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.


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