Childhood & Early Life
Sophie Gengembre was born in the year 1823 in Paris. Her father, Charles Antoine Colomb Gengembre, was a French national while her mother, Marianne née Hubert, was English. An architect and engineer by profession, Charles was also a landscape painter and knew many renowned artists, intellectuals, and actors.
Born the eldest of her parents’ three children, Sophie had two younger brothers named Philip and Henry P. Gengembre. Among them, Philip grew up to be a successful New York architect and changed his name to Philip Hubert. Henry became an artist.
Little is known about Sophie’s childhood except that she spent the first six years of her life in Paris. Even the month and the date of her birth are not known. However, we do know that she drew constantly.
In 1829, the family left Paris and moved to “somewhere remote in France” (we do not know exactly where). There, she lived until 1843, perhaps leading a very ordinary life, at least until she was seventeen years old.
In 1840, while living in rural France, seventeen-year-old Sophie met a visiting portrait painter, who changed the course of her life. Watching him at work, she became interested in painting and emulating him, she now began to paint portraits.
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In 1843, Sophie Gengembre traveled to Paris to study portraiture with Charles Auguste Guillaume Steuben, a well-known Romantic painter and lithographer. But after she had only a few lessons with him, Charles left for Russia and did not return within the one year allocated for her studies.
As per available information, she remained at Paris even after the one-year time schedule was over and developed close associations with other female artists at the school, picking up further guidance from them. It is not known exactly when she returned to France or where she lived thereafter.
Career in USA
In 1848, with the onset of the révolution de Février in France, the Gengembre family left for the United States of America, where they first settled down in Cincinnati, Ohio. Very soon, Sophie became active in the city’s artistic circuit, accepting commissions to paint portraits from local families.
Eventually, her fame began to spread and she began to receive commissions to paint portraits not only from people living outside Cincinnati, but also from families living in Pennsylvania. Concurrently, she also began to paint on her own.
In October 1849, she held an exhibition of her portrait, figure and Brittany landscape paintings at the Western Art Union Gallery. Significant among them was ‘The Ladder of Love’, depicting Victorian London scenes
Also in 1849, Walter Anderson, at that time a lithographer and painter, came to live in Cincinnati. By 1851, Sophie began to collaborate with him, very soon creating two portraits of Protestant Episcopal bishops. Thereafter, they continued to create other portraits as well.
Concurrently with collaborating with Anderson, Sophie continued to work on her own, contributing at least four illustrations to ‘Biographical and Historical Memoirs of the Early Pioneer Settlers of Ohio, with Narratives of Incidents and Occurrences in 1775’. The book, written by Samuel Prescott Hildreth, was published in 1852.
In 1853, the Gengembre family moved to Manchester, Pennsylvania. Here, Sophie Gengembre began working for Louis Prang, a well-known printer and lithographer, producing works like ‘Prattling Primrose’ and ‘Dotty Dimple.’ Also in the same year, she married Walter Anderson and settled down in Allegheny.
In 1854, Sophie Gengembre Anderson and her husband moved to England and set up their home in London. Here, she continued with her work, producing figurative paintings, which were not only very beautiful, but were also highly naturalistic and detailed.
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In 1855, she held her first exhibition in London at the Society of British Artists. Titled ‘An American Market Basket’, the exhibition showcased her paintings of fruits, vegetables, games and fish and was considered ‘admirable’. Later, she also held exhibitions at Royal Academy of Arts.
Although most of her works have remained undated, ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy under House Arrest’ (1856) and ‘It’s Touch and Go to Laugh or No’ (1857) are recognized as two of her major works of this period. According to many critics, her best-loved work, ‘No Walk Today’, also belongs to this period.
In 1858, the Andersons returned to the United States for a protracted family visit, remaining there possibly until 1863. There she continued with her work, holding exhibitions at the Pittsburgh Artist's Association in 1859 and 1860.
Possibly in 1861, Sophie and Walter Anderson jointly held an exhibition at the National Academy of Design, now known as National Academy of Museum and School, in New York City. Unfortunately, nothing is known about this exhibition
In 1863, the Andersons returned to London. She continued with her work, exhibiting her paintings at various well-known galleries like the Royal Academy, the Royal Society of British Artists, and the British Institution. ‘Girl with Lilacs’, painted in 1865, is one of her significant works of this period.
In 1870, inspired by Alfred Tennyson’s poem, ‘Idylls of the King', Sophie Gengembre Anderson drew one of her masterpieces, 'Elaine or The Lily Maid of Astolat'. It depicts Elaine’s body being rowed to King Arthur’s palace at Camelot by a dumb servant.
In 1871, the Liverpool City Council organized their very first Autumn Exhibition and purchased ‘Elaine’ as one of the exhibits. Thus, it became the first public collection purchase of any woman artist. In those days when the works of female artists were looked down upon, it made history.
Also in 1871, the Andersons moved to the Isle of Capri for her health reasons. At that time, many eminent artists lived there, forming an artists’ colony. There they lived in a large house called Villa Castello and enjoyed a good social life, entertaining many well-known personalities.
In Capri, Sophie Gengembre Anderson created many well-known paintings. Among them, the best-known are 'A Flower Seller in Capri, Italy' (1875), 'Christmas Time - Here's The Gobbler’ (1877), 'Foundling Girls at Prayer in the Chapel' (1877), 'Shepherd Piper' (1881), ‘The Awakening’ (1881) and 'Heavenwards' (1883).
From 1878 to 1887, while living in Capri, she returned to London several times, holding a number of exhibitions at Grosvenor Gallery. She generally chose young girls and peasant women as her subjects although she also painted ‘Shepherd Piper' and ‘Opportune Moment’ which depicted young boys.
In 1894, the Andersons returned permanently to England. There they set up their home in Wood Lane Cottage in Falmouth, Cornwall, and continued to work. She also traveled to London very often, holding several exhibitions in the various galleries of the city.
Sophie Gengembre Anderson is now best known for one of her oil paintings on canvas, ’No Walk Today’. It depicts a little girl, dressed to go out for a walk, gazing pitifully out the window, sad that the bad weather has kept her indoors.
The painting was little appreciated during her time. Even in 1926, David Montagu Douglas Scott bought it for only 14 guineas. Later, it gained in appreciation and in November 2008, it sold for a record price of more than £1 million in an auction at Sotheby’s, London.
Family & Personal Life
In 1853, Sophie Gengembre married Walter Anderson, an English painter, lithographer and engraver. It is not known if they had any children; however, since the child in paintings like ‘No Walk Today’, ‘Tying the Shoelace’, ‘Windfalls’ and ‘Ladybird Ladybird’ appear to be the same, many believe she was her daughter.
Sophie Gengembre Anderson died on 10 March 1903, at her home in Falmouth. Her husband had died two months earlier on 11 January and both of them were buried in the same grave at Swanvale cemetery in Falmouth.
Her paintings can now be seen in various art galleries, including Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool; New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester; Leicestershire Museum and Art Gallery; Birmingham City Art Gallery; Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth; Wolverhampton Art Gallery, Staffordshire, etc.