After a year and a half sojourn in Italy, where the artist produced many of his most celebrated compositions in watercolor, Maurice Prendergast returned to America in 1900. Having mastered his technique, Prendergast developed a painting style uniquely his own, characterized by vivid color, complex compositions and a richness of detail. The artist also began to focus chiefly on themes of leisure, predominantly in city parks and courtyards.
In Prendergast's earlier watercolors, he took his primary inspiration from "the grand theme of modern art, leisure." 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) These leisure themes manifested themselves in Prendergast's use of scenes of daily life, crowded beaches and parks and busy sidewalks and squares, creating paintings modern in both style and in subject.
At the time the present work was painted, Prendergast resided in Winchester, Massachusetts, near Boston, and created the West Church, Boston series, six in total, when the church temporarily served as a branch of the Boston Public Library. The current watercolor, Courtyard, West End Library, Boston is one of the finest examples of the series. All depict autumnal scenes in the West Church courtyard. Grand, leafy trees in full-color are compositionally intertwined with the playing children accompanied by fashionably adorned ladies. Each of the six works in the West Church series have slightly variant perspectives. Four are horizontal formats, two of which share views from the bustling city street towards the church: West Church, Boston (The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts) and Courtyard, West End Library (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). The other two horizontal depictions, including the present work, depict the opposite view from the church towards the street. The final two works in the series are vertically formatted, West Church Boston (Private collection) and The Bartol Church (The Fountain) (Private collection) and depict views from the street towards West Church.
Courtyard, West End Library, Boston is densely composed and includes many of Prendergast's familiar motifs in his highly refined, mature style. Describing this work, Richard Wattenmaker notes, "the autumn scene includes many of Prendergast's familiar motifs: the screenlike cast-iron fence, the vertical framework of tree trunks and figures, especially children, set on the brick sidewalk in a way identical to the contemporaneous monotypes of London and Boston." (Maurice Prendergast, New York, 1994, pp. 59-61)
The dynamic and complex composition also illuminates the artist's mastery of handling of perspective , which is analagous to his use of perspective in other works painted from an elevated vantage point. For example, in his earlier Venetian works such as Monte Pincio, Rome (1898-99, Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, Illinois). Prendergast incorporates fore, middle and background elements using the strong diagonals of the roadway, bordered by brick ramparts, complete with pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages. In Courtyard, West End Library, Boston, Prendergast similarly uses strong compositional elements derived from the walkways, fountain, trees and buildings to create a watercolor at once complex and harmonious.
At the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Prendergast exhibited regularly in Boston and was beginning to establish his reputation as one of the city's most highly acclaimed artists. His watercolors charmed the public and the critics alike, inspiring general praise. After one such exhibition, a critic from the Sunday Journal exclaimed, "The works by Maurice B. Prendergast, both at the Art Club and Jordan Gallery are 'the rage of the town,' and well they may be reckoned." (as quoted in Maurice Brazil Prendergast and Charles Prendergast: A Catalogue Raisonné, p. 60) Prendergast's West Church, Boston series, and in particular Courtyard, West End Library, Boston, stands as one of the artist's most charming, complex and successful works of this series, depicting a fleeting Gilded Age life of leisure and joy in one of the most beautiful American cities in the early twentieth century.