“…He can give you the harmony of this fantastic mermaid […] a green wave dips: the pale mermaid is cradled in the trough and abandons herself with seductive lethargy, her tawny hair spread out, one arm submerged and transparent in the water and the other folded over her breast […] a youth has his arm around the immersed enchantress. This wave cuts across the entire painting with the utmost boldness. As you look at it, you feel like you are dreaming.” (L. Pirandello, Scritti d’arte figurativa “1895-1897”, Milan 1987). With these words, Luigi Pirandello comments on the painting by Giulio Aristide Sartorio, executed in 1893 but presented by the artist for the first time in Italy in 1895, at the exhibition of the Amatori e Cultori di Belle Arti in Rome.
The Mermaid was painted by Sartorio after his first visit to London and strongly reflects the influence of English Pre-Raphaelite painting.
The composition, with a deep horizontal cut, is built around the figure of a sinuous mermaid with long red hair and pale skin, who encircles the body of the young fisherman as he leans out of the boat. Some skulls, transparently visible on the seabed behind the woman, suggest the fate that will befall the young victim in the arms of the woman.
As mentioned, Sartorio approached the theme of the mermaid, common in mythological painting, under the influence of English Pre-Raphaelite symbolism, which he was able to study during his stay in London in 1893-94. Sartorio’s work was modelled on The Depths of the Sea, by Edward Burne-Jones, from which he borrowed the idea of the beguiling mermaid who lures her victim to the depths of the sea.
The painting was bought by a private collector soon after the exhibition of 1894 and Sartorio produced a new and almost identical version of it, The Green Abyss, which is now part of the Ricci Oddi collection in Piacenza. The painting, together with its original frame, remained in a private collection until 2007, when it became part of the collections of the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Turin.