17 July 2020

Charles Prendergast: An Earthly Paradise

There is much to see in this painting by the American artist Charles Prendergast. 

Starting at the bottom there are water lilies floating in deep purple water..  In the lower right corner  stands Botticelli's Venus, here framed by her giant clam shell, modestly holding a bouquet of flowers in hand while three female figures surround her in homage to the Quattrocento.  The trio may also be a reference to the Three Graces, ancient goddesses of nature often portrayed in similar poses. 

They are balanced by three much larger and more modern figures at lower left; these appear to be a family group, possibly three sisters, two of whom hold floral stems aloft. A brown dog looks at his mistress at left and another lies quietly by the red-headed girl at right. 

To the right of this group we see the rump of a horse carrying a luxuriously dressed male rider, possibly a knight, followed by his female consort who rides side-saddle.  Birds fly near her and one appears to light on the woman's hand. Behind her, four deer stroll on a hill indicated by a curving brown line; perhaps they are a in a forest as they walk among trees. Deer and humans have a very long joint history, dating back at least 15,000 years as documented in the Caves paintings of Lascaux. Deer are thought to personify the virtues.  

Providing a focal point in the upper left corner is a  spectacularly decorative tree, one never seen in any wood, billowing panels of stars, flowers, and abstract shapes; it is related to the stream by their common color: purple.  This makes the viewer notice that the more usual connection the artist eschewed is to link the blue of the sky to blue water.  But here we are in a visionary landscape, a parallel world, fruitful and peopled by figures from different eras and cultures. 

 Incising the image on a wooden panel was an antique touch, giving the effect of a Byzantine mosaic.  This from a man who, on visiting Italy, sensed that he had stepped through a door to an alternate world, where the artistic riches of antiquity were arrayed before him. In all, humans and animals in harmony, this is Prendergast's earthly paradise.

Image: Charles Prendergast - Figures and Deer, circa 1917, tempura, silver and gold leaf, on incised gessoed panel, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia.

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