Biography (from the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, D.C.)
Born to an affluent Quaker family, Merritt attended politically progressive schools and studied classics, languages, mathematics, and music with private tutors. Initially, she was a self-taught painter, but later she studied anatomy at the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia. After moving to Europe with her family in 1865, she took art lessons with various masters in Italy, Germany, and France.
The artist settled in London, where her teacher, the British painter and picture restorer Henry Merritt, became her mentor and, in April 1877, her husband. A prolific author, Anna Merritt also wrote and illustrated two books about Hurstbourne Tarrant, to which she moved in 1891. In addition, she published articles about mural painting, gardening, and the obstacles facing woman artists.
Merritt executed several major mural commissions, as well as portraits and easel paintings on literary and religious subjects. A member of London’s Royal Society of Painters and Etchers, Merritt exhibited her work regularly at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and the Paris Salon. Her paintings and prints were also displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Merritt and English Art (by Devon Cox)
In 1881 . . . Merritt was asked to help organise an exhibition, American Artists at Home and in Europe, for the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. The Academy was quite keen to secure Whistler’s Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Artist's Mother for the exhibition, and the task fell to Merritt to liaise with her neighbour. In time Whistler agreed for his painting to be sent to America, though Merritt later lamented the fact that the painting was not secured for America and instead went to the Luxembourg in Paris.
Naturally, Merritt had many encounters with her Tite Street neighbours. ‘In Chelsea, Whistler was much talked of,’ and it was not long before she had an introduction. Like Collier next door, and Quilter across the street, Merritt had little time for Whistler, Wilde and the aesthetic movement. They kept a distance, and whenever their paths did cross, their interactions were strained. At a dinner party at Mansion House, Whistler approached Merritt and indicated that he liked her eyeglasses which she always wore. They made a humorous comparison to his own monocle. ‘[M]ine are for looking,’she said, ‘Yours are for looks.’ For Merritt, the aesthetic movement was all look and no substance.
Merritt was also dismissive of the Pre-Raphaelite school. The Pre-Raphaelites, she believed, had ‘set the example of minute exactness. In every portion of a picture they required equal exactness, even in corners where Turner or Romney would have obliterated details in order to focus attention on the important central motive, they persisted in representing minutae.’ Though she dismissed the Pre-Raphaelites, she had in fact relied on their methods and techniques as inspiration for her own work as it developed in the 1880s. As a young girl Merritt had seen William Holman Hunt’s oil painting, The Light of the World, which was included in his first major show of British art in America in New York, Philadelphia and Boston in 1857-8. Hunt’s painting made a lasting impression, and its influence can be seen in Merritt’s benevolent Christ-figure in I Will Give You Rest. In her Tite Street studio ‘the light and space were just what [I] needed and the benefit was at once evident in [my] work.’15 With the success of her two paintings in Philadelphia, Merritt was able to attract enough attention in England for portrait commissions to start rolling in. The editor of the Etcher requested that Merritt etch a portrait of Ellen Terry as Ophelia, the role Terry ‘was then playing with wonderful success at the Lyceum’ .
Cox, Devon. The Street of Wonderful Possibilities: Whistler, Wilde, and Sargent in Tite Street. London: Frances Lincoln, 2015. [Review in Victorian Web]
Last modified 19 May 2016