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Art of the Month Club: Thayer Tolles

The Art of the Month Club is a regular feature of the WCMA blog. Each month we invite someone special to write about a work from our collection. Find your own favorite WCMA artwork by searching our collection database. Today, please welcome Thayer Tolles, Marica F. Vilcek Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Williams College Class of 1987.

Maurice Brazil Prendergast (American; 1858-1924), Summer Day, Salem, ca. 1915-18, oil on canvas. Gift of Mrs. Charles Prendergast._x400

Maurice Brazil Prendergast (American; 1858-1924), Summer Day, Salem, ca. 1915-18, oil on canvas. Gift of Mrs. Charles Prendergast.

It was the best work-study job ever. After a year of washing dishes in Baxter (who could forget the flume?) and another cataloguing books in the math library, I spent junior and senior years working on the so-called Prendergast project, an ambitious effort not only to document WCMA’s vast holdings, but also to complete a systematic catalogue of the works of Maurice and Charles Prendergast. Although I had grown up the daughter of a museum director in Salem, Massachusetts (hence my love of any Prendergast with Salem as its subject), this was my formative exposure to rigorous scholarly and curatorial standards.

As I filled out cataloguing worksheets, I began to understand that sorting out the seemingly endless representations of bathers at St. Malo or festivals in Venice necessitated more than just accuracy; it required patience and good humor. As an undergraduate working with a gaggle of master’s students, I enjoyed the camaraderie, getting all sorts of practical advice as we sat in that small room filled with notebooks. Among the suggestions were: “Go right on to get your master’s. You can’t do anything substantive without it,” and “Take German senior year. You don’t want to deal with it in grad school,” both of which I dutifully followed.  I also benefitted from the mentorship of Carol Clark, among other art historians associated with the project, and am grateful for having been welcomed into the close-knit web of Americanists.

By the time the catalogue raisonné was published in 1990, I had already been working as a research assistant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a year. I remember seeing the bulky, slip-cased volume for the first time in the American Wing library and feeling a sense of pride that I had contributed to the project, in however small a capacity. To this day, the way a song reminds one of a place or a moment, whenever and wherever I see a painting by Maurice Prendergast, I am taken back to that ideal, happy time. I, too, become a serene figure in Summer Day, Salem, promenading in colorful dress amidst foliage and a harbor view bathed in dappled sunlight, without a care in the world.


—Thayer Tolles ‘87
Marica F. Vilcek Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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