Six decades ago, someone told Mary Pratt that she couldn’t be an artist – but that her husband could. “Now you have to understand in a family of painters, there can only be one painter, and in your family, it’s Christopher,” Lawren P. Harris told her.
These words carried weight; Mr. Harris was the son of the Group of Seven’s Lawren Harris, and taught Ms. Pratt art at Mount Allison University. “I went home and I cried,” she recalled later. “I had two children at that point. I thought: ‘I have just enough time. I intend to have children and to have food on the table, and I intend to do the ironing, but I will have time to paint.’ ”
In the end, Mary Pratt, who died on Tuesday at the age of 83, did have time to paint, and paint extraordinarily well. Her luminous canvases shifted photorealism into a deep engagement with everyday life, into what Ms. Pratt called “these tiny little truths” embedded in light and fruit, line and meat.
Like her paintings, Ms. Pratt was complex. Her life encompassed not only a surmounting of creative obstacles, but also a confrontation with losses of children and key relationships. “Mary Pratt’s exacting surfaces warn us: There is more going on – always – than meets the eye,” author Lisa Moore has written. “The light in these paintings is a stark reminder of passing time, of the significance of brief moments, strained toward and carried off.”
Ms. Pratt, for her part, once put her painting career this way: “It was a love affair with vision. A real love affair with vision.”
Mary Frances West was born on March 15, 1935, in Fredericton. Her father, William John West, was a Harvard-educated lawyer (and former lumberjack) who served as New Brunswick’s attorney-general in the 1950s. Her mother, Katherine Eleanor West (née McMurray) has been described as a “private, enigmatic” figure who brought order and beauty to the household. Mary was also influenced by the strong presence of her maternal grandmother, Edna McMurray, co-founder of New Brunswick’s first IODE chapter. After a few years, Mary was joined in the family by a younger sister, Barbara.
The Wests encouraged their eldest child’s creativity at an early age, buying her jars of poster paint to use. Katherine West fostered her daughter’s artistic eye and aesthetic sense – particularly an appreciation of the colour red, which features in several of Ms. Pratt’s most famous paintings.
“I came from a house that was riddled with red – red carpets, and a belief in red somehow or other,” Ms. Pratt said in 2015. “My mother used to be a painter, and of course a cook, and so on. And she said: ‘Isn’t it always so wonderful to put a cherry on at the end? Because it’s beautiful … It’s red, it’s beautiful.’ ”
Mr. West, meanwhile, pushed for practicality and persistent effort. In the 1980s, Ms. Pratt was struggling with her painting Girl in My Dressing Gown. “My father called and I said, ‘I just can’t get these ruffles right,’ ” Ms. Pratt told the Halifax Chronicle-Herald in 2014. “He said: ‘It’s only paint on a board. You’re a smart girl, just do it.’ It brought me down to earth.”
In 1953, Mary left home to study fine arts a few hours’ drive away at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. Although the 1950s are known for abstract expressionism in art, Mount Allison tended toward a realist style exemplified by instructor Alex Colville. “It’s the ordinary things that seem important to me,” Mr. Colville once said, a view that Ms. Pratt’s domestic epiphanies also demonstrate.
After marrying fellow student Christopher Pratt in 1957, Mary moved across the sea to Glasgow, where Christopher studied art and she gave birth to their first two children, John and Anne. Returning to Sackville in 1959, and with those toddlers at home, Mary spread the usual fourth-year Mount Allison coursework over two years of study, graduating with her bachelor’s degree in 1961.
In later 1961, the Pratts moved to St. John’s, in Christopher’s home province of Newfoundland. There, Mary taught art for two years at Memorial University’s extension service. In 1963, the family relocated again, this time to a cottage Christopher’s father owned on the Salmonier River, and Mary gave birth to their third child, Barbara. Edwyn, a fourth child, was born in 1964.
In just over a decade, Mary Pratt had moved five times and birthed four babies. When her husband headed to the studio to create art, which was often, she was left with the time-consuming work of running a country household. Ms. Pratt “baked 14 loaves of bread a week … and often had as many as 15 family members and extended family at the dinner table,” Ms. Moore has written.
Painting became a bit easier when the children reached school age. Ms. Pratt’s muses became the things close at hand: 1966’s The Back Porch shows a blue chair holding up a box of pink, red and orange flowers, while 1968’s The Bed frames an expanse of rumpled sheets bordered by a red blanket.
Such paintings heralded Ms. Pratt’s first solo exhibition, held at the Memorial University Art Gallery in 1967. At that point, her paintings were what she called, in retrospect, “impressionistic.” They were painted quickly, on the fly, before the sun shifted and intense light Ms. Pratt loved had faded away. But the combination of household demands and quickly changing light conditions made it difficult for her to do her best work.
Then, in 1969, Christopher suggested a solution to Mary’s dilemma: photographing a scene while the light was good, and painting from that photograph more meticulously later on. The first slide he shot for her was of their supper table laden with ketchup, relish and a hot dog – unlikely topics for aesthetic inspiration, perhaps, but ones made transcendent when burnished by rich, slanting, late-in-the-day sunlight.
“Boy, when that slide came back and he said, ‘Now there, isn’t that what you wanted?’ I said, ‘Yes, buddy, thank you very much, you’ve done me a great favour,' ” Ms. Pratt told the Telegram in 2013. The photo-based painting became a way, she recognized, to “pay each gut reaction its proper homage” – something she did with great mastery for the rest of her career.
In the decades that followed, Mary Pratt’s reputation grew. In 1975, she earned a national-level nod when her art was featured in the National Gallery of Canada’s Some Canadian Women Artists – a rare women-only exhibition that was prompted by the International Women’s Year. Career surveys came in 1981, 1995 and 2013, as well as accolades including the Molson Prize in 1997, multiple honorary degrees and nomination as a companion of the Order of Canada in 1996. In 2000, a book of her writings was also published. (“Perhaps the only place I can be what I want to be is in my journals and my letters,” she once wrote.) The wider cultural landscape of Newfoundland and Labrador also mattered deeply to Ms. Pratt, and she played an important role in pushing for the establishment of the Rooms, a museum, archive and art gallery that opened in St. John’s in 2005.
But while Mary’s connection to the culturati was strengthening, her marriage to Christopher was under increasing strain. In the mid-seventies, she suffered the loss of twins at birth. Grief and anxiety took hold. In Eggs in an Egg Crate, painted in 1975, broken yolks and smashed shells evoke a breaking of wholes, of protective structures lost against a lambent amber light.
In the 1990s, she and Christopher separated, and Ms. Pratt began making rawer, rougher large-scale drawings. In her 1997 Dishcloth on Line series (made with Christopher’s assistance, in fact) the domestic was literally lit afire. In 2005, when the Pratts officially divorced and Christopher, shortly after, married his studio assistant Jeanette Meehan, Mary Pratt carefully rendered, with tiny sable brushes, the canvas Threads of Scarlet, Pieces of Pomegranate. It’s an image of the titular fruit ripped open, its drops of juice lying blood-like and prismatic upon shiny tinfoil.
Mary Pratt remarried, to American artist and academic James Rosen, in 2006. That marriage was short-lived, but Ms. Pratt said, regarding their initial rush of love: “It is wonderful to know that one goes on feeling it at this age.” Also: “I think people who have a childhood as wonderful as mine aren’t prepared for the real world,” she told the Chronicle-Herald in 2014. “Every guy out there really isn’t like your father.”
In recent years, Ms. Pratt began to receive recognition not only as a dexterous painter of still lifes, but also as an artist pushing back against sexist depictions of women. Works such as This is Donna (1987), Cold Cream (1983) and Barby in the Dress She Made Herself (1986) – all highlighted in her latest survey-show tour – show women in various states of dress and undress, either putting on society’s preferred costumes for women, or stripping them off. Their gazes are of refusal, confrontation and self-sufficiency – modes of female being that the canon largely ignored in favour of what Ms. Pratt jokingly called a “Well, climb aboard!” portrayal. Even into her 40s, Ms. Pratt herself had bought into the myth that, somehow, only men could depict the feminine figure. Then she realized: “If anybody has the right to paint the naked female, it’s another woman.”
In her final years, Ms. Pratt’s back condition, “caused by years of an awkward painting position,” according to the Telegram, “caused her back to be twisted and limited her to working only an hour at a time.” Her last days were spent in palliative care at home in St. John’s, surrounded by her family. Ms. Pratt leaves her children John, Anne, Barbara and Ned (two of whom are also artists), as well as their own children and grandchildren. “As with her images, there was much beneath the surface that we knew and treasured,” a family statement read this week. “We will miss her every day.” Ms. Pratt also leaves behind an oeuvre of close and courageous looking.
“I think with my work, even things that are ordinary are not ordinary,” Ms. Pratt said in 2015. “Because I don’t really believe that anything is ordinary – I think everything is complex and worthy of conjecture and worthy of a close look.” She concluded: “I really believe that you could imagine the secrets of the universe by looking at a pile of grapes.”