Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Anna Lea Merritt - Eve

Born in Philadelphia, Anna Lea Merritt studied in Paris, Rome and Dresden before arriving in London, where she began to exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1878. Her painting Love Locked Out (fig. 1), shown there in 1890, was the first picture by a woman to be bought for the Chantrey Bequest, and remains her most famous work. Conceived as a memorial to her husband, Henry Merritt, who died within a year of their marriage, the picture is often compared to G.F. Watts's Love and Death, which it resembles in terms of both theme and composition.

Eve is an earlier work, appearing at the RA in 1885. Seated on the ground in the Garden of Eden, Eve gives way to remorse for having brought about the Fall of Man. Behind her is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, while in the foreground lies the fateful apple from which the serpent has tempted her to take a bite. The subject gives the artist an opportunity to paint an academic study of the female nude and to display her skill with this difficult subject. Watts again provides a parallel: his painting Eve Repentant, part of the so-called 'Eve trilogy' on which he worked for many years.

The picture received mixed reviews at the RA. F.G. Stephens, writing as usual in the Athenaeum, was not enamoured, perhaps unsurprisingly given his Pre-Raphaelite background, but Harry Quilter, the art critic on the Times, was impressed. The picture was, he felt, 'a remarkable performance and very much more than a good study of the nude.' 'Several times' in the past, he continued, 'we have had occasion to mention Mrs Merritt, both as a painter of the nude figure and as an etcher; but she has never done anything so fine as this "Eve".' Interestingly in view of the artist's continental training, Quilter compared the picture to the work of the French artist Jean Henner (1829-1905), the primary subject of which is the female nude.

The picture was bought before the opening of the summer exhibition by the architect Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905). Two of his most eye-catching buildings in London, the Natural History Museum at South Kensington and the Prudential Assurance Office in Holburn, were by now behind him, but he was still involved with the National Liberal Club in Whitehall Place.

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