Case of the Prendergast Blues

Don't get me wrong.  I have nothing against artists, and nothing in particular against Maurice Predergast-- an artist I regard as harmless, and occasionally decorative.  But sometimes, I have to wonder.

This week, I had the ostensibly good fortune to attend The Philadelphia Museum of Art's, American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent.  The show is an unqualified success for the Museum.  On weekends, lines were long enough to take a half hour before patient museum-goers were rewarded with entry.  Crowds of people squeezed into every room, most of them with their audio-tour glued to their ears.  Seeing the paintings involved a tricky process of delicately peering over shoulders, or strategically waiting for a lull-- a short lull, to be sure, since the crowds were unending.  In short, a blockbuster show.

I imagine most of the show's visitors had come in from Philadelphia's suburbs -- and unsurpisingly, most of the crowd was female.  Unsurprisingly, because watercolors are a favorite of women -- and historically, women have excelled at this form.  In fact, several of America's great watercolorists were female.  It is one form where you do not have to look far to find women.

Except that you would never guess that fact from The Philadelphia Museum's watercolor exhibition.  Their pressing question for visitors was who was the greater?  Winslow Homer or John Singer Sargent?  Talk about questions no one needs to answer.

Artist:  Marion Wachtel 
But stumbling, hot and tired, through the rooms, my friend and I were struck with how few female watercolorists were represented.  Two by the great Massachusetts artist, Fidelia Bridges, one apiece from the Bryn Mawr women (Jessie Wilcox Smith, Elizabeth Shippen Green, Violet Oakley) despite their importance to Philadelphia.  A lively colorful Alice Schille that immediately made me want to see more.  And of course, the requisite Georgia O'Keefe (who had almost no relationship to Homer or Sargent.)

Where, I thought, was Marion Wachtel?

She was born in 1873, the daughter of an artist.  She became a student of  William Merritt Chase, studied at the Art Institute, and later became a member of the New York Watercolor Society.  Her watercolor landscapes are luminous and beautiful.

But need I mention that no one remembers Watchtel.  On the other, Maurice Prendergast (born in 1858 in Canada) is a fixture in America's museums.  He had as many as four (perhaps five) watercolors in the Philadelphia show-- all of them unremarkable to my eyes.  I don't want to pose the question of who was the greater watercolorist, Marion Wachtel or  Maurice Prendergast?

I would simply ask museums to allow us to pose it.

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