© 2018 authors. Published by the American Physical Society. Published by the American Physical Society under the terms of the »https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/» Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. Further distribution of this work must maintain attribution to the author(s) and the published article's title, journal citation, and DOI. Active plasma lenses have the potential to enable broad-ranging applications of plasma-based accelerators owing to their compact design and radially symmetric kT/m-level focusing fields, facilitating beam-quality preservation and compact beam transport. We report on the direct measurement of magnetic field gradients in active plasma lenses and demonstrate their impact on the emittance of a charged particle beam. This is made possible by the use of a well-characterized electron beam with 1.4 mm mrad normalized emittance from a conventional accelerator. Field gradients of up to 823 T/m are investigated. The observed emittance evolution is supported by numerical simulations, which suggests the potential for conservation of the core beam emittance in such a plasma lens setup.