Some artists are known for just one or two of their works which happen to have been added to public collections. Anna Massey Lea Merritt (1844–1930) is a good example of a prolific woman painter who is known for a single painting, in the Tate in London, most of whose other paintings seem to have vanished without trace.
Born and brought up in Philadelphia, opportunities for women to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts were still severely limited at the time, so she appears to have been largely self-taught. She took anatomy classes at the recently-founded Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. When she was just twenty, she moved with her family to Europe, and by 1870 they were living in London. There she met Henry Merritt (1822-1877), a minor painter, restorer, and writer on art, who acted as her mentor.
In 1877, she married Henry Merritt, but he died only three months later. She therefore had no choice but to continue painting professionally, in order to make a living.
Portrait of a Young Lady (1881) is one of her earliest surviving paintings, and one of her most exciting. Its brushwork is so painterly as to suggest that it might have been a sketch, but the flesh is well finished, and it is both signed and dated.
Eve (also known as Eve Overcome with Remorse) (1885) is probably more representative of her exhibited works, and a striking depiction of Eve, her head resting on her knees and turned away, a partly-eaten apple resting on the ground beside her outstretched legs. This won a medal when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1885, but attracted censure because of her use of a nude model.
Merritt had a long and successful career painting portraits, such as this delightful Portrait Of Miss Ethel D’Arcy Aged 6 (1888), surrounded by pigeons feeding from a spilt basket of grain. Several of her adult portraits are now in the regional galleries of the UK.
She also appears to have been an active print-maker, with her unusual version of Ophelia (1889) one of her etchings. This was most probably made from a painting which has since been lost.
Love Locked Out (1890) is the painting which brought her greatest fame. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1890, it was so well received that it was purchased for the British national collection, which soon became the National Gallery of British Art, then the Tate Gallery, where it has remained ever since. It was the first painting by a woman artist to be acquired for the collection through the funding of the Chantrey Bequest.
Merritt intended this as a memorial to her husband, and hoped one day that she would be able to afford to have its figure cast in bronze as a monument to him. In her later autobiography, she explained that her Love was waiting for the door of death to open and reunite the couple. However, it was more generally interpreted as a symbol of forbidden love. Another reading is that the figure represents Cupid, god of love, who is trying to open the door of a mausoleum, and for love to conquer death.
Its popularity – and escape from the censure of her earlier Eve – casts interesting light on Victorian attitudes to nudity and sexuality. That she as a woman artist had painted a male nude was dangerous ground. However this work did not generate any protest over decency, because the nude is a child, who was assumed to be less conscious of nudity and its connotations, and had ‘no sense of shame before artists’.
Today, such a painting of a nude child would raise the spectre of paedophilia, but an explicit painting of an adult – male or female – would be much more acceptable, even commonplace.
Piping Shepherd (1896) is another much more loosely-painted work, based on the (then) morally safer figure of a nude boy. He plays his Pan pipes while out watching his flock of sheep.
We are badly in need of more images and information about the life and work of Anna Lea Merritt – an all-too-common problem of the woman artist.