Artwork by Mary Pratt,  Barby in the Dress She Made Herself

Mary Pratt
Barby in the Dress She Made Herself

oil on board
signed and dated 1986 lower right
35.75 x 24.5 in ( 90.8 x 62.2 cm )

Auction Estimate: $50,000.00$40,000.00 - $50,000.00

Price Realized $84,000.00
Sale date: May 30th 2024

Mira Godard Gallery, Toronto, October 1987
Private Collection, Nova Scotia
"Mary Pratt: Aspects of a Ceremony", Equinox Gallery, Vancouver, 9-31 October, 1986
“Mary Pratt/Recent Paintings”, Mira Godard Gallery, Toronto, 13 November-2 December 1987 as “Barbi in the Dress She Made”
"Mary Pratt", The Rooms, St. John’s, travelling to the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax; Art Gallery of Windsor; the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, Ontario and the MacKenzie Art Gallery, Regina, May 2013-August 2014 as “Barby in the Dress She Made Herself”
Gerta Moray, "Mary Pratt", Toronto/Montreal, 1989, page 35, reproduced page 147
Tom Smart, "The Art of Mary Pratt: The Substance of Light", Fredericton, 1995, reproduced page 114
"ARTSatlantic", no. 54, Winter 1996, reproduced on cover
Alice Munro, "No Love Lost", Toronto, 2003, reproduced on cover
Mirielle Eagan, Sarah Fillmore and Caroline Stone, "Mary Pratt", Newfoundland and Labrador, 2016, reproduced page 87
Anne Koval, "Mary Pratt: A Love Affair with Vision", Fredericton, 2023, reproduced page 215
In 1986 Mary Pratt held her first thematic exhibition, "Aspects of a Ceremony", at the Equinox Gallery in Vancouver, focusing on weddings and the female rite of passage. Pratt's two daughters, Anne and Barby, married that year. The paintings that the artist created to commemorate the occasions formed the basis of the exhibition. "Anne in My Garden" and "Barby in the Dress She Made Herself" both represent the pressures placed on young women seeking romantic love, while also celebrating this important milestone. Pratt undertook this project during an emotionally charged period, when family life and her ideas around marriage were changing.

Pratt was exploring the concept of marriage as a “safe harbour”, capturing a Pre-Raphelite romantic sensibility in the portrayal of Anne–a young woman depicted in a white dress in a dreamy, contemporary setting–while the painting of Barby depicts the humanity of the wedding rite. Gerta Moray explores this idea, stating, ""Barby in the Dress She Made Herself" (1986), for example, is the portrait of a bride in a pose familiar from informal eighteenth-century portraits. She is seated with her head and shoulders turning one way, her arms and legs the others, so as to show off her richly embroidered bodice." Moray likens the work to Francois Boucher’s "Madame de Pompadour". The brides assume the stereotypes of the past, while inhabiting both a sense of self-consciousness and ambivalence.

Pratt snapped a photograph of Barby seated in her studio as she gazed out at the Salmonier River on her wedding day. Pratt then aptly translated the photograph into a painting, solidifying the human presence. The distant expression on Barby’s face, combined with her clasped hands, ceremonial dress and conventional pose point to the psychological aspect of the wedding ceremony. Prior to the wedding, Pratt had travelled with her daughter to Toronto to find a dress. They did not meet with success and as the title of the work indicates, Barby made her wedding dress from purchased fabric. This intimate rendering of Barby at the age of twenty-one has an ethereal quality, infused with delicacy, warmth and soft light. The subtly of the portrayal is executed in the hallmarks of Pratt’s masterful hand. Mireille Eagan describes Mary Pratt’s art as “an illumination rather than an illustration, one in which ‘everyday life’ describes not just a reality close at hand but also aspects of life that lie hidden.”

When the "Aspects of a Ceremony" exhibition opened on October 9th, 1986, Pratt attended alone. Many fellow artists came to the opening, which Pratt described as a success, reflecting that “It made me feel light and unencumbered. I can’t easily explain the way I feel, unburdened would be accurate.” This was perhaps a revelatory moment for Pratt and marked a step forward in both her career and personal life.

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Mary Pratt
(1935 - 2018) RCA

Mary Pratt was born in Fredericton, New Brunswick, in 1935. Both of Pratt’s parents valued creativity and participated in artistic endeavors themselves –– Pratt’s mother, Katherine, hand painted photographs. Pratt started painting due to this influence and was seen as an appropriate hobby for a young woman of her social status. Continually encouraged by her parents, Pratt began attending art classes at the University of New Brunswick Art Center. For two years she took weekly private lessons from John Todd, a graphic artist who trained at the Pratt Institute in New York City.

In 1953, Pratt began studying at Mount Allison University at the School of Fine and Applied Arts. Studying under Alex Colville, Pratt spent three years learning the basics of art, including art history, design, drawing, and sculpture. Pratt focused on still lifes in her final year at Mount Allison. She graduated with a fine-arts certificate in 1956 and was qualified to teach or practice as an art therapist. One year later, in 1957, she married Christopher Pratt, who was a fellow art student at Mount Allison. Pratt wished to continue her education, so in 1959 she began the required coursework for a Bachelor of Fine Arts. While attending this program, Lawren P. Harris, son of Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris, told Pratt that she must not outshine her husband’s creative projects as there could be only one great painter in a family. Harris’ misogynistic words challenged Pratt to continue to paint.

After graduation in 1961, Pratt and her husband moved to St. John’s where she worked as an artist and taught two art courses at Memorial University. In 1963, her husband decided to take up painting full time, quitting his job at Memorial University’s Art Gallery, and moved the family to a cottage near St. Mary’s. While Christopher painted full-time, Pratt was expected to tend to the children, the house, and the needs of her husband. Still, she continued to paint in her down time, although not receiving acclaim from visiting gallerists who were only interested in her husband’s work.

In 1967, Peter Bell, Christopher’s colleague from Mount Allison and one of the few individuals who knew of Pratt’s art, exhibited forty-four of her drawings and paintings. Throughout the next few years, Pratt was inspired by the idea of viewing her subjects as light and began painting from photographs. Pratt struggled with this as she had been taught to paint from life at Mount Allison. In 1970, Pratt completely stopped painting until her friends, husband, and children encouraged her to start again a year later. After resuming painting, visitors became interested in her work as well as her husband’s. Mayo Graham of the National Gallery of Canada was interested in “Cod Filets” (1974) during a visit and included Pratt in “Some Canadian Women Artists” exhibition in 1975. One of her works included in the exhibition, “Red Currant Jelly” (1972) was purchased by the National Gallery.

In 1980, Pratt was appointed to be a member of the governance board for the Law Society of Newfoundland and Labrador. She also served on Canada’s Federal Culture Policy Review Committee. Until her health made her unable to serve, Pratt participated in many community service projects, including the creation of Newfoundland and Labrador’s art gallery and culture center in St. John’s called The Rooms.

Throughout the 1980s, the Pratt children grew up, moved out, and got married, which inspired Pratt’s creativity. For example, she painted her daughter, Barbara, in “Barby in the Dress She Made Herself” (1986). With the onset of arthritis and vision problems, Pratt began drawing at a larger scale with pastels as it was easier on her body. “Bonfire with Beggar Bush” (1990) and “Bonfire by the River” (1998) are examples of these large-scale drawings. Pratt and Christopher separated in the 1990s, officially divorcing in 2004. During this time Mary Pratt’s career flourished. She was included in exhibitions in Toronto, Edmonton, and Fredericton, and was featured in her first retrospective exhibition in 1995 at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. In 2013, The Rooms and the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia organized a retrospective of her work that toured Canada.

Literature Sources:
Ray Cronin, “Mary Pratt: Life and Work,” Toronto: Art Institute Canada, 2020 (
Tom Smart, “The Art of Mary Pratt: The Substance of Light,” Fredericton, Goose Lane Editions, 1996

We extend our thanks to Danie Klein, York University graduate student in art history, for writing and contributing this artist biography.