Mary Pratt. Photo: John Gray/The Globe and Mail.

Mary Pratt (1935–2018)

Mary Pratt, a Canadian painter who claimed to see “the secrets of the universe” in a pile of grapes, has died at age eighty-three. Pratt became internationally recognized for her realist still lifes of seemingly mundane household objects, which were infused with a radiant and disquieting verisimilitude and, for some scholars, evinced a subtly feminist perspective.

Pratt was born Mary West in Fredericton in 1935. Her mother had painted and inspired Pratt to cherish colors and their emotional power; Pratt once said she grew up in a home so “riddled with red” as to have a “belief” in the color. She attended Mount Allison University in Sacksville, where she studied under Alex Colville and Lawren Harris. She married the artist Christopher Pratt in 1957 and moved to rural Newfoundland in 1963, raising her children and keeping house as she honed her painting technique. She began to record the disappointments and pleasures of family life in photorealistic still lifes, conveying domestic minutia—backyard porches, hollowed Easter eggs, fillets of grilse, sparkling Mason jars of jam—in luminous canvases that were eventually exhibited in most of Canada’s major galleries. In interviews, she spoke of her life as a “love affair with vision,” saying “I believed that just stuff informed you.”

Pratt experienced hardships in her life, including a miscarriage of twins and an unstable relationship with her husband, whom she separated from and later reconciled with in later life. She allowed her work to become darker, painting things like animal carcasses that still contained the “erotic charge” she sought to lend her paintings. A retrospective of her work was exhibited at the Rooms Provincial Art Gallery in St. John’s in Newfoundland in 2013, and another retrospective was shown in Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada two years later.

Among Pratt’s many achievements were being named Companion of the Order of Canada in 1996 and being made a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 2013. In 2007, when the Canada Post issued stamps in her honor, her work graced the ordinary surfaces of paper envelopes, though she wouldn’t have described them as such. “I don’t really believe that anything is ordinary,” she told an interviewer in 2015. “But I tend to be a bit weird.”