Beach, St. Malo 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.
Beach, St. Malo 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) Beach, St. Malo demonstrates the artist's fascination with everyday activities of the leisure class while simultaneously exhibiting his Modernist approach to painting.
After a thirteen year absence from Paris, Prendergast returned in early 1907. In June of that year, the artist arrived in St. Malo on the northwest coast of France. Just as he did while in New England in his earliest watercolor phase, Prendergast looked to the French beaches for holiday and leisure subjects. In the works he painted that summer, Prendergast continued in the stylistic direction of his earlier works, although his colors became much more high-keyed and jewel-like. Ladies with parasols and men in smart suits lounging leisurely were among his preferred subjects, as were children frolicking in the sand and surf.
In Beach, St. Malo, Prendergast captures a beautiful, sun-filled day while men, women and children walk along the rocks and play in the water. "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)
Beach, St. Malo 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 Beach, St. Malo, the blue water suggests the lower band of the work, the crowd on the rocks comprise the middle band, while the light-filled sky remains the upper band. The three-band horizontality of the composition is broken up by the verticality of such prominent motifs as the figures and sails which are placed in a frieze like manner across the work, spanning all three bands and interlocking the composition.
In addition to the purposeful arrangement of composition, Beach, St. Malo is enhanced by the powerful use of color and a bold display of brushwork. The artist elects to use an arbitrary choice of color and defines his palette locally. The varied neutral washes of the rocks create a backdrop from which emerges a resplendent display of contrasting, yet harmonizing color using his typical color scheme of reds, blues, greens and yellows to add to the bustle of activity. This brilliant color scheme is applied in thin, fluid brushstrokes. 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 Beach, St. Malo, these variations in brushwork and color are freely expressed and enhance the textural quality and pattern of the work.
Beach, St. Malo illustrates the artist's lifelong interest in observing urbanity at rest as well as his passion for color and composition. Bringing together several of Prendergast's favored devices and tools, this extraordinary watercolor reveals the artist's highly personalized approach to subject and style.