Sophie Gengembre Anderson was a British artist, she was specialised in genre scenes and portraits of children and women. She began her artistic career as a lithographer and a portraitist, she collaborated with Walter Anderson on the portraits of American Episcopal bishops. Her style has been often compared to the Pre-Raphaelite painters and even to the French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau.
Gengembre Anderson was born in Paris in 1823, the first child of the French architect, engineer, and landscape painter Antoine Colomb Gengembre and his English wife. In 1830, during the July Revolution, her father suffered a bayonet wound to his leg on the same day her brother Philip was born. Following this incident, the family decided to leave France and they went to live in London. They did not return to France until Sophie was 20.
She started studying portraiture under Charles de Steuben, but he soon left for Russia, and she was left to learn by herself and with the assistance of friends. In 1848 with the Revolution, her family fled again, but this time changing France for the USA, settling in Pennsylvania. There, Sophie is thought to have married the portrait painter Walter Anderson. At that time, she worked as a chromolithographer, but developed her own portraiture business and assisted her husband.
In 1854, the couple moved to London, where Sophie exhibited at the Society of British Artists, and at the Royal Academy the following year. Two years later she painted No Walk Today, the painting shows a small girl, dressed up in highly fashionable clothing, looking sadly and wistfully through a window. It tells the story that she is not able to go out for a walk, although dressed for it. In this painting, she invites the viewer to speculate as to why this little girl should be confined to the house but gives us just a few clues. The girl is apparently not ill, nor is the weather inclement. Neither is she dressed in subfusc or mourning clothing, which could have indicated a family bereavement.
From 1858, the couple returned to USA, however in 1863 both went back to live and work in London, where Sophie made herself a successful career. She exhibited her work with the major institutions. It was during this second stay in London that she painted one of her best-known works, considered also as one of her finest paintings: Elaine or The Lily Maid of Astolat (1870). This work was exhibited in Liverpool, at the first autumn exhibition there, and it was not only well-received, but also purchased for the city, becoming the first work by a woman artist to enter a British public collection. Gengembre Anderson presents here a scene of an Arthurian legend, less famous than The Lady of Shalot, these are typically Pre-Raphaelite themes, used by other painters such as Waterhouse.
Elaine was a young lady who fell in love with Sir Lancelot, and she dies of a broken heart. Here the artist shows the scene where Elaine’s body is ghostly white, and she is holding lilies as a sign of virginity, together with her parting letter to the knight.
The year after the success of Elaine, Gengembre Anderson and her husband moved to Capri, which at that time was an affluent artist’s colony; John Singer Sargent and Frederic Lord Leighton lived there. During the period she lived in Capri she painted portraits of local people. Then Sophie entered to the faerie painting sub-genre with her Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, With Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful Things (1880).
In1894, the couple returned to the UK, they settled in Falmouth, Cornwall which was, and remains, an artists’ colony. They both died in early 1903. Sophie Gengembre Anderson can be considered as a modern woman who made herself and her art career independent of her husband.
- No Walk Today was purchased for more than £1 million in 2008.