In 1920, as Duncan Phillips was forming the museum, he began to assemble a group of paintings by Maurice Prendergast. He had already collected works by other members of The Eight—Davies, Lawson, Luks—in some quantity, and he responded to Prendergast with equal enthusiasm, finding him to be an individualistic artist whose paintings were original, decorative, richly colorful, romantic without being trite, and evocative of dreams. At the end of 1921 eight Prendergasts were in the collection, and both Phillips and his bride, Marjorie, had taken a personal interest in the painter. On a trip to New York they visited the Prendergast brothers, and when they decorated their living quarters on the third floor of the family home in Washington, Marjorie Phillips tells of furnishing one room with silvery green furniture in order to set off their collection of works by Prendergast.
By the end of 1922 the Gallery owned at least eleven works by Prendergast, which formed one of the strongest units. The current holdings may be seen as documenting at least three stages in the evolution of the artist's style over a period of some twenty-three years.
The watercolor Pincian Hill, Rome and the first stage of Ponte della Paglia reflect the artist's early landscape approach, in which he wove an intricate pattern from the subject at hand—animated crowds in a setting of parkland, cityscape, or seashore—and filling in the pattern with more or less spontaneous brushstrokes and washes. Prendergast showed watercolors in this style in a number of exhibitions between 1897 and 1902, achieving a considerable measure of success.
In 1907, on a trip to Paris, Prendergast was greatly stimulated by seeing C»zanne's paintings and the work of the Fauves, resulting in a period of expressive exploration. The museum owns three pictures that relate to this stage: an oil sketch, Luxembourg Gardens; a watercolor, On the Beach, painted at St. Malo, which Prendergast visited in 1907 and 1909; and an oil, Snow in April. These works are filled with bright, vibrant colors that flicker and shimmer across the surface of the composition, creating a sense of extraordinary energy and vibrant life.
Five of the oils that Phillips acquired between about 1920 and 1922 form a relatively homogeneous group representative of what might be termed Prendergast's mature "tapestry style." They were probably executed between about 1914 and 1920, and unlike the early paintings, there are almost no references to a particular scene or depiction of specific details. The format is similar in each: colorful foreground figures are set against or within a shore landscape with trees; a bay is in the middle distance; and a far shore defines a high horizon. The interest is not in the subject, but rather, in the way in which the foreground forms play off against the daubs of color of the background in an interchange that is both joyful and harmonious.
Duncan Phillips made early and substantial contributions to the literature on Prendergast. Among his writings, Phillips asserted in 1922 that Prendergast "painted with a brush full of colors far more beautiful and subtly related than was to be found on the palette of any painter in France."