Merritt, Anna Lea (1844–1930)

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Merritt, Anna Lea (1844–1930)

American expatriate artist and one of the first women whose work was purchased by the British government. Name variations: Anna Massey Merritt; Anna Massey Lea Merritt; Anna W. Lea Merritt. Born in 1844 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; died in 1930; married Henry Merritt (an artist and critic), in 1877 (died 1877).

Made grand tour of Europe (1867); won medal at Philadelphia Centennial Exposition (1876); married and widowed (1877); first exhibited at the Royal Academy (1878); settled in Hurstborne Tarrant, England (1890); won medal at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition (1893); wrote first book (1902).

Selected writings:

A Hamlet in Old Hampshire (1902); Love Locked Out: The Memoirs of Anna Lea Merritt.

Selected paintings:

The Pied Piper of Hamelin; Camilla; Eve Overcome by Remorse; James Russell Lowell (1882); War (1883); Love Locked Out (1884).

Anna Lea Merritt was an accomplished portraitist and genre painter in the decades of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who lived and worked abroad for much of her adult life. Though she was thoroughly modern herself, her style was anything but, reflecting the more conservative movement in England that hearkened back to the allegorical styles of Italian Renaissance painting.

Merritt was born in Philadelphia in 1844 into an established Quaker family. Educated privately, she took drawing lessons from the age of seven, and as a young woman made an extensive "grand tour" of Europe with her family beginning in 1867. She used the opportunity to study art for extended periods in both Rome and Dresden, Germany. In London in 1871, she met artist and art critic Henry Merritt, and began an apprenticeship of sorts that eventually resulted in their 1877 marriage (he reportedly proposed by saying, "Little pupil, let us be married"). He was many years her senior, and died not long after the wedding.

By this time Merritt had already established herself as an artist: she took a medal at the important Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, and began exhibiting at the annual salons of the Royal Academy in 1878. Over the next two decades, she executed her most eminent works and achieved her greatest successes. Typical of Merritt's style, the 1883 painting War depicts a gathering of women in ornate Renaissance dress on a balcony, watching a Roman military parade. Their faces show angst and sorrow, while a small boy at one woman's side gazes off into the distance, a hunting horn in his hand. Merritt meant the work to serve as a commentary upon the folly of war, pointing out how it ravages the lives of the wives and children left behind. Her 1884 painting Love Locked Out is a confectionery allegorical work depicting Cupid pushing at an ornate golden door. Now hanging in the Tate Gallery in London, it was the first work of art by a woman ever purchased by the British government (through the Chantrey Bequest), although it was openly derided at the time.

In 1890, Merritt moved to Hurstborne Tarrant, a small village in Hampshire, England, which she wrote of in her 1902 book A Hamlet in Old Hampshire. She exhibited at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, winning a medal for Eve Overcome by Remorse, and began a mural for a Surrey church, St. Martin's, that same year. She was also a highly regarded portraitist; one notable example of this is her James Russell Lowell, which now hangs at Harvard University. A member of the Royal Society of Painters-Etchers, Merritt nevertheless maintained strong ties with Philadelphia and the American artistic community throughout her life; she was the organizer of the "American Artists at Home and Abroad" for the Pennsylvania Academy in 1881.

Anna Lea Merritt, who died in 1930, lived and worked in an era when female artists rarely achieved prominence or financial stability in comparison to their male counterparts. She always asserted that discrimination had never blighted her career, but did write a magazine article in 1900 titled "Letter to Artists, Especially Women Artists," in which she teasingly declared that women could achieve far more in life if they, like men, were allowed to take a wife as a helpmate to perform all the mundane chores of life. Her writings survive in Love Locked Out: The Memoirs of Anna Lea Merritt.


Rubinstein, Charlotte Streifer. American Women Artists from Early Indian Times to the Present. Avon, 1982.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

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Merritt, Anna Lea (1844–1930)

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