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Jameson, Anna

    Image Credit: Wikipedia

    Full Name: Jameson, Anna

    Other Names:

    • Anna Jameson

    Gender: female

    Date Born: 1794

    Date Died: 1860

    Place Born: Dublin, Ireland

    Place Died: London, Greater London, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): Early Christian, iconography, Italian (culture or style), Italian Renaissance-Baroque styles, and Renaissance


    Early female art historian of the Italian Renaissance; author of the first systematic study of Christian iconography in the English language. Born the daughter of the Irish miniaturist painter Denis Murphy and English wife (name now lost), the family emigrated to England in 1798, finally settling in London in 1803. Anna Murphy worked as a governess for several wealthy families, one of whom took her to the continent. She met Robert Jameson (1773/4-1854), a barrister, in 1821 and after some doubt about marriage and a termination of the engagement the same year, they eventually married in 1825. The couple moved to Bloomsbury. Jameson’s earliest novel, The Diary of an Ennuyée, 1826, employs keen descriptions of the art works viewed by her protagonist. Jameson’s own marriage was not happy. Robert was a poor husband and moved, without Anna, first to the West Indies and then to Canada. Mrs. Jameson earned a meager living writing. Two works, Memoirs of Celebrated Female Sovereigns, 1831 and Characteristics of Women, 1832, established her serious literary reputation. She traveled to Germany in 1829 and 1833, and armed with letters of introduction, met the novelist Ludwig Tieck (1773-1853) and philosopher August Wilhelm Schlegel (1772-1829). In Munich she toured the new royal palace with its architect, Leo von Klenze (1784-1864). Her travelogues published during this period discussed art at length. Her husband now established in Canadian politics, she made a brief trip to North America for appearances, and returned to Europe with an understanding to live independently of him with a small yearly stipend. In 1840, Jameson wrote an introduction to the English translation of Peter Paul Rubens by Gustav Friedrich Waagen. In it she argued for the broader, German interpretation of images over the rather pedestrian view most British art critics took. In 1842 she published A Handbook to the Public Galleries of Art in and Near London, a guide to the art museums of London, but also an apology for a wider collecting policy for the National Gallery. The work was so successful that a sequel, Companion to the Most Celebrated Private Galleries of London appeared in 1844. Her espousal of British art as worthy of study predated that of John Ruskin in Modern Painters. Her criticisms of the National Gallery coincided with and perhaps resulted in the naming of Charles Lock Eastlake and Ralph Nicholson Wornum by Sir Robert Peel, both of whom she had been corresponding for her Private Galleries series. Between 1834-1845 Jameson wrote a series of profiles of Italian quattrocento painters, then known as “primitives,” in the Penny Magazine. The series was republished as a book, Memoirs of the Early Italian Painters in 1845. In 1848 her most important art-historical work, Poetry of Sacred and Legendary Art, appeared. Published in two volumes, it is a systematic treatment of Christian iconography. Its encyclopedic scope resembles the Iconographie Chrétien (1843) of Adolphe Napoléon Didron. Unlike Didron or Ruskin, Jameson discusses Christian symbolism without arguing its supremacy through personal religious faith. Her dispassionate prose shows the detachment of the historian rather than the polemicist or critic. Several works on religious subject matter analyzed through art sources followed, including Legends of the Madonna, 1852. That year, too, she and other burgeoning art writers, including Matthew Digby Wyatt, later Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge University, published The History of the Painters of All Nations. Her husband had retired because of alcoholism in 1851 and in 1854 he died, leaving her excluded completely from any inheritance. Jameson, who always supported her parents and unmarried sisters, was given a small annual stipend by the crown. Jameson authored several pamphlets of women’s suffrage in the 1850s and became part of the British ex-patriot community in Florence, along with the Brownings and James Jackson Jarves. At age 65 she began to write two more volumes of Sacred and Legendary Art and a new work, A History of Our Lord. However, after a trip to Rome, she fell ill and, complicated by arthritis and failing eyesight, succumbed to pneumonia in 1860. Elizabeth Rigby Eastlake completed A History and was executor of her estate. Bernard Berenson ranked her among the other 19th-century pioneers of art history including Luigi Antonio Lanzi, Karl Julius Ferdinand Schnaase and Ruskin. Ruskin himself charged that Jameson was totally devoid of any critical faculty in art, but the American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) observed that she could read a picture like a book. Jameson represents the best 19th-century art writing without consultation of primary documents. Drawing upon Vasari’s Lives and the Handbuch der Geschichte der Malerei by Franz Kugler, she fearlessly, if politely, debunked many myths of art and argued for a more direct public appreciation of art. She was clearly familiar with the writing (and bibliography) of Karl Friedrich von Rumohr. Her iconography was in part the inspiration for George Kaftal and his work on Italian saints. Though her writing reputation today as an art historian rests today upon her Sacred and Legendary Art volumes, Jameson’s championing of the “primitive” schools of art, i.e., the late-medieval and early Renaissance art, is her greatest contribution to the history of art history.

    Selected Bibliography

    Diary of an Ennuyée. Boston: Lilly, Wait, Colman, and Holden, 1833; The History of Our Lord as Exemplified in Works of Art: with that of His types; Sketches of Art, Literature, and Character. 2 vols. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1857; Poetry of Sacred and Legendary Art. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1848; and Waring, John Burley, and Wyatt, Matthew Digby, and Blanc, Charles. The History of the Painters of All Nations. London: John Cassell, 1852.


    Macpherson, Gerardine. Memoirs of the Life of Anna Jameson. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1878; Rowland, Jr. Benjamin. “Introduction.” Jarves, James Jackson. The Art-Idea. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1960, p. xii, note 1; Thomas, Clara. Love and Work Enough: The Life of Anna Jameson. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967; Steegman, John. Victorian Taste: a Study of the Arts and Architecture from 1830 to 1870. [previously published as, Consort of Taste, 1830-1870]. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 1971; Holcomb, Adele M. A.-F. Rio, Anna Jameson and Some Sources of the Second Volume of Modern Painters by Ruskin (1846). Gazette des Beaux-Arts 91 (1978): 35-8; Holcomb, Adele M. Anna Jameson (1794-1860): Sacred Art and Social Vision. In, Women as Interpreters of the Visual Arts, 1820-1979. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981, pp. 93-121; Johnston, Judith. Anna Jameson: Victorian, Feminist, Woman of Letters. Brookfield, VT: Scolar Press, 1997; Adams, Kimberly Van Esveld. Our Lady of Victorian Feminism : the Madonna in the Work of Anna Jameson, Margaret Fuller, and George Eliot. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2001; Warr, Cordelia. “Anna Jameson (1794-1860): ‘Primitive’ Art and Iconography.” in, Chance, Jane, ed. Women Medievalists in the Academy. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005, pp. 25-36.


    "Jameson, Anna." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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