En Pleine Mer… Zarh Pritchard’s Underwater Paintings


Zarh Pritchard, c. 1918

On the 29th of August 1956, British-American artist and the pioneer of underwater painting Zarh Pritchard died in Austin, Texas. ”Zarh Prichard was the first painter to compose based on observations en pleine mer. …In the 1910s and ‘20s, Pritchard’s works were internationally acclaimed as the first windows on the underwater frontier, and they were acquired by leading scientific institutions like the American Museum of Natural History, the Musée Océanographique of Monaco, and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Although doubt was subsequently cast on whether Pritchard in fact really observed the scenes he painted, some of his works contain details only apparent in the underwater environment. In a 1910 painting of a school of damselfish located off of Moorea, Pritchard depicted, for example, how the fish swim into the surge, which is sweeping the anemones on the reef in the other direction.” (Margaret Cohen, Denotation in Alien Environments: The Underwater Je Je Sais Quoi; Representations, Vol. 125, No. 1, Winter 2014)

It is believed that this fascination with the underwater world started early in Pritchard’s childhood through his reading of books such as Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1863) or Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1873). Both of them describe adventures of human beings living freely on the ocean floor. “When he became a painter, Pritchard became fascinated by the challenge of rendering the underwater world. At first he made dives without equipment and resurfaced between breaths to sketch above water. But with the invention of the diving suit and pumped air, it became possible for him to actually work underwater for as much as 2 hours at a time. Conventional paints would not work in this setting, but Pritchard solved this problem by sketching in oil crayons on oil-soaked paper taped to glass. Using this technique, he travelled extensively throughout the world, working for long periods underwater in locales as diverse as the kelp-filled caverns of Scotland and the coral lagoons of Tahiti. Between expeditions, Pritchard worked up his sketches into finished creations, recopying them in his studio onto large leather sheets that were stretched like canvas. Pritchard had no rivals, both because the machinery and assistance necessary to carry out underwater dives was expensive, and thus not available to most artists, and also because sketching underwater in the bulky diving apparatus of the period was extremely difficult.” (Carroll Pursell, A Companion to American Technology)

517pMgsmx8L._SL500_SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Pritchard’s paintings are impressionistic studies, depicting fish which often have the appearance of birds flying through the air. Chromatic variations of living corals and sea plants resemble tree-like forms and forests, and dead coral formations often resemble canyons and strange architectural wonders. It is probably due to this rather unique quality of his painting that Pritchard “enjoyed considerable success in his life time, with exhibits in California and New York; tours of Japan, France, and Latin America; … and the praise of such celebrities as Jack London, John Burroughs, and William Beebe. Yet he is barely remembered today because the uniqueness of his subject matter made it difficult to evaluate the quality of his renditions; because his style did not fit into any particular school; because his name was in the popular or scientific literature rather than the art literature; and because he was dismissed by later opinion-makers as merely a decorative artist or as a naturalist who happened to be a painter.” (Take Me Under the Sea: The Dream Merchants of the Deep by Thomas Burgess, Book review by Carmen Hendershott, Utopian Studies, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1996). This extraordinary otherworldly art is certainly worth rediscovering!