orn in Paris, Sophie Gengembre had an English mother and French father (an architect and art-lover) and two brothers. She showed a passion for drawing and painting from a young age but the family lived in the provinces (perhaps Brittany) from c.1830-44, where she was limited to her own initiative. Then, at the age of twenty, she was able to join the Paris studio of Baron Charles de Steuben, with whom she studied for a year. Continuing to develop herself, she focussed on portraiture.
When political turmoil overtook Paris in 1848 (the "year of revolutions""), the family removed to the USA, settling in Cincinnati, Ohio. There was a fledgling art world in this city in which the young artist participated, making portraits and working for lithographer Charles A Jewett. Her brother Henry was also involved in this enterprise, as was an English artist, Walter Anderson, whom she married. Shortly thereafter the Gengembre family and the Andersons moved to Manchester, Pennsylvania. In 1852, Sophie and Walter had a daughter, named after her mother.
In 1854 the Andersons migrated to the UK, where they lived on the outskirts of east London, and soon (in 1855) Sophie debuted at the Royal Academy, the Winter exhibition and Birmingham's annual show. Within two years the Andersons had moved to the much more prosperous district of Kensington, and she steadily expanded her exhibition appearances to include the annual shows in Liverpool (from 1857).
In 1859 the Andersons were once again in Pennsylvania, this time in Pittsburgh. It is tempting to suggest that familial matters prompted this removal, for when her father Charles died in 1863 they relocated to Britain. Back in London once more, Sophie's annual exhibition round expanded to include Manchester (from 1862) and Glasgow (from 1868), while Walter's visibility in exhibition began to grow. One of the patrons they acquired at this time was Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll. It is uncomfortably clear that he would have been attracted to Sophie's compositions of little girls, the best known of which has been for many years No Walk Today(1856-57).
At the end of the sixties, the Andersons moved out of London to Surrey, where they resided in Bramley, some five miles distant from Witley, an area already favoured by artists seeking relief from the unhealthy London environment. It can be surmised that this move was prompted by Sophie's poor health, although this factor did not diminish her output, which began to tend away from single-figure scenes and self-consciously appealing head-and-shoulders pictures to group compositions such as The Bonfire (1869) and Gathering Acorns (1869). In 1870, indeed, she produced her most celebrated work, Elaine, that was bought for the public collection of Liverpool on its exhibition there the following year.
It was no doubt Sophie's health that also led the Andersons to visit the island of Capri (the Mediterranean climate was generally seen to be an antidote to Britain's chill and smog): an 1867 exhibit Italian Child may be an early indicator of this. In 1871 they purchased a property there which became their home, the centrally located Villa Castello, and entered the community of musicians, artists and writers already in place. Other artists spending time in Capri in the seventies and eighties included John Singer Sargent and Frederic Leighton. One of her patrons later recounted: “It was on this island [Capri] that my friend Mrs Anderson, the famous artist (of whose charming pictures I have several), resided for many years. She so endeared herself to, and was so much beloved by, the islanders, that they named her the ‘Queen of Capri’, and a queen she certainly was, being a most beautiful woman and generous to the last degree.”
Residing in the Mediterranean did not preclude Anderson's continued presence in the British exhibitions: she kept up her appearances at Liverpool, Glasgow and Birmingham and also became a regular exhibitor in the new avant-garde Grosvenor Gallery from 1878. Her work took on an Italianate character, supplying the market for picturesque, poetic or sentimental images of ethnic women and children, such as Roasting the Pinecones, Sorrento (1872) and Guess again! (1878). Titles of exhibited works suggest that she may have travelled in the region (Scandal in the Harem, 1876) for more exotic subjects.
From 1880, she broke new ground by producing a series of large-scale neo-classical compositions with full-length draped female figures, appearing both at the Academy and its more fashionable rival, the Grosvenor Gallery. While next to nothing is known of Sophie Anderson's marriage or her husband's character, references to the Andersons in Capri, unreliable though they are, suggest she was the dominant member of the couple, and Walter certainly made far less of an impact as a painter than did his wife. It can be noted that when her mother died (1883, but her will was made in 1878), her largest bequest was to her daughter, explicitly designed for her sole use, separate from her husband.
Returning to Britain in 1894, the Andersons settled in the mildest part of the country, Cornwall, and the port town of Falmouth was their home for the remaining years of their lives. While Sophie's output dwindled from this point, she continued exhibiting up to her death, which occurred a couple of months after her husband's, in March 1903.
Cerio, Edwin. Aria di Capri. Naples: Gaspari Casella. 1927.
Clayton, Ellen C. English Female Artists. London: Tinsley. 1876. vol. 2 7-9.
Nichols, Kate. "Sophie Anderson, a cosmopolitan Victorian Artist in the Midlands." Midlands Art Papers. Birmingham: University of Birmingham, 2018.
Yeldham, Charlotte. "Anderson, Sophia (1823-1903". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004-5.
Created 22 April 2022
Last modified 5 May 2022