Art & Culture

Wild About Mary Pratt

At first glance, Mary Pratt’s paintings are warm and inviting—casual glimpses into everyday domesticity captured through still life representations of bowls of fruit and jars of jam. Look closer and a less bucolic feeling emerges.

A realistic painting of two jam jars sitting on a windowsill. Both jars are nearly empty. The left jar contains remnants of red jam, the right jar, orange jam.
Smears of Jam, Lights of Jelly. 2007. Photo via wikiart.

Pratt’s photorealistic style, combined with her domestic subject matter, led many critics to dismiss her work as frivolous, intended for an unserious audience. Pratt’s use of light and colour is second to none. Her ability to capture the translucency of everyday items such as glass jam jars and even egg whites is unparalleled, revealing her immense technical skill. Even 50 years on, there’s a deep familiarity to Pratt’s work, something that has typically been a death-knell in an art world that rejoices in new, cutting-edge works. 

A realistic painting of an overhead view of a cardboard egg carton. Six empty eggshells rests in the egg cups, the remaining cups are empty.
Eggs in an egg crate. 1975. Photo via CBC.

Virginia Woolf’s famous words “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction” have echoed across women’s art—whether it be painting, writing, or other art forms—for centuries. But for women like Mary Pratt—and her author contemporaries such as Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence—a room of one’s own simply wasn’t an option, not when there were kids to raise and meals to cook and kitchens to clean. 

Pratt’s ability to carve our precious moments to paint, speaks to her deep need to make art, even in the face of pressing household obligations. Neither her subject matter, nor her lack of a dedicated space, make her work less worthwhile, or for that matter, less of a feminist statement. 

A portrait of an old-fashioned white enamel woodstove. A copper kettle and a teapot rest on the stove's surface.
Stove, 1969. Photo via Canadian Paintings.

Despite working in different milieus, there are deep parallels between Pratt and Alice Munro, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2013. Both are Canadian women of the same generation, who snatched moments of creativity in between their domestic responsibilities and both created highly regarded works that centered the everyday stories and moments of ordinary women. 

Would Pratt have created greater artworks had she been given more time and space to do so? Perhaps, but we can never know. Certainly her work would have been less likely to focus on the everyday. And I think we can argue that there is something profound that comes from an interpretation of subjects that are seen as commonplace. 

Like Munro, Pratt’s works contain an undercurrent of darkness that emerges when you peer beneath the surface. A decapitated fish head rests in a steel sink. Pomegranate juice is smeared, red and bloodlike across a tabletop. Red is a common theme in Pratt’s work, bringing with it an intensity and sense of passion and even anger. They may be familiar, but Pratt’s paintings are not easy.

A withered pomegranate is cut in half, resting on a blue surface. Red juice and kernels are smeared across the surface.
Split Pomengranate, 1991. Photo via Mutual Art.

Like too many female artists, Mary Pratt’s life and work was measured in relation to her husband, Christopher. The pair met and married in art school, where Mary’s career immediately began to take a back seat to Christopher’s more modernist style. They remained married for almost fifty years, a relationship that by Mary’s own description, was intensely competitive. After Christopher showed her photographs of his mistress, Mary painted a series of works using the other woman as her subject. Christopher Pratt’s works were widely celebrated in their time and he continues to be regarded as one of Canada’s premier artists. And yet, his works lack the timelessness of Mary’s. 

A naked young woman with short dark hair sits on a white cushion in a white wicker chair. She has her knees drawn to her chest and she is looking directly at the viewer.
Girl in a Wicker Chair, 1978. Photo via artishell

Pratt died in 2018 and the headline on her obituary in the New York Times read “Mary Pratt, Realistic Painter of Household Scenes, Dies at 83.” As tributes go, it misses both the technical skill and the impact of Pratt’s work, but at the same time, it’s almost fitting that even in death, Pratt’s work is minimized in the same way it was in her lifetime. 

Pratt’s work is quintessentially feminist, capturing commonplace moments in women’s lives and receiving lesser recognition for it. Like Ginger Rogers who did everything that Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in heels, Mary Pratt kept pace with her husband while raising four kids and baking 15 loaves of bread a week. And that, I think we can all agree, is not nothing.