Anna Massey Lea Merritt (1844–1930) was an American artist. She painted portraits, landscapes and religious scenes but she is best-known for Love Locked Out. As a young girl, Anna Lea Massey taught herself to paint, but later she studied anatomy at the Women’s Medical College in Philadelphia. After moving to Europe with her family in 1865, she took formal art lessons in Italy, Germany, and France, becoming a versatile artist and writer. The Massey family moved to London in 1870 to escape the Franco-Prussian War, and in 1871 she met he future husband Henry Merritt (1822–1877), a noted art critic and picture conservator. They married 17 April 1877 but he died 10 July the same year. She had no children and did not marry again. Merritt spent the rest of her life in England, though with frequent trips to the USA, with exhibitions and awards in both countries.
Eve Overcome with Remorse was Merritt’s first success, it won a medal when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy but attracted censure because Eve was nude! There were restrictions during the 19th century for women painting nude figures. Merritt’s strongest works express remorse which seem to reflect the loss of her husband. Eve Overcome with Remorse was the first work by a woman ever purchased by the British government.
Merritt painted Love Locked Out in memory of her late husband. She had hoped to have the image done in bronze as a monument, but could not afford it. The single painting brought her considerable fame, a political cartoon reflects how the fame of the work lasted till the 1950’s. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1890, it was so well received that it was purchased for the British national collection, Queen Victoria herself was a fan of nude artworks. Aware of her viewers’ delicate sensibilities, Merritt painted Cupid as a nude child instead of an adult to avoid the controversy. But she broke with convention by depicting Cupid without wings. Unfortunately, most of Merritt’s other paintings seemed to have vanished without trace.
The Tate gallery label for Love Locked Out reads:
Cupid, the god of love, is shown here trying to force open the door of a mausoleum. Merritt made the picture in memory of her husband, who died within three months of their marriage. Both Merritt and Cupid face the task of conquering death, which they are bound to fail.
The depiction of the male nude by a female artist was a contentious issue in the late-nineteenth-century art world. Merritt escaped censure by choosing to paint a child, rather than an adult. Children, she believed, were less conscious of nudity and had ‘no sense of shame before artists’.