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Thursday, July 7, 2016

Sophie Gengembre Anderson

Christmas Time, Sophie Gengembre Anderson
It's perhaps unfortunate, and definitely biased, but nonetheless a longstanding tenet of art appreciation that critics and art historians have an inherent dislike for certain art eras. Starting with the Mannerist era following the Renaissance, and including the Romantic Era, the Rococo, Academicism, and especially art from the Victorian era of the late 1900s, anything that smacks of "prettiness," "cuteness," sentimentality, and a few other choice derogatives, there's more than a tendency to turn up their noses and turn down their thumbs as to such art. Of course, even today, most art critics are men, and while most such detested works from those eras were painted by men, they are seen as "feminine" in style and content and thus relegated, at best, to second-class status. And if such art was, in fact, created by a woman, it is frequently sneered at as if undeserving of any comment at all. At best, even at their best, such paintings are referred to as "typical female subject matter." The work of Sophie Gengembre Anderson falls into this category.

When the Heart Is Young, Sophie Anderson--the type of work
critics and art historians love to hate.
Of course, this raises the question, what's wrong with "typical female subject matter"? Do we also label hunting scenes, NASCAR paintings, wildlife art, or marine images as being "typical male subject matter"? Of course not. Such work is seldom "pretty", never "cute," and if sentimental, the trait lies disguised under a thick layer of macho bravado. Having said that, Sophie Gengembre (I have no idea how to pronounce her middle name) Anderson's work, dating from the 1840s until her death in 1903, is unabashedly sweet (syrupy sweet, in fact), extremely feminine (she painted young girls almost exclusively), romantic to a fault, and very often best described using that terrible, pejorative term, "cute." At a time when few artists were women, even that art created by their God-almighty male counterparts, bore an overwhelming presence of many of these same traits. Hence, the reason it gets so little respect.

The Initials, Sophie Anderson--sweet, lovely, sentimental--
among the best the Victorian Era had to offer.
Guess Again, Sophie Anderson
Sophie Anderson made no attempt whatsoever to disguise any of these so-called negative elements in her art. There was no need to. She was a woman. She was an artist. She painted according to the norm of the era in which she lived. Moreover she was quite skilled and overtly dedicated to her art and in making a name for herself as a reputable practicing artist at a time when women such as herself were extremely rare. The Initials (above) and Guess Again (right) are typical of her non-portraits. She was fastidious in her de-piction of fabrics and drapery, while being an expert in rendering plant life and tex-tures. I should note here that, like many early women artists, very little of And-erson's work is dated.

There is a sameness to all Anderson's portraits, all the more so in that they're all young girls; but then (and now), consistency is considered a valuable asset for any portrait artist.
Sophie Anderson
Sophie was born in Paris, the daughter of Charles Antoine Colomb Gengembre, a French architect and artist, and his English wife. They lived in Paris during the early years of Sophie's life. Circum-stances required that the family leave Paris and live in a remote area in France from 1829 to 1843. At seventeen Sophie developed an interest in art when a traveling portrait painter visited her town. She was largely self-taught in art, briefly studied portraiture with Charles de Steuben around 1843, when she lived with family friends in Paris. Soon after she began her studies, he left for Russia and did not return within the one year allotted for her studies. Instead, Sophie developed relationships with other women artists where she gained additional instruction. With the start of the 1848 Revolution, the family left France for the United States, settling first in Cincinnati, Ohio. There Sophie met her future husband, the British genre artist, Walter Anderson. Her portrait, figure, and Brittany landscape paintings were first exhibited in 1849 at the Western Art Union Gallery.

The Shepherd Piper, 1881,
Sophie Anderson
Anderson became a very suc-cessful portrait painter, spec-ializing exclusively in young girls. Although she sometimes included boys in her genre work, I don't recall seeing a single instance where she painted a male portrait figure of any age. Her atypical genre scene, Christmas Time (top), and The Shepherd Piper (left) from 1881, demonstrate her rare, but equally adept, hand-ling of young boys. Not to slight her near-total devotion to girls, but Anderson's An Opportune Moment (below) was the first of her works to catch my eye. It's sent-imental, yes, but I guess amusing tends to replace "cute" when painting boys.

An Opportune Moment, Sophie Anderson
Critics, what few there are who admire her work, tend to consider No Walk Today (below) as being her best. Had she been a man, they would term it her "masterpiece." In 1854 the Sophie Anderson and her husband moved to London, where her works were exhibited at the Royal Academy. They returned to Pennsylvania in 1858 for a long visit with her family, during which time she exhibited at the Pittsburgh Artist's Association. The following year she and her husband had work shown at the National Academy of Design. She then settled in London again around 1863.

No Walk Today, Sophie Anderson
Foundling Girls in their School
Dresses at Prayer in the Chapel,
Sophie Anderson
To manage certain health issues, the Andersons moved to the Isle of Capri in 1871, where they lived, painted, and entertained society in a house with a large garden called Villa Castello. Capri was an artist colony at that time, its residents included Frederic Leighton, Walter McLaren, John Singer Sargent, Edouard Alexandre Sain, and Jean Benner. Anderson turned toward Italian genre and Neoclassical paintings, in-cluding images of peasant women and children. At a time when it was difficult for women to have a successful artistic career, these paintings, generally made by men, allowed her to have a successful career. 1n 1894, the family moved back to England where they joined the artists' colony near Falmouth, in Cornwall. So-phie continued to paint, exhibiting her work in London. Her husband, Walter, died in January 1903. Sophie Anderson died just two months later at the age of eighty.

Elaine, 1870, Sophie Anderson

Wait for Me, Sophie Anderson


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