Beach Scene No. 1 exemplifies Maurice Prendergast's painting style. Capturing a glimpse of a summer stroll, most likely along the New England shoreline, this work reveals the artist's fascination with the leisure activities of the time expressed in a style uniquely his own. Belonging to a group of oils, pastels and watercolors executed between 1915-1918, Beach Scene No. 1 possess the hallmarks of the artist's celebrated style.
Having traveled abroad extensively for years, Prendergast made his final trip to Europe in 1914; however, it is apparent from sketchbooks that he continued to visit the New England towns of Marblehead, Salem, Rockport, Annisquam and Gloucester until his last years. The sketches produced from these short trip served as the primary basis for his mature statements in oil, including Beach Scene No.1.
Beach Scene No. 1 demonstrates a renewed concern for the everyday activities of New England's leisure class while simultaneously exhibiting a more modernist approach to painting. Nancy Mathews writes, "Prendergast continued to produce watercolors and oils that were based on on-site sketches, but that were transformed by his investigations of abstract color and form. Such paintings as Boat Landing, Dinard, Marblehead, and New England Harbor, which span the period from the Armory Show to his last works in 1923, show Prendergast continued to mine his first experience of modernism in Paris in 1907." (C. Clark, N. Mathews and G. Owens, Maurice Brazil Prendergast and Charles Prendergast: A Catalogue Raisonn, Williamstown, Massachusetts, 1990, p. 29)
Considered the first American to champion the art of Czanne in America, Prendergast found profound inspiration in the work of the Post-Impressionist master which, despite his self-taught background, played a significant role in his painting career from 1907 onward. Prendergast's works suggest an adaptation of serveal of the stylistic innovations of the progressive European artists, particularly Czanne, Matisse and Seurat. Although Prendergast embraced these revolutionary aesthetic concerns, his interest in the modern advancements came to a halt with the dominance of Cubism. Therefore in masterworks such as Beach Scene No. 1,which were created after these developments, it is evident that Prendergast returned to earlier styles and techniques.
Depicting a stream of mid-day strollers along a New England shoreline, Beach Scene No. 1 poignantly illustrates Prendergast's mature approach to composition, color and brushwork. Keenly aware of composition, 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 Beach Scene No. 1, the promenading crowd along the verdant shoreline comprises the lower band of the painting, while the blue sea and rocky outcropping suggests the middle band, and the light filled sky the upper band. The three-band horizontality of the composition is broken up by the verticality of green trees that are placed in a frieze-like manner across the work. These tree forms span all three bands and serve to interlock the composition.
In addition to the purposeful arrangement of composition, Beach Scene No. 1 is enhanced by the powerful use of color and a bold display of brushwork. Instead of using a Fauvist, more arbritary choice of color, Prendergast in the present work defines his palette locally. The saturated green of the trees and landscape along with the crystalline blue of the sea and soft white of the sky creates a backdrop from which emerges a resplendent display of contrasting color. Set against the landscape, sea and sky, are patches, areas and lines of bold blacks, deep blues, reds, and enamel-like pinks used to animate the crowd of strolling figures. This brilliant color scheme is applied in a variety of brushstrokes, a departure from his earlier preference for a using a more unified application of pigment. Milton Brown observes: "The brushstrokes become larger and bolder and take 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 those forms, they succeed in unifying the pictorial surface." (Maurice Brazil Prendergast and Charles Prendergast, p. 22) Prendergast in Beach Scene No. 1 employs a rich variety of brushstrokes ranging from short staccato-like applications to larger sweeps of paint. In Beach Scene No. 1 these variations are freely expressed and enhance the textural quality and jewel-like pattern of the design.
Integral to many of Prendergast's works are the frames. Charles Prendergast, Maurice's brother, was an artist and a master framemaker. The two worked closely together designing and producing frames that would beautifully compliment Maurice's paintings. The frame around Beach Scene No. 1 is one such example. Maurice, who admired the lines of period frames, created frames reminiscent of various European styles including Italian and Venetian Renaissance and Spanish Baroque. The present frame's shallow carving makes reference to its is European predecessors, yet it beautifully harmonizes with the texture and movement of the painting creating a completely unified effect.
Beach Scene No. 1 illustrates Prendergast's lifelong interest in observing life out-of-doors coupled with the artist's passion for color and composition. As Richard Wattenmaker concludes, "These fully realized majestic oils of Prendergast's last decade are the culmination of more than thirty years of patient and determined exploration, trial and error, wholly personal variations on subjects that have captivated the most subtle and sophisticated minds of the Western tradition since the dawn of the Renaissance." (Maurice Prendergast, New York, 1994, p. 143.)