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Art and Rivalry: The Marriage of Mary and Christopher Pratt

by Carol Bishop-Gwyn

Canadian landscape painter Lawren P. Harris told Mary Pratt in the early days of her career that if two artists were to wed, only one would become a success. In her case, Harris declared, that title would obviously go to Mary’s husband, Christopher Pratt. Of course, history would prove Harris wrong, as recalled in journalist Carol Bishop-Gwyn’s Art and Rivalry, a fascinating chronicle of the Pratts’ personal and artistic lives. Decades later, Mary’s astonishingly realistic paintings of domestic scenes became as lauded as Christopher’s geometrically precise Newfoundland vistas.

Mary, who died in 2018, attended Mount Allison University where she studied under Harris and Alex Colville. It’s also where she met the serious-minded Christopher Pratt, a rising artist with a deep devotion to his native Newfoundland. For the first part of their marriage, Mary supported Christopher’s career, overseeing the household while he worked in isolation. She would snatch painting time whenever she could, years before pursuing her own full-time career.

Bishop-Gwyn recalls the Pratts’ marriage woes not to wallow in the salacious details (of which there are many) but rather to demonstrate how the relationship affected their artistic output. It was Christopher, after all, who took the photo that was the basis for Mary’s first professional painting, “Supper Table.”

Although Bishop-Gwyn is not a formal art expert, her deep research and accessible style provide a fresh perspective into the Pratts’ most iconic works. It’s also clear Bishop-Gwyn admires and respects her subjects, having spent time in both their studios.

Many of the stories in Art and Rivalry, including those of Christopher’s philandering, have been reported over the years. Both artists wrote memoirs and participated in many interviews where they spoke about their lives. But sometimes those stories contradicted each other, or suggested other motives. Bishop-Gwyn sets the record straight to the best of her ability.

For example, there have been many feminist readings of Mary’s domestic subjects. The reality, as Bishop-Gwyn points out, is that she never considered her work a feminist statement. She painted what was in front of her and took great pleasure in caring for her family. Then there are the unsolved mysteries involving Christopher’s past. A lifelong teetotaller, he has always been guarded when talking about his childhood, except to say that his family drank a lot. Even more curious is his continued open mourning over his teen love, Tannie, who died tragically at a young age.

Bishop-Gwyn shows how the slow dissolution of the Pratts’ relationship played out on canvas like film stills. Take Mary’s Donna series, her luminous and sensual examination of the female form. Donna Meaney, a local teenager with little interest in art, first started posing for Christopher at 16. By 19, she was his preferred model, road-trip companion, and lover. Mary, who was aware of the relationship, began employing Meaney as her own subject – with Christopher’s approval. Adding to the drama, Christopher often helped stage and even shot photos for Mary’s preparatory work. And so what are we to think of “Girl in My Dressing Gown,” in which Meaney stands, sullen face half cloaked in darkness, wearing one of Mary’s wrinkled robes?

Was this a way for Mary to better understand the power of her husband’s muse? Perhaps it was a means to quash rumours of Christopher’s affair. Or was Mary competing to prove who could paint Donna best? Bishop-Gwyn never draws simple conclusions but gathers and presents scenarios. Art and Rivalry also speaks to the elephant in the studio. By today’s standards, Christopher’s relationship with Meaney would be considered sexual harassment at best. And what, Bishop-Gwyn rightfully asks, was Mary’s responsibility to this young woman?

Even after the couple divorced, and Christopher married his much younger studio assistant, Jeanette Meehan, a protective shield remained wrapped around the Pratt name (or brand, for the more cynical). Their lives remained intertwined and still something of a mystery. Bishop-Gwyn lets us peer inside and play voyeur without overstepping our bounds.