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  • Title: Art and Rivalry: The Marriage of Mary and Christopher Pratt
  • Author: Carol Bishop-Gwyn
  • Genre: Biography
  • Publisher: Knopf Canada
  • Pages: 272

Should there be any question about why a reader might be interested in a biography of the Newfoundland painters Christopher and Mary Pratt, Carol Bishop-Gwyn puts it to rest immediately in her new book Art and Rivalry. Her preface starts with an anecdote from the 1970s, when Christopher handed Mary a set of photographic slides containing nude images of his former model, the young Donna Meaney. Pratt no longer painted from slides, but his wife did and supposedly he thought she might find some use for them. Examining the erotic images confirmed for Mary what she already suspected: Her husband and Meaney had been lovers. Nonetheless, she proceeded to paint a series of nudes from the slides, much to the titillation of the Canadian art world.

Why did she do it? In a smartly written book linking the artists’ work and their sometimes unhappy lives, Bishop-Gwyn speculates one reason was oneupmanship: Mary’s Donna nudes are the better paintings, truer to the young woman’s burgeoning sexuality, lively rather than voyeuristic. Mary Pratt beat her husband at his own game.

The couple had met at Mount Allison University in Mary’s native New Brunswick. Both sprang from well-established, merchant-class East Coast families, but hers was a genteel and tee-totalling Fredericton household while his Newfoundland tribe was riotous and heavy-drinking. Mary later suggested that Christopher’s intense desire for order was a result of a chaotic childhood; tellingly, he never drank.

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After completing his studies at the Glasgow School of Art, Christopher soon quit teaching to pursue painting full-time – with Mary’s encouragement and support. If he was able to sustain himself as professional artist from the very start, it was due partly to living cheaply in rural Newfoundland at a cottage that belonged to his parents, but it was also thanks to the tradition of a self-sacrificing wife. Mary put her career on hold until her 30s while she raised their four children in the village of Salmonier, far from her own home, in a place that was her husband’s artistic inspiration, not hers.

The unspoken question this biography raises is whether Mary Pratt, in different circumstances, might not have left her homebody husband behind on the road to international stardom.

John Gray/Handout

Bishop-Gwyn knows both artists (Mary died last year) and interviewed everyone involved, including Meaney and Jeanette Meehan, who was Christopher’s studio assistant and partner in the long affair (and briefer second marriage) that finally split the Pratts in the 1990s.

The author, acclaimed for her previous biography of National Ballet of Canada founder Celia Franca, is carefully balanced, analyzing without denouncing. Yet, inevitably, Christopher comes off badly, partly because Mary was always more confessional. Like many artists before him – Bishop-Gwyn makes the comparison to Picasso – Christopher was shockingly selfish in private life. The author treads delicately on the subject of his affair with Meaney, a teenage employee almost 20 years his junior, only pointing out that by today’s standards the relationship would be judged non-consensual and potentially career-ending. (Meaney has told Bishop-Gwyn she resents Christopher’s failure to ever apologize.)

Artist Christopher Pratt at the Mira Godard Gallery in Toronto on Sept. 20, 2013, with his piece Spring Coming over Trout River Pond.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

The author adds that Mary was not blameless in failing to protect a young woman originally hired as the family’s babysitter. She also seems to have been angry and vindictive during the period of his 20-year affair with Meehan, the assistant (also decades younger and 19 when he hired her) who sped up his output by doing his underpainting. She certainly had provocation. Christopher seemed to believe he could do what he wished – that gift of the slides seems particularly thoughtless – while his wife turned a blind eye; their mutual tendency to avoid unpleasant truths or hard decisions made the marriage’s slow collapse particularly bitter. In any era, Christopher’s behaviour seems reprehensible and Mary’s sad.

So what does this have to do with their art? A lot, it turns out. In Mary’s case, heavily symbolic works often hinted at autobiography as she painted Meaney wearing Mary’s own dressing gown, two almost-empty jam jars or Dinner For One; Christopher’s more psychological work suggested emotional stasis and pained introversion. Bishop-Gwyn’s analysis of individual paintings is compelling; the book’s most obvious lacunae are illustrations of these key images.

At their best, both Pratts are transcendent; she found exquisite beauty in light shining on everyday objects in her kitchen; he found a fierce geometry in the landscape and architecture of his native Newfoundland. But supporting themselves entirely through their art in the small Canadian market, the Pratts, and Mary in particular, produced more work than was good for the legacy. At their most cool, Christopher’s paintings become dead things, while Mary’s repeated images of food can be trite. With her support, he was the best artist he could be – and that was not Picasso. But she never benefited from a self-sacrificing partner willing to live wherever it suited her career. The unspoken question this biography raises is whether Mary Pratt, in different circumstances, might not have left her homebody husband behind on the road to international stardom.

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