The land rises from the sea; the mermaid rises from the water, perhaps straining to lift the man from her element back into his. The sea froths around them; the sky is unsettled; the rising moon is full and golden. The red of his cap is echoed in the red baubles in her hair. The bodies of mermaid and man are pale against the colours of sea, sky and land. He has one leg in the water, one on the rock behind him. Is he stepping into or out of the water?
We don’t know. The painting is unfinished; the artist, Howard Pyle, left it behind on his easel when he left his home in Delaware to visit Italy.
He was known primarily as an illustrator, a writer of illustrated children’s books, and for his teaching of other illustrators and artists. Toward the end of his life he began to paint murals and decided to travel to Europe to explore and learn from the work of the master muralists there.
This was the culmination of long and interesting journey through life. As a child in Delaware his mother introduced him to the power and beauty of words and illustrations. As a teenager he spent three years learning from the Belgian artist Van der Weilen in Philadephia. Then he apprenticed as an illustrator in New York before he returned to continue his work as illustrator, writer and artist in Delaware. Finally his interest in murals took him to visit Europe.
The trip to Europe was a difficult one. He was sick when he left the United States, and his illness grew worse while he was away. He died in Florence, Italy, too ill to return home. So he left the mermaid to tell her own story.
We do not know what we will leave behind when we go, or how much will be left unfinished or undefined. Does it matter? Unfinished, her story untold, the mystery of what the mermaid might have become only brings us closer to her, and to Howard Pyle.
Because he left us room to wonder.