It could be argued that the mermaid is one of the most iconic and well-known mythological creatures on the entire planet. Although they are figments of imagination, you could ask practically anyone, young or old, and they would be able to tell exactly what a mermaid is and what it represents.
The myth of the mermaid is almost as old as culture itself. As soon as humans began sailing the seas, stories and eventually entire folklore emerged of an alluring human-like sea creature. Some of these stories spoke of a kind-hearted creature, while others told of mermaids with wicked intent that lured men to their doom.
Mermaids are also associated with events such as storms, shipwrecks, and floods. However, ultimately the lasting impression of the mermaid comes from Greek mythology, which tells of a cunning creature who craves love and attention at the cost of human life.
The Mermaid by John William Waterhouse
John William Waterhouse was an English artist who specialized in composing paintings based on European myths and legends. Three common themes can be found throughout practically all of Waterhouse’s paintings. One is mythological motifs, particularly in ancient Greece. Two, the presence of women, and three, a neo-classical painting style.
The third aspect is fascinating as Waterhouse was a late 18th and early 19th-century painter. During this time, most painters had moved away from the classical style in favor of Impression or Expressionism. But on the other hand, Waterhouse was part of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, which aimed to bring back the old ways of painting.
One myth Waterhouse found himself drawn to was that of the mermaid. He painted many paintings involving the mysterious creature and is considered one of the premier painters of the genre. For example, in his 1901 painting simply titled The Mermaid, a beautiful red-headed mermaid sits on the beach combing her hair. Many believe this mermaid painting may have inspired the Disney movie, the little Mermaid.
The Dance of the Sea by Charles Edouard Boutibonne
French painter Charles Edouard Boutibonne is another modern artist who preferred painting in the aestheticism of Classicism. His paintings are so classically inspired that you would be forgiven for thinking they were painted centuries before they were.
Boutibonne is also an example of an artist who preferred quality over quantity. Like artists such as Johannes Vermeer, Boutibonne only completed a handful of paintings during his lifetime. This patient mindset is evident in the attention to detail of the French artist’s paintings, and each must have taken a great effort and time to complete.
In the Dance of the Sea, or Mermaids Frolicking in the Sea as it is also known, a group of five beautiful mermaids dances together at the Sea’s shore. Dancing is a common theme throughout art, and this wonderful mermaid painting is very similar to Henri Matisse’s famous dance painting and may have played a part in its inspiration.
The Mermaid by Howard Pyle
Another excellent example of a painting involving the mythological theme of the mermaid is American illustrator Howard Pyle’s masterpiece of the same name. Unfortunately, the painting itself is believed to be incomplete. Nonetheless, it is considered one of the greatest mermaid paintings ever made.
This beautifully gripping painting inspires deep primal feelings such as love and hope. The painting acts as if it is a scene from straight out of a book or movie. A lone man is stranded at Sea after becoming shipwrecked.
Scared and alone, things must seem hopeless as night falls over him. Then, suddenly, from out of the dangerous foamy Sea, a beautiful mermaid emerges from the water, and the two embrace one another tenderly under the light of the moon. Pyle does a tremendous job here depicting the mystical nature of the creature known as the mermaid.
The Sirens by Edward Matthew Hale
English Romanticist painter Edward Matthew Hale was another artist interested in the symbology of the Sea and the mermaid. Several paintings showcase mermaids, and Hale captures their beauty and mystery wonderfully.
His painting titled the Sirens focuses on the more sinister component of the mermaid. The painting depicts a struggle between several sailors on a small ship as a group of ravenous mermaids accosts them. One mermaid even boldly attempts to cease a sailor from the ship.
It is similar to another of Hale’s fantastic mermaid paintings, the Mermaids Rock. Although in that painting, the mermaid’s intentions are more benevolent and ambiguous, in the Sirens painting, it is clear that the mermaids wish to drag the men to their doom.
The Shipwrecked Man and the Sea by Arthur Rackham
British illustrator Arthur Rackham is considered by many to be one of the finest and most imaginative illustrators of all time. The expressiveness of his penmanship inspired generations of illustrators that followed, and he worked on many iconic literary works such as Alice in Wonderland and Aesop’s Fables, to name just two.
His drawings are brimming with aliveness, character, color, and an intense feeling of imagination and fantasy. His mermaid painting of the Shipwrecked Man and the Sea is a prime example. In the drawing, a man is confronted by a giant mermaid that stands between him and his ship.
The mermaid’s stature represents the Sea’s power as it rattles the ship beneath its wake. This is just one of Rackham’s fantastic mermaid-themed paintings. Check out his other mermaid and ocean-themed paintings, such as Jewels from the Deep and The Rhine’s Fair Children, and they are worth a look.
The Bottom Line
Mermaids genuinely make for an intriguing and inspiring theme, so it is no wonder that they have appeared as the central focus in art and literature time and time again. They mean many things to many cultures, mostly though they symbolize beauty worthy of adornment on your wall.