The Proust Questionnaire: Mary Pratt

Scroll down to view works by Mary Pratt housed in the National Gallery of Canada's permanent collection.

The Proust Questionnaire started as a Late Victorian parlour game, aimed at revealing key aspects of a person’s character. While still in his teens, author Marcel Proust answered a similar series of questions with such enthusiasm that, when the manuscript containing his original answers was discovered in 1924, his name became permanently associated with this type of informal interview.


Photo © Ned Pratt Photography

Although Mary Pratt’s career is associated with Newfoundland, where she has lived and painted since 1961, her perceptions and aesthetic understanding were shaped in Fredericton, New Brunswick, where she was born in 1935.

In her teens, she studied with Fritz Bandtner and Alfred Pinsky at the University of New Brunswick. In 1961, she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Mount Allison University, with teachers that included Lawren P. Harris, Alex Colville and Ted Pulford.

For the next twenty-five years, she lived in comparative isolation in Salmonier, Newfoundland, where she raised her four children and developed a style of painting based on photographs drawn from her life as a mother, cook, gardener and wife.

In addition to painting, she has served on several boards and committees, including the Applebaum-Hébert Committee, the Canada Council, government task forces, and building committees. She was also co-Chair of the committee responsible for The Rooms, a cultural facility housing Newfoundland and Labrador’s Art Gallery, Museum and Archives.

Throughout her career, she has received numerous awards and accolades, including the prestigious Canada Council Molson Prize in the Fine Arts, and honorary degrees from eight Canadian universities. Her paintings can be found in public and private collections around the world—including Rideau Hall, which houses her official portrait of former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. Two of her works have also been featured on Canadian postage stamps.

Mary Pratt currently lives and paints in St. John’s, Newfoundland.


Your earliest memory of painting:

There was a walk-in cupboard in my bedroom with a light bulb. When I was 9 or 10, I was given small bottles of Carter’s Poster paints and, using a clamshell for a palette, I painted on papers stuck to the walls of the cupboard. The door was kept shut. I painted alone and unobserved.

When you knew this would become your vocation:

Reproductions of The Madonna of the Chair were given to all of us in Grade One. The teacher asked the class what was the most important thing about the painting. I replied that it was the little cross held by John, and I knew then that paintings were important and could be full of love and mystery. I wanted to be part of a world that believed such things were possible.

Your greatest influence:

The world of images came to me in magazines. I was impressed by the advertisements, and I felt that if I were ever to influence anybody with my ideas, I’d have to do that with paintings that looked like advertisements.

Occupation you would have chosen (other than art):

Writing—not stories—just “writing.”

Favourite pastime (other than art):


Favourite painter:


Favourite writer and musician/composer:

How can I have a favourite writer? I have moved from Zane Gray to Agatha Christie to Margaret Drabble to Ernest Hemingway to Virginia Woolf to Lisa Moore to Alice Munro. And then there are the poets—Wordsworth, Tennyson and Blake, Elizabeth Bishop and Mary Oliver and, in my childhood, Bliss Carman. I walked by his house four times a day, coming and going to and from school.

When I was seven, my mother brought me a book about Mozart from the Legislative Library. I was elated to find that a child of five could write music. If he could be so wonderful, maybe I could, too. He is not, however, my favourite composer— Bach, played by Glenn Gould, inspires, as does Schubert’s Quintet in C. I love that.

Favourite colour, flower and bird:

There is a colour between blue and red that is a sort of a “bridger”—allowing the heat of red to melt into the cool of blue. I love it. It has no name.

The Rose Campion is my favourite flower. A small, five-petal rosy little blossom with stems and leaves of velvet silver. I suppose Margery Allingham named her detective “Mr. Campion” after the flower—it does resemble the “Scarlett Pimpernel”.

The robin: sleek and formal, the bird whose appearance announces Spring and whose voice heralds rain. I have painted a robin who thought my window was the sky—flew into it and then dropped to my deck. I hoped my paintings would give it another life, tho’ I knew that was silly.

Favourite food and drink:

The first thing I eat for breakfast is an apple. I love apples—baked, made into pies or jam or chutney, coolers for curries, pectin for jellies. The wonderful wicked apple. My drink of choice is water.

Favourite smell and sound:

The smell of a greenhouse is wonderful! I once had a greenhouse, and it was a joy to open its door and walk into its damp heat and the smell of earth and leaves.

Once I built a studio that sat on a hill between a small brook and a river. I had to cross the brook to get to my studio, and from the big south-facing window I could see the river and the woods beyond. I could hear them both. Sometimes the brook’s ripple lay over the river’s depth; but when the river, which was tidal, changed direction, it overcame the brook. I loved those sounds. I miss them.

Favourite object:

I don’t have any object that I particularly love. Maybe my grandmother’s silver-plated porridge spoon, with “Edna” written on its handle, is an object I would hate to be without.

Favourite environment or landscape:

One summer I took the children to Fredericton, and as the plane slanted over the city, and its spires and bridges came to view, I found I was crying—I was going “home.”

Favourite weather or season:

The “between” seasons are the best—with spring “leading.” The smell of damp earth and the blooming of favourite flowers in my garden. The Darwins, the great red tulips that don’t sulk or disappoint; the King Alfred daffodils—double-nosed and planted so close together that they make a yellow rectangle. The early aconites and Stars of Bethlehem. The treasured blue poppies and the crowds of rhododendron. I love my spring garden.

Favourite expression, catchphrase, proverb or word:

My father used to say, “No man is big enough to make me hate him.” I’ve never heard a better dictum.

Pet peeve:

Sloppy speech and bad grammar.

Best quality:

I am judgmental.

Worst flaw:

I am judgmental.

Your definition of happiness:

Happiness for me is the absence of unhappiness.

Ideal place to live:

In my house.

A recurring dream:

In my dreams, I find myself in countries that are unfamiliar to me. Ancient architecture with peculiar rituals. I usually feel lost.

One wish:

I wish I could sing.

Aspirations before you die:

It would be wonderful to find the energy, and to regain the faith I had in my gut reaction to what I see, to let me keep on painting.

To me art is: 



About the Author