Sophie Gengembre Anderson: Elaine of Astolat

Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823–1903), Elaine (The Lily Maid of Astolat) (1870), oil on canvas, 158.4 x 240.7 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

The first of my Pre-Raphaelite Sisters was an active and successful painter in London at the time of the Movement, but there’s scant documentation about her associates and influences when she lived and worked in England. The best evidence to support her inclusion is one marvellous painting which could have been made by one of the recognised Pre-Raphaelites.

Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823–1903) was French by birth and descent, having been born in Paris as Sophie Gengembre, the daughter of an accomplished French architect and his British wife. When she was about ten, the family had to leave Paris, and didn’t return from the country until she was twenty. She started studying portrait painting under Charles de Steuben, but he soon left for Russia, and she was left to learn by herself and with the assistance of friends.

With the 1848 Revolution, the family fled again, this time leaving France for the USA, eventually settling in Manchester, PA, where Sophie is thought to have married Walter Anderson, a portrait painter. At that time she worked as a chromolithographer, but developed her own portraiture business and assisted her husband.

Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823–1903), No Walk Today (1856), oil on canvas, 49.5 × 39.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The couple moved to London in 1854, where Sophie exhibited at the Society of British Artists the following year, and at the Royal Academy. In 1856, she painted this delightful No Walk Today, which was purchased in 2008 for over £1 million. It 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.

This is a ‘puzzle picture’ in that it invites the viewer to speculate as to why this little girl should be confined to the house, but gives us very few clues. She is apparently not ill, nor is the weather inclement. Neither is she dressed in subfusc or mourning clothing, which might have indicated a family bereavement.

Foundling Girls in the Chapel
Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823–1903), Foundling Girls in the Chapel (date not known), oil on canvas, 68 x 54.8 cm, The Foundling Museum, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Her undated painting of Foundling Girls in the Chapel may date from around this time. It shows girls who had been abandoned by their mothers, at prayers in the London Foundling Hospital’s chapel in the late nineteenth century.

Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823–1903), It’s Touch and Go to Laugh or No (1857), oil on canvas, 76 × 63.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s Touch and Go to Laugh or No (1857) is set amid flowering heather in the Highlands of Scotland, although the figures were almost certainly painted in the studio. The young boy and girl are playing a game, in which he is trying to make her laugh by tickling her face with a stem of grass. The children who modelled for this were most probably those of the artist.

Sophie and Walter Anderson returned to the USA from 1858 to 1863, where they both had work exhibited at the National Academy of Design. They then went back to live and work in London, where Sophie made herself a successful career, exhibiting with the major institutions including the Royal Academy.

Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823–1903), Elaine (The Lily Maid of Astolat) (1870), oil on canvas, 158.4 x 240.7 cm, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, England. Wikimedia Commons.

It was during their second stay in London that she painted one of her finest, and best-known works: Elaine or The Lily Maid of Astolat (1870). She exhibited this in Liverpool, at the first Autumn Exhibition there, where it was well-received, and was purchased for the city, becoming the first work by a woman artist to enter the Walker Art Gallery collection, and one of the first of any woman artist to enter a British public collection.

Sir Lancelot is due to take part in a tournament, at which he will appear in disguise, for reasons relating to his secret affair with Queen Guinevere. The knight seeks the help of Bernard of Astolat, who lends him armour, colours and a shield. While he visits to borrow those, Bernard’s daughter Elaine falls in love with him, and begs him to wear a token of her affection at the tournament – something which he finds difficult. Elaine is entrusted with his shield until Lancelot returns.

Lancelot wins the tournament, but is slightly wounded in the process. He recuperates in Bernard’s castle, with Elaine devotedly nursing him back to health. However, she learns that her love for the knight will remain unrequited. When Lancelot departs, Elaine wishes for death, and ten days later dies of a broken heart.

Elaine had made clear that on her death, she wished her body to be taken by boat to Camelot, bearing a last letter. Her wishes are followed by her father and brothers, who place her in a boat with one of their servants, who is stricken with grief at her death. That is the scene shown here: Elaine’s body is ghostly white, and holds lilies as a sign of virginity, together with her parting letter to the knight.

Although less popular among painters than the similar Arthurian legend of the Lady of Shalott, these are typically Pre-Raphaelite themes which were used by the likes of J W Waterhouse and John Atkinson Grimshaw.

John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), The Lady of Shalott (1888), oil on canvas, 153 x 200 cm, Tate Britain, London. Wikimedia Commons.

For comparison, this is John William Waterhouse’s famous first painting of The Lady of Shalott from 1888.

John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836–1893), The Lady of Shalott (c 1875), oil on canvas, 61 x 91.4 cm, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT. Wikimedia Commons.

And this is John Atkinson Grimshaw’s The Lady of Shalott from about 1875. This scene was also painted in 1862 by Walter Crane, and by Arthur Hughes in about 1872-73, shortly after Sophie Gengembre Anderson’s painting of Elaine became so well known.

The year after her success with Elaine of Astolat, the Andersons moved to Capri, which was then an affluent artist’s colony with residents such as Frederic, Lord Leighton and John Singer Sargent.

Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823–1903), 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), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

She next entered the faerie painting sub-genre with 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). The title is taken from verse allegedly by Charles Ede, who hadn’t even been born then, and I’ve been unable to trace its true source.

Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823–1903), The Bonfire (date not known), oil on canvas, 71 × 92 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

The Bonfire appears to be another composite with figures painted in the studio, children who are getting a bit grubby poking around in the embers of a small bonfire. The background could be almost anywhere in England or Wales, but there is a suggestion of another bonfire in the right distance, which might time the scene to Bonfire Night, 5th November. This may have been influenced by John Everett Millais’ earlier Autumn Leaves (1856).

Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823–1903), Christmas Time – Here’s The Gobbler! (date not known), oil on canvas, 112 × 84 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

There is no doubt about the season in Christmas Time – Here’s The Gobbler! which shows a proud boy carrying in a huge turkey destined for Christmas lunch. That and the decor places this in a comfortably middle-class home.

Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823–1903), Scheherazade (date not known), oil on canvas, 51 × 42 cm, The New Art Gallery Walsall, Walsall, England. Wikimedia Commons.

During her years living on Capri, Sophie Anderson painted many works showing local people. There is no evidence, though, to suggest that she travelled to the Middle East where she might have painted Scheherazade, the storyteller in One Thousand and One Nights, but the Victorian fad for Orientalism made this a popular motif. Sir Richard Burton’s translation of these stories was published in 1885, suggesting that Anderson probably painted this portrait soon afterwards.

Sophie Gengembre Anderson (1823–1903), Wait for Me! (Returning Home from School) (date not known), oil, dimensions and location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Wait for Me! or Returning Home from School is possibly the finest of Anderson’s many child paintings, showing a little girl trying to get herself together for the walk back home after school. By her school bag is a small chalk tablet which she would have been using to learn to write, and more, before graduating to an exercise book and pencil.

In 1894, Sophie and Walter returned to the UK, where they settled in Falmouth, Cornwall, which was (and remains) an artists’ colony predating that nearby at Saint Ives. They both died there in early 1903.

Sophie Gengembre Anderson was very much a New Woman, a pioneer who made for herself and her art a career independent of her husband. For me, her painting of Elaine of Astolat stands alongside any of the Pre-Raphaelite works showing similar legends, and places her in the Sisterhood.