31
Dec
13

Exhibition: ‘Julia Margaret Cameron’ at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Exhibition dates: 9th August 2013 – 5th January 2014

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The first posting of a new year, and finally I get to do a posting on one of the greatest photographers of all time. Nobody has ever taken portraits like JMC before or since. What a unique vision, different from everyone else: “directed light, soft focus, and long exposures that allowed the sitters’ slight movement to register in her pictures, instilling them with a sense of breath and life.”

The portrait of Sir John Herschel (April 1867, below) is one of the most famous portraits in the history of photography. What a magnificent achievement, to capture the spirit of this human being on a glass plate… “Our Julia” as a friend of mine lovingly calls her. It’s funny how everyone takes her to their heart.

Marcus

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Many thankx to the The Metropolitan Museum of Art for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879) 'Sappho' 1865

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Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)
Sappho
1865
Albumen silver print from glass negative
The Rubel Collection, Purchase, Jennifer and Joseph Duke and Anonymous Gifts, 1997
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1997.382.39)

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Mary Hillier, a beautiful young house servant at Dimbola, Cameron’s home in Freshwater, was often pressed into photographic service, frequently in the role of the Virgin Mary. She managed to assume her various guises in a remarkably unselfconscious way, projecting both gentleness and strength of character. Hillier is also the model for Cameron’s Sappho, a profile portrait in the Florentine Quattrocento style, perhaps inspired by the chromolithographic reproductions of Italian paintings distributed by the Arundel Society, of which Cameron was a member. The image has great presence, so much so that Cameron decided to print it even though she broke the negative. Precisely what the picture has to do with the Greek poet of Lesbos is unclear, especially since Cameron inscribed another print of the same image Adriana. The titles of two close variants reveal that, by looking left instead of right, Hillier was apparently transformed from Sappho into Dora or, when photographed from one step further back, Clio. Although Cameron often set out to portray a certain ideal, she also titled pictures after the fact, sometimes because the image seemed to embody the character of a certain literary or biblical figure, but sometimes, one suspects, quite simply because there was more of a market for images of the Virgin, Sappho, or Christabel than for portraits of the photographer’s niece or a parlor maid from the Isle of Wight.

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Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879) 'The Mountain Nymph Sweet Liberty' 1866

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Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)
The Mountain Nymph Sweet Liberty
1866
Albumen silver print from glass negative
Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1941
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (41.21.15)

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In Cameron’s The Mountain Nymph Sweet Liberty, Miss Keene, an arresting model about whom we know nothing but her last name, stares directly at the camera (and, by extension, at the viewer), her hair loose and her eyes open wide. Filling the frame, she seems to step out of the picture. The photograph takes its title from John Milton’s poem L’Allegro, a celebration of life’s pleasures:

Come, and trip it as you go
On the light fantastic toe;
And in thy right hand lead with thee
The mountain nymph, sweet Liberty.

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Cameron sent the photograph to her friend, the renowned scientist Sir John Herschel, who wrote back, “That head of the ‘Mountain Nymph Sweet liberty’ (a little farouche & égarée [timid and distraught] by the way, as if first let loose & half afraid that it was too good to last) is really a most astonishing piece of high relief. She is absolutely alive and thrusting out her head from the paper into the air. This is your own special style.” Herschel seized upon the photograph’s most striking quality, its startling sense of presence and of psychological connection with the viewer.

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Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879) 'Zoe, Maid of Athens' 1866

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Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)
Zoe, Maid of Athens
1866
Albumen silver print from glass negative
The Rubel Collection, Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee, and Muriel Kallis Newman Gifts, 1997
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1997.382.38)

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Here Cameron photographed May Prinsep, her sister’s adopted daughter. By allowing Prinsep’s slight movement and by intentionally softening the focus, Cameron instilled a sense of breath and soul in this living apparition, for the true subject of her photograph was a poetic evocation of love and longing. “Maid of Athens, ere we part, / Give, oh, give me back my heart!” begin the verses composed by Lord Byron as he departed Greece in 1810. In the poem that inspired Cameron, Byron swore “By those tresses unconfined, / Wooed by each Aegean wind; / By those lids whose jetty fringe / Kiss thy soft cheeks’ blooming tinge; / By those wild eyes like the roe, / Zoë mou sas agapo [My life, I love you].”

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Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879) 'Christabel' 1866

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Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)
Christabel
1866
Albumen silver print from glass negative
Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1941
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (41.21.26)

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“Yea, she doth smile, and she doth weep,
Like a youthful hermitess,
Beauteous in a wilderness.”
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Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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Coleridge’s unfinished poem “Christabel” (1816) tells the story of a young woman debased by sorcery. A dark poem, full of rolling fog and lesbian innuendo, “Christabel” was the kind of tale that appealed to the Victorian palate – a soup of sexual transgression and moral repair. Cameron rarely made portraits of women; rather, when she photographed them, they appeared as representations of some biblical, mythological, or literary figure. Cameron’s niece, May Prinsep, who would later marry Hallam Tennyson, son of the poet laureate, appears here as the ethereal Christabel before her corruption. Cameron’s long exposure time and distinct soft-focus technique lend the work its idealizing gravitas even while, paradoxically, intensifying the realistic presence of the individual before the lens. For all her “high art” aspirations, Cameron was always quick to note that her images were “from life.”

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Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879) '[Kate Keown]' 1866

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Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)
[Kate Keown]
1866
Albumen silver print from glass negative
Gilman Collection, Purchase, Jennifer and Joseph Duke Gift, 2005
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2005.100.265)

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In spring and summer 1866, having purchased a new, larger camera capable of making twelve-by-fifteen-inch negatives, Cameron produced a series of twelve “life-sized heads,” including this angelic study of tender sorrow somewhat in the style of Botticelli. Throughout her work, poetic truth was valued above photographic truthfulness. She conveyed a sense of life and breath and of honest emotion through careful lighting, her models’ slight movement during long exposures, a shallow depth of field, and softness of focus. “My first successes in my out-of-focus pictures were a fluke,” Cameron wrote. “That is to say, that when focusing and coming to something which, to my eye, was very beautiful, I stopped there instead of screwing on the lens to the more definite focus which all other photographers insist on.” In so doing, she gave the feeling of both flesh and spirit without, in Rejlander’s words, “an exaggerated idea of the bark of the skin.”

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10._Mrs.-Herbert-Duckworth-WEB

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Julia Margaret Cameron (British (born India), Calcutta 1815 – 1879 Kalutara, Ceylon)
Mrs. Herbert Duckworth
1867
Albumen silver print from glass negative
32.8 x 23.7 cm (12 15/16 x 9 5/16 in.)
Gilman Collection, Purchase, Alfred Stieglitz Society Gifts, 2005

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This portrait of Julia Jackson, which is usually trimmed to an oval, suggests an antique cameo carved in deep relief. Its success lies partly in its subject’s actual beauty and partly in the way the photographer modeled it to suggest Christian and classical ideals of purity, strength, and grace. The photograph was made the year Julia married Herbert Duckworth. Three years later she was a widow and the mother of three children.
Her second marriage, in 1878, to the great Victorian intellectual Sir Leslie Stephen, produced the painter Vanessa Bell and the writer Virginia Woolf. In her novel To the Lighthouse (1927), Virginia portrayed her mother as the searching, sensitive Mrs. Ramsay, ever suspended in thought. “She bore about with her, she could not help knowing it, the torch of her beauty; she carried it erect into any room that she entered.”

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Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879) 'Alice Liddell / Pomona' 1872

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Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)
Alice Liddell / Pomona
1872
Albumen silver print from glass negative
David Hunter McAlpin Fund, 1963
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (63.545)

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Alice Liddell (1852-1934) – who, as a child, was Lewis Carroll’s muse and frequent photographic model – posed for Cameron a dozen times in August and September 1872. Against a dense background of foliage and bedecked with flowers, the twenty-year-old Liddell was photographed by Cameron as the embodiment of fruitful abundance, Pomona, Roman goddess of gardens and fruit trees.

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“One of the greatest portraitists in the history of photography, Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) blended an unorthodox technique, a deeply spiritual sensibility, and a Pre-Raphaelite-inflected aesthetic to create a gallery of vivid portraits and a mirror of the Victorian soul. Julia Margaret Cameron, on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art beginning August 19, 2013, is the first New York City museum exhibition devoted to Cameron’s work in nearly a generation and the first ever at the Met. The showing of 35 works is drawn entirely from the Metropolitan’s rich collection, including major works from the Rubel Collection acquired in 1997 and the Gilman Collection acquired in 2005. The exhibition is made possible by The Hite Foundation, in memory of Sybil Hite.

When she received her first camera in December 1863 as a Christmas gift from her daughter and son-in-law, Cameron was 48, a mother of six, and a deeply religious, well-read, somewhat eccentric friend of many notable Victorian artists, poets, and thinkers. “From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour,” she wrote, “and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour.” Condemned by some contemporaries for sloppy craftsmanship, she purposely avoided the perfect resolution and minute detail that glass negatives permitted, opting instead for carefully directed light, soft focus, and long exposures that allowed the sitters’ slight movement to register in her pictures, instilling them with a sense of breath and life.

The exhibition features masterpieces from each of her three major bodies of work: portraits of men “great thro’ genius” including the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, scientist Sir John Herschel, and philosopher Thomas Carlyle; women “great thro’ love” including relatives, neighbors, and household staff, often titled as literary, historical, or biblical subjects; and staged groupings such as her illustrations for Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, her Annunciation in the style of Perugino, or her depiction of King Lear and his daughters. Julia Margaret Cameron is organized by Malcolm Daniel, Senior Curator in the Department of Photographs at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

Press release from The Metropolitan Museum of Art website

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Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879) 'Philip Stanhope Worsley' 1866

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Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)
Philip Stanhope Worsley
1866
Albumen silver print from glass negative
Gilman Collection, Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 2005
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2005.100.27)

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On February 21, 1866, Cameron wrote to Henry Cole, director of the South Kensington Museum, “I have been for 8 weeks nursing poor Philip Worsley on his dying bed… The heart of man cannot conceive a sight more pitiful than the outward evidence of the breaking up of his whole being.” An Oxford-educated poet who translated the Odyssey and part of the Iliad into Spenserian verse, Worsley died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty the following May. Cameron’s portrait, made the year of his death, vividly conveys the intensity of Worsley’s intellectual life and something of its tragedy. To her subject’s hypnotic gravity she added intimations of sacrifice, engulfing the dying poet in dramatic darkness.

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Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879) 'Alfred, Lord Tennyson' July 4, 1866

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Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)
Alfred, Lord Tennyson
July 4, 1866
Albumen silver print from glass negative
The Rubel Collection, Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace, Michael and Jane Wilson, and Harry Kahn Gifts, 1997
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1997.382.36)

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When Cameron’s husband retired in 1848 from the Calcutta Council of Education and the Supreme Council of India, they moved to England, settling first in Tunbridge Wells, near Charles’s old friend the poet Henry Taylor, and later in Putney Heath, near the poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson and his wife. For Cameron, these men were not merely friends and neighbors, but also intellectual, spiritual, and artistic advisors. In 1860, while her husband was in Ceylon checking on the family coffee plantations, Cameron visited the Tennysons’ new home at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight and promptly purchased two cottages next door, which she joined together as the new family home. Cameron’s friendship and determination knew no bounds – indeed, her kindness could be overbearing at times. It took three years of pleading before Cameron convinced Tennyson (who jokingly referred to her models as “victims”) to sit for his portrait.

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Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879) 'Sir John Herschel' April 1867

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Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)
Sir John Herschel
April 1867
Albumen silver print from glass negative
The Rubel Collection, Promised Gift of William Rubel
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (L.1997.84.6)

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No commercial portrait photographer of the period would have portrayed Herschel as Cameron did here, devoid of classical columns, weighty tomes, scientific attributes, and academic poses – the standard vehicles for conveying the high stature and classical learning that one’s sitter possessed (or pretended to possess). To Cameron, Herschel was more than a renowned scientist; he was “as a Teacher and High Priest,” an “illustrious and revered as well as beloved friend” whom she had known for thirty years. Naturally, her image of him would not be a stiff, formal effigy. Instead, she had him wash and tousle his hair to catch the light, draped him in black, brought her camera close to his face, and photographed him emerging from the darkness like a vision of an Old Testament prophet.

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Julia Margaret Cameron (British (born India), Calcutta 1815 - 1879 Kalutara, Ceylon) 'A Study' 1865-66

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Julia Margaret Cameron (British (born India), Calcutta 1815 – 1879 Kalutara, Ceylon)
A Study
1865-66
Albumen silver print from glass negative
34.4 x 26.4 cm. (13 9/16 x 10 3/8 in.)
Bequest of James David Nelson, in memory of Samuel J. Wagstaff Jr., 1990

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This image, also titled After Perugino / The Annunciation, is one of more than 130 religiously themed images inspired by Cameron’s deep Christian devotion and her artistic admiration of Italian painting of the early Renaissance. Such photographs adhere to traditional iconography only in the broadest sense. Here, for example, Cameron follows the precedent of paintings of the Annunciation in which the angel Gabriel presents a lily – symbol of purity – to the Virgin Mary. More important, however, Cameron’s sincerity of sentiment imbues her work with an aura of devotion and claims for it a place equal to sacred art of the past.

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Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879) 'The Parting of Lancelot and Guinevere' 1874

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Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)
The Parting of Lancelot and Guinevere
1874
Albumen silver print from glass negative
David Hunter McAlpin Fund, 1952
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (52.524.3.10)

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In 1874 Tennyson asked Cameron to make photographic illustrations for a new edition of his Idylls of the Kings, a recasting of the Arthurian legends. Responding that both knew that “it is immortality to me to be bound up with you,” Cameron willingly accepted the assignment. Costuming family and friends, she made some 245 exposures to arrive at the handful she wanted for the book. Ultimately – and predictably – she was unhappy with the way her photographs looked reduced in scale and translated into wood engravings, and she chose to issue a deluxe edition, at her own risk, that included a dozen full size photographic prints in each of two volumes.

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Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879) 'King Lear and his Three Daughters' 1872

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Julia Margaret Cameron (English, 1815-1879)
King Lear and his Three Daughters
1872
Albumen silver print from glass negative
Bequest of Maurice B. Sendak, 2013
The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2013.159.3)

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The three Liddell sisters – Lorina, Elizabeth, and Alice – posed with the photographer’s husband playing the tragically deceived King Lear in one of Cameron’s few Shakespearean compositions. Goneril and Regan whisper false flattery in the aging king’s ear while the truly devoted but disinherited Cordelia – here unadorned and dressed in white – stands before him, an embodiment of disillusioned innocence.

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street
New York, New York 10028-0198
T: 212-535-7710

Opening hours:
Tuesday – Thursday: 9.30 am – 5.30 pm*
Friday and Saturday: 9.30 am – 9.00 pm*
Sunday: 9.30 am – 5.30 pm*
Closed Monday (except Met Holiday Mondays**), Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day

The Metropolitan Museum of Art website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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