Editor's note: The following essay, with Endnotes, is printed with permission of the Springfield Library and Museums Association. The essay was included in the 256 page illustrated 1999 catalogue titled Selections from the American Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts and the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, ISBN 0-916746-18-6, pp. 203-206. In addition to the essay, the catalogue contains an image and provenance of the painting and an exhibition schedule. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in purchasing the catalogue, please contact the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts directly through either this phone number or web address:
Maurice Brazil Prendergast, 1853-1324
Merry-Go-Round, Nahant, around 1900-1901
(watercolor and pencil on paper, 13 1/4 x 13 1/8 inches, sight; signed: recto, lower left in ink: Prendergast, verso: No 21/Carrousel; Museum of Fine Arts, Horace P. Wright Collection, 49.D02)
by Carol Clark
Nahant, the neck of land that curls into Massachusetts Bay along Boston's North Shore, is the oldest summer resort on the New England coast. About 1825, prominent Boston families began to buy property and put down roots for a thriving seasonal colony. Despite the presence of a small public amusement park, developed around 1860 by a leading local resident, not much really changed until about 1892 when hotels along Nahant's southern shore, at a spot called Bass Point, built new steamboat wharfs and developed commercial entertainment. With such attractions made easily accessible from Boston or Revere Beach, thousands of day-trippers soon thronged the point on Sundays and holidays. And so each summer around the turn of the century, Nahant sheltered two social worlds: one, a closed and exclusive group Thomas Gold Appleton bitingly dubbed "Cold Roast Boston," gravitated to the Nahant Club, while the other, more recently enjoying leisure time and money to spend, clustered around the hotels and amusements at Bass Point.
Maurice Prendergast, by 1900 living in the Boston suburb of Winchester, probably came as a day-tripper. To judge from his watercolors (the only documentation of these trips), Prendergast went only to Bass Point. "Over at Bass Point," observed one travel writer a few years later, "the excursion steamers from Revere land and empty upon the beach their loads of merry-go-round riders and imbibers of ice-cream cones. There is a dancing pavilion and a band stand: cafes and all the paraphernalia for what is considered 'popular amusement'." If there were any mistaking the writer's distaste for those excursionists, it is clarified in the next sentence: "But the genuine Nahant residents hold themselves aloof from such frivolity."
The "riders and imbibers" also came for some of the same reasons as those of Nahant's other social world: its natural beauty and its convenience to central Boston. Yet they brought new conditions for having a good time: three competitive hotels offered fish dinners (fried live lobster was a specialty), accompanied by liquor, for which some blamed much of the boisterous behavior they associated with Bass Point. There were, indeed, more active diversions at the dancing pavilions or on the swings and merry-go-rounds that sprung up to satisfy Nahant's newest summer excursionists.
Prendergast sought out Nahant at a transitional moment in its history. Just as he had previously painted Revere Beach in changing times, at Nahant he may have foreseen the burgeoning of commercial entertainment. Prendergast chose to paint a popular resort poised between a genteel past and a rowdy future. Described in 1852 as having "no balls, no hops, no concerts," by 1914 Bass Point had become a spot which a local author denounced as "a menace to the morals of the young."
Merry-Go-Round, Nahant is one of Prendergast's two known watercolors devoted to a mechanical amusement that many referred to as the "flying horses," a title he gave a watercolor exhibited in 1901 at the Boston Water Color Club's annual show and in a special solo exhibition of his watercolors and monotypes at the museums in Detroit and Cincinnati. Around 1900, the approximate date of Springfield's watercolor, Prendergast continued his practice of the mid-1890s of selecting subjects of ceremonial festivity; but his compositions then grew more complex and he introduced diverse man-made structures, such as staircases, fountains, maypoles or merry-go-rounds, as primary elements of his designs. Prendergast owed this new pictorial richness to his 18-month stay in Italy with its significant public spaces created by architecture, especially in Rome and Venice. With this new focus, Prendergast found the carousel at Nahant particularly enticing for the way its circular form shaped his visual field.
Prendergast may have begun his watercolor on the verso of this sheet, on which there are pencil sketches of carousel horses and a bench. Turning the sheet over, he composed his finished work by balancing the large roundabout, which is weighted to the left by the red center pole, with a grouping of four figures beneath a stand of trees at the right. Although the motion of the carousel dominates, the vertical blue stripes on the awning, prominently silhouetted drop rods, and foreground tree trunks impart a stop-motion stability to the piece. Small but significant details reveal how Prendergast transformed his visual environment into art: the tree trunk to the left is bent to reveal a rider and horse, and only one section of the red fence that presumably surrounded the platform is included so that the enclosure does not obscure our view of the riders.
The actual location of the carousel on Nahant is disclosed in a related watercolor, The Flying Horses (Murjani Collection), in which the same carousel is set against a view of the harbor and one of Bass Point's recognizable piers. In Merry-Go-Round, Nahant a viewer may identify its locale only from topographical information, a pictorial device Prendergast had developed while painting in Venice. By making the setting slightly ambiguous, he enhanced the universality of his subject for some viewers, encouraging them to enjoy an afternoon carousel ride away from the hubbub at Bass Point. Yet the watercolor might have special meaning to others -- those who knew Nahant and could supply the missing context for this scene of amusement.
Of the many sides of summer pleasure at Nahant, Prendergast chose one of the most innocent, yet one that had clear class identity. He encouraged his viewers to revel in the visual display of multi-colored wooden horses ridden by well-dressed, polite children and adults on a sunlit summer day. Yet, as time-honored and universal as this recreation may seem to us today, Prendergast's image must be understood against the spread of American popular culture at seaside amusement parks in New England. Class distinctions in this work were clear: this was an experience that simulated that of more affluent equestrians, who rode live horses in urban parks and whom Prendergast featured in his contemporary watercolors of Rome's Pincian Hill and New York's Central Park. Yet, by presenting an acceptable image of working-class leisure, Merry-Go-Round, Nahant displays an attitude toward these new pleasure seekers that would have comforted Nahant's more genteel residents who were among the artist's potential patrons in Boston. Prendergast:s well-dressed riders, decorously astride or even side-saddle, posed no threat to an established order in Nahant or elsewhere.
Merry-Go-Round, Nahant, pleasing to the eye and carrying lightly this charge of social meaning, was exhibited in every prominent memorial and retrospective show in the dozen years following the artist's death. It still retains the frame ornamented with gold and silver leaf and with sgraffito decoration of flowers and leaves at the corners, made by the artist's brother, Charles Prendergast, probably in the 1920s.
1. For their help with research on Nahant and on turn-of-the-century carousels, I am grateful to Calantha Sears, Peter McCauley, and Noreene Sweeney, and for the resources of the Nahant Historical Society and the Lynn Historical Society Library. Recent histories of the area include Stanley C. Paterson and Carl G. Seaburg, Nahant on the Rocks (Nahant: Nahant Historical Society, 1991) and two volumes by Joseph E. Garland, Boston's North Shore (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1978) and Boston's Gold Coast (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1981). On tourism in New England, see Dona Brown, Inventing New England: Regional Tourism in the Nineteenth Century (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995); on turn-of-the-century amusement parks, see John F. Kasson, Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the turn of the Century (New York: Hill & Wang, 1978); and on carousels, see Frederick Fried, A Pictorial History of the Carousel (New York: A. S. Barnes, 1964) and Charlotte Dinger, Art of the Carousel (Green Village, N.J.: Carousel Art, Inc, 1983).
2. Agnes Edwards, The Romantic Shore (Salem: The Salem Press Co., 1915), p. 30.
3. George William Curtis, Lotus-Eating: A Summer Book (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1852), n.p.; Lynn Item, Aug. 20, 1914, as quoted in Fred A. Wilson, Some Annals of.Nahant, Massachusetts (Boston: Old Corner Book Score, 1928), p. 329.
4. While we cannot be sure which, if either, of the two presently known watercolors of this subject Prendergast exhibited in 1901, (or whether he exhibited a different watercolor with the same title in each of these two exhibitions that year), the one now in the Murjani Collection has carried the title "The Flying Horses" at least since its appearance in a retrospective exhibition in 1960, and so is presumed to be the only one he exhibited in 1901. However, it certainly is possible that the Springfield work appeared under that title in one or both of these exhibitions. There is a work in oil closely related to Merry-Go-Round, Nahant: The Flying Horses (Toledo, Ohio, The Toledo Museum of Art), around 1902-1906, in which Prendergast focused in more on the carousel yet kept the diagonal foreground repoussoir of blue wooden benches. These three works, as well as another oil of Nahant's carousel, are included in Carol Clark, Nancy Mowll Mathews, and Gwendolyn Owens, Maurice Prendergast, Charles Prendergast: A Catalogue Raisonné (Munich: Prestel-Verlag with the Williams College Museum of Art, 1990), nos. 68, 69, 771, 772.
5. For more on this see Margaretta M. Lovell, A Visitable Past: Views of Venice by American Artists, 1860-1915 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 87-90.
6. Merry-Go-Round, Nahant, in fact, was shown in a 1941 exhibition at the Whitney Museum that was devoted to images of New York City.
7. A markedly different presentation of working-class leisure that features a carousel as well as boat swings is William Glackens' Outside the Guttenberg Race Track (New Jersey) (Fort Lauderdale Museum of Art) of 1897, an oil painting that appeared in the same 1901 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts exhibition that included six watercolors by Prendergast, one of which was called Bass Point, a work that today cannot be located or identified but probably was similar to one or the other of his presently identified watercolors of the site, such as Springfield's. In Glackens' work the carousel mimics the race horses of this grubby and dilapidated track, a place in which Prendergast's merry-go-round riders would not have felt at home. See William H. Gerdts, William Glackens (New York: Abbeville Press, 1996), pp. 37-39.
About the author
At the time of publication of the essay, these biographical notes for the author were included in the catalogue.
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