Levi Wells Prentice (1851–1935)
Levi Wells Prentice was one of the nineteenth century’s truly unique artistic voices, constructing a vision of the Adirondack landscape unlike that of any other. Raised on a farm in the Adirondack Mountains, Prentice was self-taught and ap-prentice-d to none. He went on to achieve the status of an American master, leaving behind one of the most original impressions of landscape and still life.
Prentice’s landscapes celebrate the wilderness in painstaking detail, aligning him with John Ruskin’s “truth to nature” principles and the Pre-Raphaelite branch of the Hudson River School. Yet Prentice chose to remain outside the central currents of American painting, cultivating an imaginatively childlike vocabulary of exaggerated colors and stylized forms. His paintings—whose classical compositions and supersharp focus carry a hyperrealistic appeal—represent the Adirondacks as a static frame abounding with the vitality of life’s minutiae. His landscapes were so popular that they were widely distributed as sepia photographs and lithographs.
Prentice shifted his focus to still life after moving to Brooklyn in the 1880s. The same sense of heightened reality that permeated his landscapes also set apart his tumbling apple bushels and fruit trees, making him one of New York’s most renowned still life painters. His immediately recognizable work prefigured the stylized vocabulary of Modernism, the sharp focus of photo-realism, and the fantastic dreamscapes of Surrealism. The exaggerated use of color and form that distinguishes his paintings now appears so primitive as to be ultramodern, anticipating the twentieth century’s emphasis on style as personal expression.
The Adirondack Museum mounted a major retrospective of Prentice’s work in 1993; his paintings are also in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Montclair Art Museum, the Hudson River Museum, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the Carnegie Institute.