Thursday, June 14, 2012


A century ago, Howard Pyle painted this classic image of man and mermaid locked in a passionate embrace:

Pyle's image is a metaphor for doomed lovers everywhere.  (As Joseph Stein put it, "A fish may love a bird but where would they build a home together?")

Today illustrators remain fascinated by the gap separating man from mermaid, but their perspectives look quite different.  Let's revisit Pyle's touching scene through the eyes of some of today's master illustrators:

John Cuneo offers this unsettling glimpse into the love life of a modern mermaid:

Sterling Hundley's mermaid has apparently decided not to let go of her man.  No more tearful good byes at the shore line: 

Jack Davis shows us what happens if you give a man too much time to think:

Carter Goodrich shows us a boy who has caught more than he bargained for:

French cartoonist Andre Francois imagines a cooperative effort to deal with the logistical problems:

William Steig helps us understand why a man might give up everything to flee to the mermaid's world:

Charles Rodrigues shows us the glum granddaughter of Pyle's mermaid:

What a difference a century makes (both in pictures and in relationships).  Many of today's illustrators employ a lighter medium to convey a darker message.

Pyle would have landed in jail for such irreverent and explicit content. Today's illustrators have a longer leash, but the good ones don't mistake the new candor for truth. These modern pictures work because-- like Pyle's original illustration-- they invoke some recognizable truth about human nature, a truth revealed by the gap between man and mermaid.


AJA said...

I love to see how artists handle the same subject in a completely different way. Very inspiring.

MORAN said...

Pyle gained something by keeping the impossibility vague. He doesn't go into specifics about why the body parts won't fit together and he probably would have been arrested if he did. That makes his painting more universal.

Anonymous said...

Love that Jack Davis! So true!


Elizabeth Misitano said...


I was reading ur blog when I came across a post you made a few years ago about Bridgeman art classes (figure drawings). I was wondering if you have any information about this, as I may have found some more.


David Apatoff said...

AJA-- I agree, the infinite variety of approaches by different artists is one of the things that keeps this blog going.

MORAN-- Yes, Pyle does seem to levitate above the specifics. It's one of the things that makes his picture so classic.

JSL-- The Davis is a preliminary study for a Playbiy cartoon.

Elizabeth Misitano-- Sure, what else would you like to know? What information do you have?

Elizabeth Misitano said...


I found some old charcoal drawings that say "Bridgeman PM class of 1918" When I goggled that, only your post came up with any informations. Do you know where the class was held? Who exactly is Brideman? Was there a roster of students? Why does it seem like you are the only person that knows anything about this?


David Apatoff said...

Elizabeth, I am the only person who knows anything about a great many topics. Unfortunately, very few of them have any socially redeeming value or economic worth.

George Bridgman was a legendary art teacher who authored many popular books and taught anatomy at the Art Students League in New York. Try looking him up under "Bridgman" rather than "Bridgeman" and you're sure to find him in Wikipedia and on Amazon. I don't know who was in his class of 1918, but many great artists were trained by Bridgman. The Norman Rockwell Museum has some of the sketches from his class because Rockwell was a student.

अर्जुन said...

Youtube has failed me!

The soundtrack for this post ~ track 11 The Mermaid. (Lee Sklar on bass)

Bye Guys!

Ben said...

अर्जुन, the best version of "The Mermaid" is the original, by Shel Silverstein. It's not on YouTube right now, but it's worth tracking down.

chris bennett said...

The difference between the Pyle and all the other examples is that Pyle is employing a purely plastic, pictorial language to express an emotional idea.

All the others are illustrating literary reponses to an idea delivered by a concensual shorthand pictorial code to make an intellectual point.

chris bennett said...

Sterling Hundley's picture is the exception to what I've just said!

David Apatoff said...

अर्जुन-- Even though you couldn't find Ted Knight's version of the mermaid song on Youtube, the other Ted Knight songs were mind boggling enough. I had forgotten about his character on the Mary Tyler Moore show, and you have now brought it all back. Thanks one hell of a lot.

Ben-- I am a big fan of Shel Silverstein's work. A smart, funny guy with a wildly inventive mind.

Chris Bennett-- while I appreciate the distinction you describe, I'm not sure the two extremes can be separated as cleanly as you suggest. Even Saul Steinberg, who went about as far as one could go in simply diagramming an "intellectual point," was mindful of the abstract, plastic aspects of picture making and that is what made him an artist rather than a philosopher.

In the current case, the Pyle contains its own intellectual content: the two hopeless lovers meeting at the boundaries of their respective worlds, each one unable to go any farther-- how many impasses in normal relationships could be symbolized that way? Why don't you think Pyle is also "illustrating literary responses to an idea" (hearts aching to combine but thwarted by circumstance)?

I agree that a sketch could be perceived as "shorthand" when compared to an oil painting, but I don't think that is the distinction you are drawing (and certainly the Carter Goodrich drawing is not "shorthand" for an intellectual point).

There are intellectual artists who are tone deaf to the plastic, visual aspects of picture making, but I don't normally discuss them here unless it is to make fun of them. I think all of the artists featured this week have a sense of design, composition, balance, etc. The "quick" sketches are usually not so quick, and all of them have a thouhgtful line.

kev ferrara said...

The Pyle is more profound than the scenario being illustrated. Abstractly, it represents the universal condition of human idealism struggling to stay aloft... struggling to hang onto a perfect dream, while reality's endless gravity keeps dragging it down. The sea pulls one way, the rocks pull another... the glow in the sky never quite reached. It isn't just about doomed love; the poignancy of all human desire reaching for what is beyond the grasp has been universalized in it.

The piece shows a preoccupation with what used to be called truth; Insight which transcends the facts.Brandywine image making was all about discovering the truth behind the scenario.

The other pieces you posted are great fun, but are much more specific or materialist in purview, almost anti-transcendentalist. They diagram linear conceptual connections, as texts tend to do (given the form of their grammar, comparing word to word.) And they clearly lack the mystical resonance of truth because of that. (You can feel that strange vibe coming off the Pyle, can't you?)

StimmeDesHerzens said...

RE: Unfortunately, very few of them (great many topics) have any socially redeeming value or economic worth.

So absolutely not true.
Now, there seems to be a new format, which makes comments seem so large and profound. Not sure I like it. But I ALWAYS like the posts, as you know. !!

chris bennett said...

David Apatoff-- I agree that the other artists are mindful of design and that their work in general is preoccupied with plastic concerns of shaping the surface as much as it is illustrating scenarios.

But in the examples you have given, this is being used only to produce a satisfying balance of plastic elements for its own sake, divorced of the meaning of what is being depicted. For example – sawing along the lower body of a mermaid is a traumatic event and the absence of its plastic expression in the scenario is necessary to distance us enough to appreciate its humour. The divorce of plastic means from the scenario is not itself expressive, but necessary to the function of the genre.

I would say that the main concern with these artists regarding the abstract, plastic qualities of their work, is ‘signature’; very much in the way it is for the sound of a jazz musician. The plastic flux in their pictures is to do with their voice, not what they are saying. This doesn’t lessen either the quality of their voice or what they are saying; only that they are largely distinct.

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote: "they clearly lack the mystical resonance of truth because of that. (You can feel that strange vibe coming off the Pyle, can't you?)"

Yup, I sure can feel that strange vibe coming off the Pyle.

I think all of these pictures resonate partly because they contain an element of human truth; we recognize these characters and understand their nature and emotions. But among all these pictures I think the Pyle embodies a larger, more universal archetype. Many of the mermaids that follow seems to play against that larger archetype, poking holes in it and playing against it. Cuneo gives us a horrifying twist on Pyle's basic truth. Davis and Rodrigues follow up with honest details of "the day after." Steig takes some of the glamour and romance out of the Pyle archetype by reminding us that lovers run not just "to," but "from."

Remember Herman Melville's ode to the archetype in art: "Not innovating wilfulness/ But reverence for the Archetype." (Melville went for the very biggest subjects, like Pyle's paintings.) Perhaps we live in an era of reaction to big archetypes, an era of sarcasm and skepticism without the integration and cohesion necessary to believe in the archetypes themselves.

PS-- Kev, didn't you comment a while back that you were planning to write something about this Pyle painting? Did anything ever come of that?

StimmeDesHerzens-- I'm always happy to hear your cheerful and supportive voice.

Chris Bennett-- You make an interesting (and valid) point. Let's test it around the edges: Would you agree that the plasticity of that Cuneo drawing (or to a lessor degree, that Rodrigues drawing) is related to the content, in that it is scraggly and offbeat? Or that the form of the Hundley is related to the content, in that it is less realistic to accommodate a reality that may or may not be happening? Pyle's mermaid is solid and real, but Hundley's mermaid may be an illusion, a metaphor for the ocean claiming the diver, with a flurry of excited hands, and loops and whorls to connect the two planes of reality.

chris bennett said...

David Apatoff-- In the case of the Cuneo, leaving aside the inbuilt ‘subtly drifting disconnectedness’ of his plastic handwriting, there certainly is an abrasiveness due to the depiction of the alligator which chimes well with the unspoken threat to the mermaid. But it is only a small element in the image. The design of the picture as a whole is a functional one that puts the alligator in harmonious proximity to the mermaid.

Now, with the Hundley – and hence my amendment to my first claim – we have the design functioning as an expressive carrier wave of the scenario.
The two halves of the diver’s helmet, the water seen inside its viewing port and the gap containing the mermaid’s embrace of the diver are all the shape of a crescent moon. Most importantly, the mermaid’s face is the shape of a crescent moon, who, including her hand shapes, is eating up the ragged shape that is all that’s left of the doomed diver. What effect are all these moons having as they force us to gaze about the picture with a see-saw, sea-sick motion? The sense of the blue, ethereal, tidal forces of Selene’s airless love choking the ochre heart of the earthman.

kev ferrara said...

I think the Pyle embodies a larger, more universal archetype. Many of the mermaids that follow seems to play against that larger archetype, poking holes in it ...

Remember Herman Melville's ode to the archetype in art: "Not innovating wilfulness/ But reverence for the Archetype." (Melville went for the very biggest subjects, like Pyle's paintings.) Perhaps we live in an era of reaction to big archetypes, an era of sarcasm and skepticism without the integration and cohesion necessary to believe in the archetypes themselves.

Agreed and well said; this is what I was trying to get at too. There is something about the zeitgeist of our era that causes an out of hand rejection of philosophical profundity in favor of material distinctions.

I think there is a generalized sense in the cultural centers that the whole lot of 19th century belief; truth, spirituality, religion, idealism, god, country, propreity, transcendentalism, honor, romanticism... that its all of a bundle, and all hogwash , all belonging in the trash heap of history. And the progressive, materialist takeover of the culture is some kind of new enlightenment.

The more I research that old bathwater, the more I feel a sense that we are not living in a new age of cultural enlightenment, but in an age of petulance and its byproduct, graffiti. (Petulance against all those 19th century values which still faintly hang in the air.) Everything seems to contain a snark.

I often feel that the entire matter teeters over the question of whether ideals or achetypes are, as the Platonists have it, the real reality, versus the materialists who reject that notion. While I tend to favor the materialist view, this doesn't mean that the entirety of idealism should be swept under the rug. It seems to me, all the damn thing needs is an anthropic tweak.

Instead what we get is cultural death by a thousand cuts... a thousand snarks against the archetypes... which the archetype don't deserve. After all, it wasn't the archetypes themselves that claimed that they were real. Myths don't demand you believe them.

The uncooling of transcendental beliefs or values is a relentless feature of modern culture. Ultimately, this mental training had/has a political component. That all politically useful thought is critical in nature, uncovering exceptions, errors, qualifications, and inconsistencies in the inherited cultural rule set. It seems to me this uncreative destruction is a tactic in the larger cultural war which, sadly, has taken on a life of its own.

David Apatoff said...

Chris Bennett-- Good for you on picking up those recurring crescent moon shapes (which I did not-- did you notice that Pyle's man and mermaid form such a shape?) And I think your reference to the "ochre heart" of the surface dwellers is exactly right-- Hundley uses color so well to divide (and combine) the two world.

Kev Ferrara-- I wasn't thinking about transcendentalism when I mentioned Melville, but of course you are right. There is a school of thought that says philosophy took the wrong path when it abandoned transcendentalism / pragmatism for existentialism / phenomenology/ analytic philosophy. We couldn't know back then that for all of their initial truths, existentialism and analytic philosophy would ultimately turn out to be dry wells, useless for coping with the world in a meaningful way, and that phenomenologists such as Merleau-Ponty would turn out as apologists for Stalin.

I'm not sure that the "progressive, materialist takeover of the culture" goes so far as to view itself as "some kind of new enlightenment." If it does, it falls very short indeed. But if the old beliefs are so defenseless against what you so cleverly call the "graffiti" of the new vandals, doesn't that tell you something about the strength and stature of the old ways? Aren't all successful revolutions self-legitimizing?

Maybe modern acerbic culture is feeding on the carcass of the old profundities, but even carrion feeders serve an important function in nature's great cycle. As the greatest transcendentalist of them all, Emerson, said: "When half-gods go, The gods arrive." If we believe that, then we shouldn't stop poking holes and asking impertinent questions that reveal when a god is merely a half-god, right?

kev ferrara said...


Over the weekend I talked with a young art teacher from the midwest who recounted the opening lecture from his college art history course. The teacher flashed a few slides of Thomas Moran, Bierdstadt, and other 19th century painters and then shrieked at the screen that “This was not art. It was garbage not fit for children!” (And the vituperative tirade against imagination-enhanced realism continued the whole lecture period.)

If ever there was a case of a “lady protesting too much” it was this credentialed indoctrinate of the modernist cult browbeating her students with anti-romantic dogma. And similar soapboxing is going on all over the country even as we speak, as you know.

If Romanticism was so defenseless, so tired a lamb, why would so much propagandistic effort be needed to keep it marginalized?

I believe Romanticism is a natural wellspring that surges up from the human psyche set free to dream. To hate romanticism, it seems to me, is to hate imagination itself. Which is to hate Art itself.

But hating a natural human tendency and attempting to repress it... can that work for long? Seems obvious that Art will endure the current repression just like humans themselves survive tyrannies of all kinds.

Taking your other point, if the presiding cultural mandarins, who so obsessively police cultural thought, do not think they are the New Enlightenment, then they must hate Romanticism more than they love their own tribal products. And, it seems to me, that makes perfect sense: For how could they love products that are not borne out of love in the first place?

And if they hate products made out of love, what do they think of love itself?

I’ll end with another posting of NC Wyeth’s great quote to his son, Andy, from Feb. 16, 1944: "There is little doubt that the modern mind is opposed to the romantic mind. The modern mind is mainly content to ask and seek causes and consequences - whereas the romantic mind seeks the significance of things. ... If things have no significance, things are hollow!

Depth of style can only spring from a deepening of our emotional life. That is what we really demand and look for!

There's a real task on our hands, Andy. Modern art critics and their supine followers like the flat and the shallow. They like it as they like soft drinks and factory-made bread."

Patience Meliora Blythe said...

Are you familiar with Harry Clarke's oh so strange Mermaid drawing? I am not sure if it's a man or a merman in the background....but, one of the elements of mermaid portraits that I love so much is the sense of definition between the mermaid and her surroundings. It always seems to me that mermaids are set in opposition to their of their inherent tragic elements, maybe? The Pyle painting is one of my favorites. I have had it tacked up on walls (in card form) of many apartments for glad to discover your blog! (by way of your son's recommendation!)

David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara-- Thanks for the great NC Wyeth quote, my respect for him is constantly being renewed in the most unlikely places.

Perhaps the teacher was trying to shock her students and shake up their natural assumptions about art, but I agree that much of the pedantry about art is insufferable. I also agree with you that romanticism in the arts has a resilience that it will be difficult for anyone to snuff out, even in our current snarky times. It does, I think, come from the same replenishing "wellspring" as human optimism and faith, and if it can be combined with a quality image (always a big "if") the two make an unbeatable combination.

Patience Meliora Blythe-- Welcome (and great name!) I had not looked at the Harry Clarke "Little Mermaid" illustration in many years. I went back and took a look. Thanks for reminding me. That guy was truly strange.

Anonymous said...

Jajajaja, excelente la viñeta de Goodrich!!!