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Two boys and a girl are portrayed on rocks at the water's edge. The narrative indicates that they have discovered a wrecked ship's figurehead and, armed with ropes and a boat hook, attempt to haul it ashore. Two of the children sit on the long boat hook. The girl restrains the younger boy, while the older boy perches near the edge of the rocks and secures the figurehead with a rope. On their narrow platform the children provide an essential counterpoint to the sweeping seascape behind. The sentiment of the title positions the children as innocents mistaking the reality of the figurehead for a fictional mermaid. In a work designed to appeal to the emotions, even the children's innocent pleasure contains a paradox. The wooden image hints at storms and disasters in an otherwise innocuous scene, and its colour and form are reminiscent of a cadaver.
Hook was one of the most famous Victorian sea painters. His marine works often featured idealized fisherfolk and were a familiar part of the Victorian art scene. He spent his summers in Devon and Cornwall and painted numerous scenes of fishermen and their wives at work, and pictures of their children at play. Seascapes were judged as imaginative works of art and bought by wealthy Victorian connoisseurs. This painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1883 and was admired in the 'Athenaeum' of 5 May 1883; 'the glory of the picture is the sea whose waves dash themselves against the points of rocks'.
Catching a Mermaid
oil on canvas
H 91.5 x W 139.3 cm