The Mermaid by Howard Pyle is probably one of the famous illustrator’s most mysterious works, as the painting remained unfinished when he left the United States in November 1910 to travel in Europe. Pyle never returned to the U.S. He passed away just a year later on November 9, 1911 in Florence, Italy.
I had the opportunity to see this painting in person at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. They were featuring a collection of Pyle’s work titled Howard Pyle: American Master Rediscovered.
The painting is quite large at 57 7/8 x 40 1/8 inches, painted in oil. Looking at it you feel as though you’re looking through a window, rather than a flat piece of canvas. The moonlight he’s used to light the painting casts a bluish hue on the skin of the sailor and mermaid. I especially love the bits of coral, seaweed, and pearls in the mermaid’s hair. She seems to be wearing a gold necklace and bracelet as well.
The painting was finished by Pyle’s student Frank Schoonover, who added fish and a crab to the scene. It’s hard not to wonder how Pyle would have finished the painting had he returned from Europe, but all the same it is a remarkable work.
The mystery of this piece lies in the relationship between the mermaid and the sailor. What sort of embrace are they sharing? Is this an affectionate goodbye after she saved him from the wreck? Or, is he barely conscious, possibly drowned, his body heavy and limp, as she’s trying to place him on the rock with the upswell of the wave behind her?
I also wonder if there was any connection between this painting and Pyle’s personal life. Did he know that his health was deteriorating, as he died a short year later, and this painting reveals his feelings for his wife Anne, with whom he shared his life and bore seven children?
The painting was donated to the Delaware Art Museum by Pyle’s children in memory of their mother Anne Poole. I’m a romantic and like to think that he painted it for her, knowing his time was short.
This is the only photo I could find of Anne Poole Pyle, showing her with four of their children by the shore at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. The photo was taken by Pyle in 1890.
To see more of Howard Pyle's pictures from Rehoboth Beach in 1910, take a look at Howard Pyle's Seaside Holiday Photos, 1910.