The Otherworldly Luminescence of Mary Pratt’s Art

Dead at 83, the Canadian painter was a visionary in our midst

Woman posing in front of painting of woman in a chair
Graham Bezant / Toronto Star via Getty Images
Graham Bezant / Toronto Star via Getty Images
Graham Bezant / Toronto Star via Getty Images

That Mary Pratt was one of Canada’s most celebrated contemporary artists is proof that we sometimes get it right: we recognize the visionaries in our midst.

Born Mary West in Fredericton in 1935, Pratt was known and loved nationwide for her glossy still life paintings of gutted fish, eviscerated chickens, jars of jelly, unmade beds, the dregs of dinner—scenes and objects swept forth by her brush from the background of daily life to bear an otherworldly luminescence. She was considered one of the country’s finest realist painters almost from the time of her first solo exhibition, held in 1967 at the Memorial University Art Gallery in St. John’s, Newfoundland—the province she called home for most of her adult life. The Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador credited her ability “to demonstrate that no ordinary object is without a sublime aspect.”

The light that radiates from Pratt’s canvases has been compared to that found in Vermeer’s beloved seventeenth-century domestic interiors, and in Chardin’s light-bathed seventeenth-century still lifes. Pratt’s light, though, is unmistakably ours: that of late twentieth-century, middle-class, Canadian domesticity. It infuses fillets of cod; penetrates the translucent folds of saran wrap; bounces blindingly off the creases in a sheet of tin foil. Such modest materials were a conscious choice: they were of our time and place, and Pratt challenged herself to render them with the accuracy and grace of Chardin’s linens. The trick, of course, was in the light. As Pratt’s fellow Newfoundlander, author Lisa Moore, wrote in Canadian Art in 2014, “Pratt’s lifelong concern . . . is the drama of light. How it falls, how it alters the ordinary objects it adorns, or how it pierces straight through.”

Moore was not alone in her writerly affinity with Pratt’s art. Pratt’s Wedding Dress graced the cover of Alice Munro’s 1990 short story collection Friend of My Youth. The late Diana Brebner won the CBC Literary Award for Poetry with a sonnet series titled “Eleven Paintings by Mary Pratt,” in which the glisten and gore of works such as Silver Fish on Crimson Foil seemed to stand in for the poet’s life-and-death struggle with cancer. I studied under Brebner in 1999, and had recently read her Pratt poems when I found myself designing an educational tour on writing from art at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. One day, I stood in the Canadian galleries, transfixed by Pratt’s Red Currant Jelly. Not then much respecting domestic pursuits, I came near resenting the painting’s hold: Jars of jelly, so what? But that jelly pulsed with light. The foil beneath the jars crackled. And the red-tinted wax smeared on the plate seemed a bed where some essential component of the light had gone to rest. In Brebner’s poem of the same name, the red jelly and jars had become “like the evidence of murder, so hard to wash away.”

The art critic Tom Smart has written that the solidity in Pratt’s paintings—the sense that one could reach out and touch the cool glass, or the chicken’s plucked skin—is paradoxically the result of “her intention to describe the intangible, numinous quality of light.” I was new to Pratt and her relationship with light, but there was no doubting its power: I included that painting in my tour. Years later, in 2015, Red Currant Jelly was featured in the NGC’s first “Masterpiece in Focus” exhibition. For a recorded interview, Pratt told curator Jonathan Shaughnessy that the painting was her first attempt at red: “I found it a very difficult colour, because it has to do so much. It isn’t just a colour, you know. It’s an emotion, and it had to be clear. Now how do you make a clear red? How do you make a red that looks as if you can look through it?”

Pratt posed such questions about colour and light her entire life. Her parents, Katherine and William—the latter a prominent, civic-minded lawyer later appointed Attorney-General of New Brunswick—kept a strict, upper-crust household, but also nurtured their daughter’s visual aptitude. On a drive, Pratt’s father would ask why the barn in the distance, which they knew to be red, did not appear so: was it to do with the layers of air in between? Her mother, meanwhile, took art classes, and would school Pratt and her sister to look for hidden colours in grass. Pratt remembered sitting in church as a girl, wondering how she could paint the luminous fragments of stained-glass light—and determined it was possible.

In 1953, Pratt moved two hours east along the Trans-Canada, to study fine arts at Mount Allison University in Sackville. Before leaving, she ventured that it might be selfish to pursue a life in art. She recalled her father saying that selfishness would lie in not exercising her talent: “It is a requirement of you to paint. It is your fate.” Pratt studied under Lawren P. Harris (son of Lawren S. Harris of the Group of Seven), Ted Pulford, and Alex Colville, who was then gaining international acclaim for his magic realist paintings. Colville would leave his studio door open; students would drift in. Pratt witnessed the coming-to-life of the now-iconic Horse and Train. Drawing classes, though, were agony. “I thought I was going to die,” she told Shaughnessy. “Casts and still life; no colour, just drawing. You sat up on a high stool and you measured . . . Oh, it was horrible . . . I thought, ‘Rembrandt never had to do this.’ And then I thought, ‘You fool, of course he did. Everybody who’s a painter has got to go through this.’”

At Mount Allison, Mary West met her future husband, Christopher Pratt, then a pre-med student, but also destined for artistic acclaim. Harris told Mary in their graduating year—by then, the Pratts were married and had two of their four children—that there would be but one successful artist in the Pratt household, and it wouldn’t be her. Those early years of marriage, when the Pratts settled in Salmonier, Newfoundland, did prove difficult. Pratt was largely consumed with the duties of motherhood and household, and it would become a common narrative that she had put her career aside for her husband’s, whose star was rapidly rising.

The reality was more complex. Though their marriage would end many years later, the two were instrumental to one another’s artistic development. Even early on, Pratt never stopped painting. She would move her easel about the house. Time and again Pratt described being struck by a scene, and a sudden, intense need to preserve it. Her problem was the fleeting nature of light. How to paint quickly enough to catch it?

One evening, Pratt sprang up to paint the supper table after the family had finished a meal. Christopher protested that the light was changing quickly: he grabbed his camera and photographed the scene. When the developed slides came back, she was delighted: she was able to study the light and colour in depth. The resulting work, Supper Table (1969), marked a turning point. Pratt worked from slides thereafter, developing a complex technique to erase any evidence of brushstrokes and achieve that trademark shimmering gloss.

Photography became Pratt’s key tool: she would say it taught her what she knew of light. But for a time she was criticized for using slides. The suggestion that she was “cheating” cowed her, and in 1970, Pratt ceased painting altogether. Christopher gave her slides for Christmas that year, and urged her to pick up her brush: thankfully, she did. In fact, artists as far back as the Renaissance had taken advantage of the lens; Lawren P. Harris worked from photographs. Her use of photography tied her to the New Realists, a late-twentieth-century movement that concerned itself with the pure “presence” of objects. Unlike the New Realists, though, Pratt never turned her back on meaning. As Smart explains in The Art of Mary Pratt: The Substance of Light, she was not satisfied with the product of the camera’s gaze. Her intention was to render objects accurately, yes, but in moments of palpable and even erotic transcendence.

Pratt gained full-on national attention in 1975, as one of the artists included in the landmark NGC touring exhibition Some Canadian Women Artists. More exhibitions followed, and, on the strength of works such as Eggs in an Egg Crate (1975)—a half-dozen cracked shells resembling thrumming bowls of light—Globe and Mail critic Robert Fulford dubbed her “the visual poet of the kitchen.” A reduction, for sure. But as Pratt gained profile, her subject matter posed a conundrum: Was she a feminist, subversively upending our views of “women’s work”? Or was she letting down the side by “celebrating” old-fashioned expectations of women? She resisted labels, believing, as Smart writes, “that her art should remain autonomous and not be taken over by issues that lay outside of it.”

Over time, Pratt worked more consciously from her position as a female artist. The plastic wraps, tin foils, wax paper and other wrapping materials in her still lifes were noted by several critics and fans as potent metaphors. Moore writes: “They are wrappings that seal, partially obscure, or hide what they hold because they are reflective, and also because they are the everyday fabric of domestic life, and as such, they have become invisible to us.” Her nudes, completed over a decade starting in 1978, were groundbreaking: a female artist directly challenging the nature of the historic male gaze on the female body. The light-bathed Girl in a Wicker Chair, modest but charged, prompted some readers to cancel subscriptions when it appeared on the cover of Saturday Night magazine. Smart reportedly called This is Donna (1987) one of the best paintings of a woman anywhere, full stop. One of her most famous works, The Service Station (1978), depicts a bloody moose carcass strung up on the back of a truck, legs splayed. The connection to violence, rape, murder, and even ritual sacrifice is impossible to ignore. Pratt steered clear of the slides that led to this image for a long while. Then she lost twins to miscarriage. She told critic Sarah Milroy, “We had lost the babies, then John got sick”—her son had a brief skirmish with cancer—“and I got through that, and then I said to myself: you can do this now. You know what this is about.”

Pratt spent her later years in St. John’s, a period that included a brief second marriage to American artist James Rosen. By then, her work was held in The Rooms, the lauded Newfoundland cultural institution she was instrumental in establishing, as well as at the National Gallery and in numerous collections nationwide. She held honorary degrees from several universities, and reproductions of her paintings had appeared on stamps and billboards, even in cookbooks. A major solo exhibition organized by The Rooms and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia toured the country starting in 2013. The exhibit garnered Pratt such adulation that she expressed concern to Moore: “I’ve managed to cope, but if people keep being really nice to me it could affect me badly.” In other words, at seventy-eight, she would be tempted to take herself too seriously, and no longer be able to paint.

In an interview before that tour for CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition, host Michael Enright asked Pratt just how she made her wondrous light. “You become absolutely objective,” Pratt told him. “You paint what you see . . . I don’t try to invent anything. Sometimes while I’m doing that I find I’ve painted myself reflected in the glass, and I didn’t know I was there.” That was Pratt’s gift to us: that concentration. Pratt never set out to chronicle the rural Newfoundland of cod dinners, moose hunting, and preserve-making, but her disciplined and passionate attention to the light and colour of that world made it inevitable. In that same interview, Pratt expressed the hope that people would love her paintings, and by extension the stuff of their own lives: “That they could come away knowing it was okay . . . to love pomegranates on a tin foil. That it was okay. Because I don’t know that people allow themselves to love what is around them.”

Anita Lahey
Anita Lahey’s most recent book is The Last Goldfish: A True Tale of Friendship.