A friend and I visited Los Angeles’ Getty Center, and I of course came away with a clutch of art postcards.
I was immediately struck by this woman’s face. While there have always been scenes of peasant life (which Sweerts painted as well), Michael/Michiel Sweerts seems like he was ahead of his time in choosing common people for portraits. He really looked at the woman here–her uncoordinated soft gaze, lumpy jaw and slightly smiling caved mouth. She is not a beauty, but she is beautiful. The folds of her head wrap and glint of the hooks of her sweater are exquisite touches.
The main reason for our visit to the Getty Center was the exhibit A Royal Passion: Queen Victoria and Photography. Victoria was crowned queen in 1837. Just two years later, Louis Daguerre made his first successful daguerrotype, introducing the world to photography. In 1841, Henry Fox Talbot revealed the calotype photograph. So Queen Victoria was the first monarch to confront and have access to this new medium. Naturally, she was enchanted with it, but what was the protocol for a queen’s relationship with it? That relationship would determine the nature of photography overall, and thus the visual record we have of much of the 19th century–Victoria lived and ruled until 1901.
The Queen initially commissioned informal portraits of her husband, Prince Albert, and children both individually and in groups including herself.
Queen Victoria was highly sentimental in a way that defined the era, and which was enabled by photography. At the Getty show were the Queen’s exquisite standup display albums of family photos like the one above. The albums folded so she could take them with her when she travelled. She developed an obsessive need to be surrounded by her family in one form or another. It is said that in photographs of her alone, there’s always a pre-existing photograph of Prince Albert somewhere in the scene like a Where’s Waldo.
But Victoria also recognized photography could and would shape her public image. As time wore on, her portraits became more formal, both in pose and dress.
Photography also influenced the Queen’s public relations when it came to current events, relying on photographs to keep abreast of the goings-on in her empire. For instance, the exhibit included photographs presented to her documenting a mine disaster that killed roughly 200 men, leaving their wives and children completely disenfranchised. In response, Victoria personally funded a relief program.
She was not so compassionate when confronted with photographs of the anti-colonial uprisings in India, also on view at the Getty. Let’s not forget she never even visited India, though it made hers “the empire on which the sun never sets.”“Map of Ceylon showing her Tea industry”
Many at the time believed photography’s purpose was strict documentation. But photography as a creative medium emerged as well. Julia Margaret Cameron was a pioneer of soft-focus to imbue scenes with a mood that only existed in those images. As she stated:
My aspirations are to ennoble Photography and to secure for it the character and uses of High Art by combining the real and Ideal and sacrificing nothing of the Truth
by all possible devotion to Poetry and beauty.
In the 1840’s and ’50s, one of the Cameron sisters hosted a significant salon in London. There Julia became acquainted with poets, writers and artists of the era.
In 1860, Cameron visited Alfred Lord Tennyson at his estate on the Isle of Wight, and she was so taken by the location, she bought two homes nearby, which she combined and named Dimbola Lodge. (In relation to the Ceylon postcard, I should mention that she named it after her family’s tea plantation in Dimbula, Ceylon.) Between Tennyson and Cameron, Britain’s intelligentsia started flocking for extended visits.
In 1863, when she was forty-eight years old, Cameron acquired her first camera–a present from her daughter. The new photographer didn’t have to look far for subject matter. It is thanks to her that we have portraits of the likes of Charles Darwin, Robert Browning, astronomer Sir John Herschel and the painter of the Victorian era George Frederic Watts (above), and that those portraits are so personal because these luminaries were not strangers. (Fun fact: Cameron’s great-neice was Virginia Woolf.)
Julia Margaret Cameron in 1870
Despite critics’ fears that creative photography would be the death of traditional art, forms like drawing and painting flourished in Queen Victoria’s lifetime. In the 1880’s, when Cameron was creating portraits, so was van Gogh:How could I not get a postcard of a postman?
This postcard doesn’t capture the girl’s three-dimensionality, especially her face. I was reminded of John Singer Sargent, the way the girl’s face was almost photographic while the rest was enthusiastically painterly.
Once I knew this was the same artist as Memories (Lawn Tennis) (1889), I understood.As van Gogh did less intentionally, Fernand Khnopff often worked with the theme of isolation. In Jeanne Kéfer (a composer friend’s daughter), the girl’s realism sets her apart from the brushy background. The door behind her is huge, grown-up size, and the whole scene is tilted. How’s a child to feel in this world?
Portrait of a Girl,Carlo Dolci c. 1665
The first art piece I recall being excited by as a young snail was David Hockney’s photo collage Pearblossom Highway (a highway in Southern California’s Mojave Desert). Already an Americana devotee at about age thirteen, I felt Hockney both honored and poked fun at the West’s mythology of the desert and the open road. I also thought it a stroke of genius how the artist used tourist sized snapshot photos to make a larger photo, achieving a time-lapse effect like a Cubist road trip.
I hadn’t even seen the real piece, but rather the image of it on a postcard. I included the postcard in a collage of my own. I’d forgotten about this collage until my recent trip to the Getty, when I came across another postcard of Pearblossom Highway.
What would the Victorians make of such photography?