Most of us would have been introduced to the world of mermaids through Disney’s Ariel. The beautiful redhead who has to go through leaps and hurdles in order to get the man she loves, she is the heroine of the story. But the original tale by Hans Christian Andersen, isn’t so pleasant, and in fact most mermaids in history are portrayed as powerful and dangerous. In fact, pop culture has done a lot of work to counter the portrayal of sea-women in history. I mean, Daryl Hannah in Splash? We can’t deny that she’s a total babe, but threatening? We’re not so sure.
Long before Ariel, mermaids have been written about in literature and depicted in art. Both stunning and menacing, these fishy female figures are portrayed as vixens of the sea or as dangerous sirens, luring sailors to their death, their half-human, half-fish anatomy reflecting the dichotomy of their character.
While mermaids have been highly sexualised and stereotyped, we are still fascinated by them. In recent years, they have become adopted by the LGBTQ+ community too, as symbols of characters that struggle to be accepted in their bodies. Soon, Disney will have its first black Ariel, with Halle Bailey taking the role, and we are 100% here for it. So, to celebrate the long and complicated history of the girl living under the sea, here are some of the best mermaids from art history!
Noah’s Ark, Nuremburg Bible, Biblia Sacra Germanica, 1483, Unknown artist
Whoever knew that mermaids would appear in the bible? Well, the reason why you didn’t is because they weren’t. That said, they do appear in this 15th century print from the biblical story of Noah’s Arc, where the women are swimming around the ship of animals. Despite theologians believing that mermaids should have perished during the flood, since they had fish-like-bodies, they argued that they must have managed to survive. Interesting, eh? (And this whole story suggests that somebody out there really did believe that mermaids were real in the first place…)
Armada Portrait, 1588, Unknown artist
This battle portrait of the first queen of England doesn’t seem to show any signs of mermaid life at all. But look closely, in the bottom right corner you will see a metallic woman with a fishy tale instead of legs. Word has it that Elizabeth I was compared to a mermaid – a lone woman exerting her power as many men went to fight at sea. Talk about #girlboss
The Sea Maidens, 1886, Evelyn de Morgan
This lovely scene of five blonde beauties holding hands references Hans Christian Andersen’s original telling of Ariel and her sisters. Each sister is modelled on the same woman, a model whom Evelyn had a passionate relationship with. So close was the bond between artist and model that de Morgan was buried next to her (and her husband too!), imagine explaining that in the 1920s…
A Mermaid, 1900, John William Waterhouse
This image of a redhead on the rocks combing her hair may well have been the inspiration for Disney’s iconic redhead. Alone, she looks anything but dangerous and every bit the quintessential beauty.
The Mermaid, 1910, Howard Pyle
There is something dreamy about Howard Pyle’s image of a mermaid hugging her lover at sea by moonlight. The blue painting has us begging to know more about the couple. How did they get there? What’s going to happen to them? We don’t know, but they sure do look loved up.
The Little Mermaid, 1913, Edvard Erikson
Based on the original story by Hans Christian Anderson, Edvard Erikson’s statue has become a must-see attraction for anyone visiting Copenhagen. The lonely beauty seems to have lost her tail and is alone in a city full of humans.
The Village of the Mermaids, 1942, Paul Delvaux
This surrealist painting doesn’t seem to include any mermaids at all. The women all sit quietly, eerily quietly, with dresses that are so long they drape below their feet. Based on a dream had by the artist, you’ll see dozens of mermaids moving towards the sea in the background. These mermaids are actually the sitting women, who in the dream rid themselves of their long gowns to reveal their tales. It’s been suggested that this is a somewhat erotic image, with the secret revealing itself on the other side of the wall, where women reveal themselves in secret. That said, in the distance, the women are free, and that’s all we can ever ask for of our mermaids.
Mermaid, 1979, Roy Lichtenstein
In 1979 Roy Lichtenstein brought his comic-book art off the page and into the world when he created this mermaid on Miami Beach. The fish-tailed blonde rests on blue waves besides a palm tree, evidently living her best life under the Miami sun.
Words Lizzy Vartanian
Images via @ariel.lapetitesirene, @rosariomorabito, Wikipedia, TheDailyMermaid