One of Canada’s most celebrated artists, Dr. Mary Frances Pratt (1936-2018) was a realist painter, specializing in photo-realistic still life. Her works focused heavily on domestic scenes and portraits of a young woman named Donna Meaney. While her works have been connected with the feminist movement of the 1970s, Pratt painted what she found “erotically necessary to have forever.” She sought to capture the vibrant charge of light, calling it a “love affair with vision.”
Mary Pratt (née West) was born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick, the daughter of an affluent attorney. She spent most of her adult life in rural Newfoundland. Here she lived with her artist husband, Christopher Pratt, and raised their four children. She dutifully followed her husband to Glasgow School of Art, where she was refused entry because of her pregnancy, and later back to St. John’s, supporting his painting career.
Pratt had wanted to be an artist for as long as she could remember, describing being fascinated by light meeting an object as early as age 2. By age 10 she was taking painting lessons. Pratt describes her love of the color red as being influenced by her mother, also a painter and housewife. In an interview with the National Gallery of Canada, Pratt points out that red is a difficult color to paint, given the number of colors required to mix it, and her refusal to squeeze it premade out of a tube.
She attended Mount Allison University, earning her Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts in 1961. This is also where she met her husband, and after their marriage in 1957, Mary Pratt would abandon painting for a short while to tend to the house and her husband.
Pratt was told early on by teacher Lawren P. Harris, son of famed Group of Seven artist Lawren S. Harris, that there could only be one artist in her marriage and Mary was not it. But even in daily life, Pratt found beauty that could not be ignored. She would snap photos when she liked how the light hit a jar of red currant jelly or a bowl of cherries, and return to them to paint months later after she had “forgotten that first jab of enthusiasm.” She would then decide from the slides whether she felt reminded of the moment that inspired her to take the photo in the first place.
As it turned out, there could be two artists in the relationship, but there were also going to be two women. Donna Meaney came to live with the Pratt’s as a young seventeen-year-old, meant to help around the house with the chores and children, and lived with them for three years. She became a central figure in the Pratt household. She modeled for both Pratts but began an affair with Christopher.
Mary, for the most part, looked the other way as her husband photographed the scantily clad teenager. She did however later use Christopher’s slides, painting from pictures that had been taken nearly a decade prior. In these photographs, Meaney is looking directly at Christopher, which Mary was acutely aware of. Carol Bishop-Gwyn suggests in her book Art and Rivalry that Mary was attempting to one-up her husband, and trying to “paint the object of her husband’s desire better than her husband could.”
Her first painting of Meaney was Girl in a Wicker Chair, in 1978. Her last would be Girl in Glitz, shortly before her separation from Pratt. She maintained a friendship with the younger girl, viewing her more as a daughter than a rival. She believed what she and Christopher did was their own business.
Pratt’s first solo exhibition was hosted by Memorial University Art Gallery in St. John’s in 1967, two years after her husband had been featured at the same gallery. In the following years, Pratt’s steadily gained public attention, particularly after her artwork was included in Toronto galleries throughout the early 70s.
In 1975, on the heels of the UN conference celebrating International Women’s Year, Pratt’s works were included a National Gallery of Canada exhibition in Ottawa. Her artwork gained national traction, and Pratt’s work was discussed at the college and university level as part of their women’s studies programs. Her artwork was interpreted as struggling to balance being an artist and a homemaker, given the monotony of the subjects she portrayed.
Pratt never admitted to being a feminist, saying in her artist statement in 1975 that her art was more driven by how things looked, a “superficial coating” rather than a deeper undertone. Yet she commented years later, “people will find out that in each one of the paintings there is something that ought to disturb them, something upsetting. That is why I painted them.”
Mary’s success caused tension in the marriage. Christopher Pratt once said, “I’m less secure in the light of Mary’s achievement than she is in mine.” Mary, on the other hand, admitted to her jealousy of Christopher, which spurred her to begin painting again.
After her divorce from Christopher in the 1990s, Pratt’s work became a little moodier. Her work focused on cut fruit, often revealing a dark inner core, seen in the painting Cut Watermelon. She never used black paint, but instead would mix three dark colors, believing that black would take away from the light. She shifted away from portraits, instead of focusing on everyday images.
Pratt’s work was recognized in 1996 when she was named Companion of the Order of Canada, awarded for the highest degree of contribution to Canada and humanity. A year later, she won the Molson Prize for visual artists, awarded by the Canada Council for the Arts. Before she died at age 83, she saw her artwork Jelly Shelf and Iceberg in the North Atlantic featured on stamps issued through Canada Post. She was awarded nine honorary degrees from Canadian universities.
Her most famous painting is arguably her 1972 Red Currant Jelly. The beauty of the sunlight streaming through the jelly captivated her. Pratt describes the work as one of her first paintings done outside of her house, in her own studio. Pratt expected that the painting would never be seen, but she liked it, calling it a “brave little painting.”
The painting hangs in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada and became the first painting by a living artist to be featured in the National Gallery’s series Masterpiece in Focus.