Vintage Mermaid Art and Its Mythical Appeal

Published January 26, 2021
Vintage engraving of The Little Sea Maid

Before Walt Disney inspired every young girl to don a red wig and sequined tail, creatives were committing their own visions of the mythical mermaid onto canvases and clay, and these pieces of vintage mermaid art stand as testaments to this forgotten folklore. This whimsical art comes in all forms and mediums, spanning the breadth of hundreds of years of human history. However, if you search hard enough, you'll be able to find the perfect vintage mermaid artwork to adorn your bedroom walls.

Victorian Period, Mythology, and Vintage Mermaid Art

Although tales of aquatic human hybrids have been frightening sailors and pirates alike for hundreds of years, the first moment in which this mermaid mythos really solidified itself was during the Victorian period. With rising interest in supernatural forces, the sublime, and folklore came another prominent storyteller who capitalized on the public's interest in the 'bizarre' - P.T. Barnum. The mummified mermaid, which would later come to be known as the Fiji Mermaid, that he toured around with in his traveling circus touched upon these burgeoning interests in the western public, and soon depictions of Victorian mermaids could be seen everywhere.

Vintage engraving of The Little Mermaid and her sisters

Variations on the Mermaid Myth in Antique and Vintage Art

Antique and vintage mermaids depicted in art often appear in a few distinctive thematic styles, including the despondent mermaid and the siren.

Victorian of Undine with swirling water lillies

The Despondent Mermaid

The despondent, or lovelorn mermaid, is best represented in John William Waterhouse's 1900 painting, A Mermaid. A half-naked woman with a sea-creature's tail sits atop a rock and combs through her hair. These mermaids embody the ideas surrounding the overwhelming despair of unrequited love and the overpowering hold love can have over a person, which were themes being explored in the Romantic works of the time. Walt Disney would redefine this type of mermaid in his 1989 classic animated film, The Little Mermaid.

The Siren

This deadly creature who lures men to their deaths through its mesmerizing songs can be seen in old tomes and nautical maps warning sailors away from dangerous waters. While sirens are not always depicted as mermaids, many artists of the 18th and 19th centuries made connections between the two premises. For example, within The Armada Portrait(1588), a mermaid is pictured on the side to represent the contemporary reputation that Queen Elizabeth I was a bit of a mermaid herself who lured Spanish ships to their death.

Different Media of Vintage Mermaid Art

The various kinds of media you can expect to come across when investigating pieces of vintage mermaid art include:

  • Paintings (oil, watercolor, and acrylic)
  • Sculptures
  • Illustrations
  • Prints
  • Advertisements and logos
  • Engravings

Motifs Found in Vintage Mermaid Art

Since historic mermaid art spans such an expansive timeline, its reasonable that there would be a variety of stylistic changes from period to period. However, there are some typical motifs and characteristics that you're likely to find in the vintage mermaid artworks that you come across.

Antique art Nouveau illustration from a children's book
  • A Lone Mermaid - A good majority of these artworks display a lone mermaid in the foreground of the work, either looking towards the sea or away from the viewer's gaze.
  • Art Nouveau Titles - There was an abundance of these long figures painted in the Art Nouveau style, with sweeping curves and elaborate filigree and the artists' often included titles of locations or business above their seacreature's heads.
  • Human Torsos - In order to appeal to the male gaze, these artworks only depicted mermaids as having fully human toros with the breasts, soft curves, and painted faces of their idealized women.

Vintage Mermaid Art Values

Although the average person's conception of vintage mermaid art probably comes from the iconic Starbucks' mermaid that has become synonymous with millennial coffee culture, there are a number of collectors out there who vie for these beautiful pieces to add to their collection. Since most of these artworks are large and took a significant number of hours to complete, they have appropriately high monetary estimates. One of the most prestigious of these artworks, John William Waterhouse's The Siren (1900), was sold in 2018 for almost £4 million. Another, lesser known work that recently came to auction was Ralph Eugene Cahoon, Jr's A Mermaid and a Sailor on a Junk in China, which was estimated to be worth between $8,000-$12,000. Unfortunately, the authentic art that lingers in antique stores and auction houses happens to fall on the more expensive side. However, there is a lucrative reproduction business where independent artists use these historic art styles as inspiration for contemporary illustrations and prints, many of which you can download for a small fee and print off yourself today, making this the far more cost-effective option.

Mermaid Magic and Modern Culture

With the new slew of mermaids in film and television, you can expect there to be a resurgence of interest in antique and vintage mermaid art not only by collectors but by average people as well, and since the mythical mermaid has managed to withstand the ravages of time and infiltrate modern culture you can take comfort in the fact that you're artistic investment will always have a place in the future.

Vintage Mermaid Art and Its Mythical Appeal