Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Warrior Mermaid

Sometimes the complexity behind even the simplest work of American folk art can be astounding. The Fenimore Art Museum has had this work, “Maremaid” by Mary Ann Willson (painted about 1800-1825) on view in our galleries since it was purchased by our benefactor Stephen C. Clark from legendary folk art collector Jean Lipman in 1950. It is a bright, beautiful work of art, but for the most part it only merits passing notice as a depiction of a mermaid with all of the usual associations with sailors and the sea.

Way off base here. When this artist was discovered in the 1940s, a group of watercolors by her acquired by the Harry Stone Gallery in New York came with a mid-19th-century letter by an anonymous “Admirer of Art” that gave some background on the artist. The letter reads, in part:

The artist, Miss Willson and her friend, Miss Brundage, came from one of our eastern States and made their home in the town of Greenville, Green County, New York….One was the farmer (Miss Brundage)…while the other (Mary Ann Willson) made pictures….These two maids left their home in the East with a romantic attachment for each other and which continued until the death of the “farmer maid.” The artist was inconsolable, and after a brief time, removed to parts unknown.

Okay, so a publically acknowledged (and presumably accepted) same-sex union in the first two decades of the 19th century definitely distinguishes Miss Willson as ahead of her time. But it goes further than that.

This is no ordinary mermaid.

It is an extremely clever picture loaded with puns and classical allusions. First of all, a mermaid is supposed to hold a comb and a mirror; at least that’s how they were depicted in signs, tradecards and weathervanes of the era (see below, from the Shelburne Museum). Willson’s figure holds a bow and arrow (which sports tines rather than feathers!). And what’s up with the hairdo? One side – the right – is lopped off. A number of scholars see the combination of images as a clear allusion to the classical tradition of the fearsome female Amazon warriors, who had their right breasts removed to make them better archers. The tail includes iconography of a more domestic sort: the “scales” resemble clamshell quilting patterns popular at the time.

Lastly, the title, “Maremaid,” a clever pun that includes the Latin word for “sea” (Mare) and also calls to mind the artist’s name, Mary.

So this unique little watercolor hangs in our galleries in its unassuming way, offering its secrets now only to those curious enough to stop and read the label beside it. Every so often, you can hear a visitor’s gasp all the way to the admissions desk in the lobby.


  1. Great couple of posts on mermaids. The scales on the tail of the above watercolor almost remind me of CDs.

  2. finally found this image. I thought it was in Williamsburg. Love the story about the artist.

  3. I notice the mermaid has a single green dot on the right side of the design of her body. No other green anywhere in the painting. I find this curious and wonder if it might have some meaning. Green (like lavender) was often a color associated with Gays and Lesbians years ago . I'm not sure how far back that goes. Anyone have any thoughts about this? Also any ideas about a meaning for the 3 leafed tail? That's a very odd mermaid tail - usually they have a bifurcated shape - not divided in thirds.

    Btw I've just been researching Willson after learning about her today. I searched findagrave for her and "Miss Brundage" in VT with no luck. Then I searched CT thinking she may have returned there. To my amazement I found a "Mary Brundage Willson" who died in 1800 in Rye, NY and was buried in Greenwich, CT (just 5.5 miles away). Under her date of birth and death it lists the names of her husband, father and 2 children:

    Jotham Willson b. Feb 2 1774
    Mary Willson

    Interestingly, there is no date or location of death for her daughter "Mary Willson" - and no link to a grave. Her brother was born in 1774 so she would've been born around that time - which puts her in the correct general time frame to be Mary Ann Willson - who some estimate could have been born ca. 1780. It would be interesting to dig up an old birth record for this "Mary Willson" and see if her middle name was "Ann". It seems the entire family is buried together in the Green cemetery in Greenwich - it's odd that she is not buried with them.

  4. Also... if this IS her mother, whose maiden name was "Brundage", it makes me wonder if her partner/spouse "Miss Brundage", could have been a cousin. And source I read tonight said that when Isabel Miller first found a reference to them in a museum, the name on a note posted with the display said "Miss Brundage's" first name was "Florence".


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