Today I find myself staring at a print that’s been framed and hanging in my office for many years. It is a reproduction of American artist Howard Pyle’s The Mermaid. The work depicts two figures – a mermaid and a man – in a deep embrace at the edge of the sea. The two are folded so tightly into each other that it is almost hard to determine where one body begins and the other ends.
I first discovered Pyle’s painting years ago – so long ago, in fact, that it is hard for me to recall how or when exactly. I do know that I liked it enough to order a large print from the art museum. That print is now framed and has followed me from work space to work space over the years. Sometimes it stood neatly in the back of a closet (as I reconsidered my decorating options), but for the better part of 20 years, that painting has been present – neatly hung on otherwise plain walls – in the spaces where I’ve spent most of my time. Over the years, I found many reasons to love this work of art. I have actually surprised myself with the number of observations I’ve been able to make about the painting.
Today as I sit looking at the print, I am imagining a story behind the painting. The figures in the painting are obviously in love with each other (or so I think because of their embrace). But a relationship between a mermaid and a land-lover is obviously challenged by a variety of things (yes, for just a moment,you have to give into the idea that mermaids exist). They live in completely opposite worlds. One could argue, in fact, that the man on land lives a more rigid life, bound to the elements of his universe and forced to navigate a rocky terrain. The mermaid on the other hand, lives in the sea where she has learned to swim with the current. To me, she is the more flexible rider of waves. She has learned to hold her breath and dive deep beneath the surface in hopes of finding treasure not always obvious at the surface. She, to me, is the more carefree and adventurous of the two. He is grounded (literally) and unable to explore the depths she knows.
And yet they are here together in Pyle’s painting, each having come half-way to the other. He is knee-deep in the ocean. She is waist-high in the air. And they are sharing an embrace in which their longing for each other is palpable.
Is it because they can’t be together that they want each other so much? Or do they simply want each other despite the challenges they face? I guess Pyle leaves that up to the viewer to decide. But when I look at the painting, here’s the story I see:
One day a man went out for a walk. Attracted to the cool ocean breeze and the twinkle of sunlight on waves, he chose a path along the shore. As he walked, he caught glimpse of something unique and interesting in the surf. When the man moved closer to the water’s edge, he realized that the thing he observed was a woman diving up and down in the waves. She sparkled, unlike anything he ever knew before. Again, he moved closer, putting just toes in the water. When the woman saw him, she retreated deeper into the ocean. Alarmed, the man called out to her, reassuring her that he meant no harm. The woman swam closer. The man moved to a rock at the water’s edge and sat. Curious, the woman swam closer. Soon, he began talking and she listened. She had never heard a voice so soothing, words so sweet. But then, reminded of her tie to the ocean, the woman turned and swam away. The man sat for hours on the rock waiting for her to return. Finally, he went home and tried to forget what he convinced himself was a dream. The next day, the man returned to the same spot along the ocean’s shore. He perched on the warm rock and began to read a book. Soon, he heard a splashing in the ocean that once again revealed the woman he knew from the prior day. This time, the man invited her closer, asking if she’d like to hear part of his book’s story. She moved closer. The man read chapter after chapter, each turn of the page brought her closer and closer to him. After several hours, she was positioned on the rock next to him, her upper body folded before him, her tail still emerged in water. The man repeated his visit day after day and readings from the book soon turned to conversation. She did not see his legs; he did not see her fins. Instead, the two found a connection. Love. Days turned into weeks and weeks into years and today each of them knows that their situation is not practical. He can never live in the sea and she cannot survive on land. But their passion for each other continues to drive them back to this rock. And in moments of compromise, he moves into the water and she reaches back into air. They find each other. And in their embrace, each believes – for just a moment – that if he were to jump fully into the water, her love would help him float.
But that’s just my imagination. What does the painting say to you?
(Howard Pyle’s original painting of The Mermaid is housed in the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, DE. It was painted in 1910 as oil on canvas. For more information, including the museum’s story about the painting, visit http://www.delart.org/collections/american-illustration/the-mermaid/)