The majority of Penn’s paintings feature his preferred background of unencumbered white space, but in this striking work, three voluptuous, colorful figures are set against a densely pooled, squid-ink shade of black. The trio appears to float against the darkness, and each one of the shapely, rounded fin-tailed forms is defined by a different color. A sense of harmony exudes from the arrangement, and the state of equilibrium it depicts among the figures is reminiscent of compositions of the three graces in historic paintings and sculptures.
This painting was made in 1992, shortly after the death of Penn’s Swedish-born wife, Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, and the mermaids are thought to be a poignant reference to her and her sisters. One of Penn’s most famous photographs of Lisa is Rochas Mermaid Dress, a fashion photograph made in Paris in 1950, just before they were married. That celebrated image could be the origin of the mermaid reference, or Penn may have drawn on the figure of the mermaid in folklore and fairytales for this imaginative portrayal.
He made two other paintings that year that share the same motif: A Gathering of Mermaids and In Eden Pond. These titles lend a magical, idyllic tone to the compositions. The mermaid series seems to relate to paintings Penn made in the late 1980s like Undersea Creature or Pond Water, works in which spiraling organisms inhabiting bodies of water convey an abundance of life.