Arts

Mary Pratt’s new biography details her rise to fame in Canada’s art world

Mary Pratt, the famed Canadian painter and subject of a new biography, turned jelly jars, egg cartons and a bucket of trout into fine art
(Photograph by Ned Pratt, courtesy of the Mary Pratt Estate.)

Mary Pratt saw the extraordinary in the ordinary objects that made up her life. The Canadian painter is renowned for her ability to render domestic scenes with radiant colour and forceful light: using her brush, a fillet of fish or crate of eggs took on the feel of a Caravaggio. Now, five years after her death at age 83, Pratt is the subject of a new biography, Mary Pratt: A Love Affair With Vision, by art historian Anne Koval. “For Pratt, painting was always an attempt to hold, to save forever, the transitory effects of light on objects,” says Koval.

This book is the only authorized biography about Pratt. Koval wrote it in close collaboration with the artist and gained unprecedented access to archive materials and journal entries. A Love Affair with Vision is the first to describe in vibrant detail how Pratt’s art intersected with her life, and it unspools from the central premise that her work, spanning five decades, serves as a subtle form of self-portraiture. Her focus on household items partly originated from vivid memories of her childhood home in New Brunswick: illuminated jars of jelly on the windowsill, a red sweater draped over a chair.

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Pratt started painting at a young age. Her mother used to tint black-and-white photographs as a hobby, and she taught Pratt and her sister how to dye them with watercolour paints at the dining table. Pratt’s signature style of photorealism, which she began to refine in the late 1960s, continued along these lines: she would take photographs of her life and project them as references for her paintings. In 1970, she came to believe that her technique was akin to cheating, so she gave up painting. She only returned to her craft when her daughter said, “If you’re not a painter, what can you be?”

In the mid-1970s, Pratt’s work took off and captured national attention. Her success collided with the second wave of feminism. Although the press generally characterized her as a kitchen painter, a style that feminists largely shunned, Pratt was much more than that. She elevated images of homes and their interior settings beyond any sense of frivolity: a pair of defeathered chickens look sacrificial, and a carton of six broken eggshells evokes the heaviness of the miscarriage she endured. Women used to tell Pratt that her scenes of domesticity made them cry, perhaps because she was painting their world—the trussed turkey, the unkempt bed—with the tender and careful eye of high art.

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(All works courtesy of the Mary Pratt Estate.)

Pratt saw Supper Table, painted in 1969, as the piece that began her career. When she noticed how the autumn evening’s light fell across the dinner table, she began to draw. “The light will change,” said her husband, Christopher Pratt, so he photographed the scene for her. She used the image to create her first photorealistic painting.

Cold Cream (1983) is one of many portraits of Donna Meaney, a friend of Pratt’s despite Meaney’s earlier affair with Pratt’s husband. Pratt, who often painted Meaney nude, saw these portraits as a visual conversation with her husband and imbued them with her own sense of strength, marital anxiety and anger.

Specimen from Another Time (2001) captures a jar of red crabapple jelly, which Pratt’s younger sister, Barbara Cross, made at home and wrapped in a freezer bag to send to Pratt. Through Pratt’s painting, the jelly is preserved twice over, with the title a nod to how jelly-making was likely a dying art.

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This painting, called The Bed (1968), dates back to before Pratt found her signature style. One morning she walked into her bedroom, and the way the sun fell across the bed brought her to her knees. She set up her easel and began to paint. She and Christopher couldn’t sleep on the bed until she was done, weeks later.

When Pratt’s daughter Anne cut the head and tail off a fish, gutted it and displayed the body on a glass plate, Pratt painted Grilse on Glass (1980). The platter almost appears like a ghost, completing the shape of the fish’s missing parts. “People might think it’s a bit macabre, but that’s Mary,” Koval says.

Pratt painted Threads of Scarlet, Pieces of Pomegranate in 2005, a year after her divorce from fellow artist Christopher. The large-scale work reflects on the end of her marriage: the split, bleeding pomegranate represents Mary, while the other pomegranate, symbolizing Christopher, remains whole.

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