Maurice Prendergast, whose work was the most daring and advanced of his American contemporaries, lived at almost exactly the same time as John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), a painter whose cosmopolitan images contrast sharply with the naÃ¯ve evocations of the Arcadian world of Prendergast. His pastoral scenes of idyllic figures, frequently both nude and clothed, are woven as a tapestry across the fabric of his canvases. While his compositions reveal numerous influences, they are the startlingly original and intensely personal vision of the artist.
Hints of artists as diverse as Carpaccio, Puvis de Chavannes, and Fortuny to Winslow Homer, Cézanne and Matisse have been found in his work. His paintings have been compared to Persian miniatures, Byzantine mosaics and Japanese prints. This eclecticism was found in the studio he shared with his brother, Charles, which was filled with such diverse items as "a fantasy pagoda picked up on a joyous foray to China town, beautifully designed pottery from the dime store, an ancient bit of mosaic, old Persian jars, and pieces of brocade, " as well as Italian marionettes.
Rainbow, which is dated 1905 on the frame, was painted at the same time that the artist's productivity was significantly reduced as he became increasingly concerned with his dramatic loss of hearing. Using alternative therapeutic methods, the artist spent long periods swimming in cold water which he felt might give him some relief from his affliction. In addition, problems with his eyes forced the artist to give up painting late that summer and into the fall.
The rainbow was considered a sign of promise in the 19th century, a symbol of reconciliation between God and man. Prendergast used the motif in at least two other paintings done around this time: Yacht Race (c. 1902-1904, Collection of Mrs. Charles Prendergast), in which a partial rainbow is seen; and as a double rainbow in Salem (c. 1902-1904, unallocated, and now known only through photograph). In Rainbow, the curved arc across the top of his painting, like the arched top of an altarpiece, unifies the frieze-like nature of Prendergast's composition. As in Georges Seurat's Sunday Afternoon on the Grande Jatte, the fashionably dressed women are shown Egyptian-like in convention: either frontally or in strict profile. For the most part, figures to the right of the composition move to the right; those on the left-including the horse and rider, a favourite motif of the artist-move to the left. The space of his painting is reduced to flat bands of colour, suggestive of beach, sea, and sky. Lighter in key than most of his compositions, the artist's liberal use of white gives a pastel colouring to his scene. A critic writing at the time remarked that "his spotty little pictures reveal a sense for colour schemes that is very uncommon; they are like memoranda for large pictures, and are appreciated by those who know pictures too well to put great weight on 'finish'. Mr. Prendergast should be an ideal man for mosaics, since it is rare to find anyone with such a delicate feeling for the relations of colors and so true a sense for compositions."
Kenneth W. Maddox