiness and receives heavenly forgiveness.
The Prendergasts' title The Spirit of the Hunt--with an emphasis on Spirit'--suggests that they indeed had such an inspirational story in mind. Both brothers passionately admired medieval and folk treatments of religious subjects and freely borrowed motifs from them. But since they were not the themselves religious (although probably raised Irish-Catholic), and the style and subject matter evoke non-Christian Egyptian, Near Eastern, and Classical art, the more generic term "spirt" is more appropriate to the sense of the work than any specific religious message.
One final puzzle arises from the intended destination of the panel. It is believed that the great collector of American modernist art, Lillie P. Bliss, commissioned and gave it to her brother Cornelius J. Bliss for his country home on Long Island, where it hung over the fireplace for may years. As such, it served as a decoration, since the large size and careful placement with the decor of the room suggest that it was made with its final destination in mind. If so, one wonders if the theme of the hunt had a special meaning for this country estate where horseback riding an perhaps even fox hunting took place. The celebratory mood of the panel, associated with the hunt, would set the tone form may a country-house party held in front of a roaring fire and Prendergast's charming folk vision. Lillie Bliss later commissioned Charles Prendergast to create an equally evocative "hope chest" (Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, Illinois) to celebrate the birth of Cornelius's daughter Elizabeth in 1920.
The date of The Spirt of the Hunt is not entirely certain, but by the time it was reproduced in an article on Charles Prendergast in 1919, it was already in place in the Cornelius Bliss home. It was not exhibited in New York as were other panels by Charles Prendergast in the later teens, but it certainly was known to wide audience. Friends in the Prendergasts' art circle saw it in their studio on Washington Square South, and many others became familiar with it on visits to the Bliss estate on Long Island. Because of its size and complexity, it was considered a masterpiece at the time and continues to be regarded as one of Charles Prendergast's most important works.
The final mystery has to do with the fact that the monograms of both Charles and Maurice may be found along the lower left side of the panel. Outlined in a cartouche-like manner, the "MBP" of Maurice and the "CP" of Charles attest to a collaboration between the two brothers in the creation of the work. But although there are parallels between this composition and contemporary works by Maurice, such as The Picnic (National Gallery of Canada, Toronto, Ontario, Canada), which also features three women and distant landscape of water and hills, the style of this panel can only be associated with Charles. Maurice's collaboration, if it included more than just suggesting ideas and procedures, must have been to follow as closely as possible the style and execution of his brother. Indeed, when the work was published in 1919, no mention is made of the hand of Maurice. One is tempted to conclude that, true to the Spirt of the Hunt, the work represents the "spirt" of Maurice-or perhaps more to the point-the spirit of their brotherhood.
The "Prendies" were a popular pair in art circles, first in Boston, and then, after 1914, in New York. They kept their professional lives separate, neither speaking for the other when it came to commissions exhibitions, or purchases. But they lived together, worked in the same studio, traveled in the same circles of friends, and shared enthusiasm for the same artist and ideas. The collection of photographs, books, and art magazines that they kept around them served both for motifs and inspiration. After their trip to Italy in 1911, they both began experimenting with ideas drawn from ancient, non-western, and folk art. The cross-fertilization of their work in teens resulted in some of the most monumental and evocative works of their careers. It is in this sense that the monograms on The Spirt of the Hunt may be best understood. They symbolize a lifetime of collaboration and the rare intertwining not only of two brothers, but of two artistic spirts.
Christie's is grateful to Nancy Mowll Mathews for contributing this catalogue essay.