Born in Newfoundland and brought to Boston as a boy, Maurice Prendergast left school in the eighth grade to work in a dry goods store. His younger brother, Charles, a successful framemaker, devoted himself enthusiastically to encouraging and subsidizing Maurice's artistic career. With Charles's help, Maurice was able, at the age of thirty, to study art in Paris at Colarossi's and the Académie Julian. There he worked only from life, disregarding the advice of Jean-Paul Laurens that he should copy plaster casts. In the mornings he drew from the model in the studio, and in the afternoons he sat in cafés and sketched the people in the boulevards and parks.
A key influence on Prendergast at this time was the Canadian artist James Wilson Morrice, who belonged to a group that gathered at the café Chat Blanc in Montparnasse. Most members of this circle were British, including the painters Charles Condor, Walter Sickert, and Aubrey Beardsley and the writers Arnold Bennett and Somerset Maugham. Morrice had also known Gauguin and had very open-minded tastes. His rooms in the Quai des Grand Augustins were decorated with a Condor fan, a Picasso sketch, and a Modigliani drawing as well as several watercolors by Prendergast. Morrice himself was influenced by the flat color patterns of Bonnard and Vuillard, and his works showing this influence served as a model for those of Prendergast. In some cases the two artists even sketched the same site in Paris from the same vantage point.
In 1895 Prendergast returned to Boston, his home base until 1914, from which he made occasional trips to Europe. One notable visit to Venice, in 1898-99, resulted in a group of splendid watercolors. Like the masters of the so-called "Boston school," such as Frank Benson, Joseph De Camp, Edmund Tarbell, and William Paxton, Prendergast concentrated on the genteel aspects of life, specifically on well-dressed women, whom he treated as decorative compositional accessories without portraying any psychological dimensions of their personalities. Prendergast's formal interests, however, set him apart from the other Boston painters, who were stylistically retardataire and worked in either a tightly realistic or an academic-impressionist manner. Only the gifted but uneven Charles Hopkinson, with whom Prendergast exhibited in 1905, ever shared any similar interest in stylistic experiment.
At the time of the Armory Show in 1913, Maurice Prendergast stood out as the most modern and formally advanced artist in America, the first American painter to absorb the achievements of the Post-Impressionists, such as Bonnard, Vuillard, and Cézanne, and the only one to eliminate illusionistic space and concentrate on color and form. Prendergast's art, however, while modernist in tendency, was not based on mental lucubration but on an almost childish delight in color and decorative effects. Charles Hovey Pepper, the Boston artist who painted the only known portrait of Prendergast, once remarked, "Of all the men of genius I have known, Maurice Prendergast had the simplest manner. In conversation he showed the same naive charm that is inherent in the lovely magic of his work." Once established, his style varied little, and academic attempts at formal analysis of his work have generally proved less illuminating than more informal reminiscences like Van Wyck Brooks's delightful "Anecdote of Maurice Prendergast," an essay based entirely on conversations with the artist's brother, Charles.
Prendergast won the favor of relatively conservative Bostonians, who had little interest in his modernist tendencies but enjoyed the cheerfulness of his work. His most enthusiastic patronage, however, came from collectors like Duncan Phillips and Albert Barnes whose primary interest was modernist European art. After 1900, Prendergast exhibited frequently in New York, where he could reach a larger audience. In 1908 he joined the controversial exhibition staged by The Eight at the Macbeth Gallery, and in 1913 he showed seven works in the Armory Show. In 1914 he and his brother Charles finally moved to New York and took a studio above that of William Glackens at 50 South Washington Square. Prendergast worked there until his death.
Although Prendergast read widely, in English, French, and German, the diversity of his reading had little effect on his remarkably single-minded devotion to his art. He once wrote in his sketchbook, "Art is the great stimulus of life -I find it year by year more rich, more desirable, and more mysterious." His comment after reading Tolstoy's religious writings was, "God would have made a good painter."
Toward the end of his career Prendergast concentrated increasingly on oil paintings, which he often painted over for years, but the bulk of his life's work was in watercolor. His choice of this medium was doubtless influenced by its importance in the oeuvre of several slightly older American artists; for example, Winslow Homer and John La Farge.