Mary Pratt (1935–2018) was a Realist painter whose subject was the immediate world around her, most often the objects and people within her homes in Salmonier and St. John’s, Newfoundland. From the mid-1970s—when the second wave of the North American feminist movement was reaching the height of its popularity and influence—Pratt was held up as an example. However, she was ambivalent about this positioning. In 1975 Pratt said, “I have quite strong feelings about the women’s movement, without really being part of it.” That same year, for her first major group exhibition, Some Canadian Women Artists at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Pratt provided an artist statement that seemed to deflect a political reading of her work: “I simply copy this superficial coating because I like the look of it.”
Perhaps Pratt was being coy, for even though she never officially admitted to social commentary, one cannot look at her work without seeing a focused and thoughtful interrogation of the domestic: from the quotidian hurly-burly of meals, laundry, cleaning, and child care, to the myriad elements that come with the gendered social constructs of family and the home. Nonetheless, Pratt felt the need to downplay the intellectual content of her work.
Yet the “superficial coating” of Pratt’s world has unmistakable depth. Her insistence on and struggle with taking on multiple roles of wife, mother, homemaker, and artist speaks to something important for her generation of women. Many women wanted to expand the roles available to them, and Pratt echoed this sentiment when she told a newspaper, remembering her feelings from decades earlier, “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 1976, writing for the catalogue of her first solo exhibition in Toronto, Robert Fulford called Mary Pratt “the visual poet of the kitchen.” Tom Smart later deemed this phrase “derogatory, patronizing, and simplistic,” despite acknowledging that it provided a convenient hook on which curators and critics could hang their interpretations, and actually enhanced Pratt’s growing reputation. It was nevertheless unfortunate, suggesting that Pratt’s concerns were not cerebral or consequential.
In actual fact, Pratt was not a born housekeeper. “I came to domesticity with great difficulty,” she told one interviewer. “My mother did not instruct in the art of the domestic; she was a very half-hearted housekeeper.” Moving to Salmonier, and having four small children and a husband to care for, Pratt had little choice but to buckle down and master this “art of the domestic.” It was what was expected of her, and also what she expected of herself. But her “difficulty” with such work might have added to her sharp, detached perspective in such paintings as Salmon on Saran, 1974, and Supper Table, 1969.
Increasingly, Mary Pratt’s work is seen as being influential for its subject matter. As Mireille Eagan writes, “Pratt’s art is regularly positioned with the feminist movement which operated under the umbrella of politics rather than aesthetics.” Initially, in the 1970s, Pratt was seen as a woman succeeding in a man’s world, overcoming the challenges of having a career and raising a family. Paradoxically, her subject matter was seen as an exemplar of the oppression of women: the housework, the laundry, the unbalanced sharing of the domestic burden.
But Pratt’s kitchen scenes become sites for resistance in more recent criticism. Even if Pratt’s politics were largely private, or understated, she was not shy in underlining that the balancing act of being an artist and making a home was difficult, and a cause of strain in her marriage. “There was a terrible war going on in my head,” she told Sandra Gwyn. As Catharine Mastin writes, “[Pratt] would make the family home and kitchen in Salmonier no silent place of oppression but an active location from which to establish a voice of sexual difference.”
This Essay is excerpted from Mary Pratt: Life & Work by Ray Cronin.