Levi Wells Prentice was an American still life and landscape painter.
Prentice was associated with the Hudson River School, a group of artists known throughout art circles. According to the book Nature Staged by Barbara L. Jones, Prentice followed a self-prescribed educational path, begun by the Hudson River School and reinforced by John Ruskin’s (1819–1900) truth-to-nature principles laid out in his book Modern Painters. Although he can be allied to both schools of thought, Prentice can not be considered a member of either. This book has a photo of the artist in his early Brooklyn studio surrounded by his paintings and a complete essay on his life and work.
Prentice grew up on a farm in Lewis County, New York. By 1872, Prentice had traveled through the Adirondack Mountains, painting the views as well as the surrounding region. He opened his first studio as a landscape painter in Syracuse, New York in 1875.
Self-taught artist Levi Wells Prentice is best known for his realistic still life compositions of fruit arranged within a landscape, or abundantly spilling from bushel baskets. Early in his career, he painted portraits and landscapes of the Adirondack Mountain region of Lewis County, New York, his birthplace.
Prentice married an English woman, Emma Roseloe Sparks, in Buffalo, New York in 1882 and had two children, Leigh (born 22 March 1887) and Imogene (born 17 September 1889).
Prentice then turned to painting still life subjects when he moved briefly to Brooklyn, New York in 1883, focusing on fruit, in order of frequency apples, strawberries, peaches, plums, raspberries, cherries, muskmelons, pears, currants, pineapples, gooseberries, grapes and bananas usually piled high in pots or in natural settings.
Prentice subsequently moved around from 1903-07 before settling in the Germantown district of Philadelphia. However, his work did not gain much recognition with historians until the 1970s. He was a member of the Brooklyn Art Association and frequently exhibited his paintings there.
In addition to his artistic talents, he was a craftsman who enjoyed making his own brushes, palettes and frames.
In his painting, Prentice placed an emphasis on dark outlining with a concern for textual precision, creating dramatic contrasts. The shift between dark background areas and the vibrant hues of the fruit are done to give the compositions an exciting, visual energy. The fruit is presented with clarity and precision. An emphasis appears to be placed on the idea of man versus nature. The wooden baskets with hand-wrought nails represent a structured, man-made object, while the overly ripe fruit represents the fleeting qualities of nature. These paintings also demonstrate Prentice’s remarkable skills at rendering color, form, and texture.
Noted art historian William H. Gerdts observed: there are several works by Prentice in which he achieves a quality of illusionism which is unsurpassed. In 1993, the skillful ‘illusionism’ of Levi Wells Prentice was celebrated in a retrospective exhibition at the Adirondack Museum in New York. His works continue to receive a high degree of appreciation by collectors today. He is represented in many museums including the New York State Museum, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Montclair Art Museum, Philbrook Museum of Art and Yale University Art Gallery.
Prentice died 28 November 1935 in Germantown, Pennsylvania.