Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–79) was already forty-eight when she was given her first camera by her daughter and son-in-law gave in December 1863. She was intrigued by what she had heard of photography, and her daughter thought the camera would give her something to do in her new house in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, England. Photography became her vocation rather than a hobby. The medium was then a recent development, and still considered exclusively an amateur’s art—it was then seen as little more than an asset of news journalism. But Cameron, a close friend to many among the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, was an aesthete and sought to raise photography’s status to that of a high art. When Cameron first presented her images, she was chided by photography enthusiasts and detractors alike for her slightly unfocused images and the scratches and smudges that appeared on her glass negatives. But this gauzy and ethereal look pleased Cameron: she was thrilled to have, in her mind, matched in photography the dreamy poetry of her friend and neighbor Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Controversial and often dismissed in her own time, she has been treated with a more balanced view by posterity. Now, Paris has the chance to rediscover her in “Julia Margaret Cameron: Arresting Beauty” at the Jeu de Paume.
France should have no problem embracing Cameron. Her mother, Adeline Marie de L’Étang, was French, and both Julia and her sisters were educated in France. Julia was otherwise raised in Calcutta, her father being an official with the Bengali Civil Service. In Calcutta she married Charles Hay Cameron, twenty years her senior, who invested in Sri Lankan coffee plantations. Charles encouraged his wife’s photography from the start, and when the two moved to England in 1845 they quickly befriended many literary and artistic figures, notably Tennyson and his wife.
“Arresting Beauty” immediately plunges visitors into Cameron’s world of distinguished, long-bearded men and unsmiling girls. Entering the exhibition, we first see William Holman Hunt, whose wild grooming makes him look like a character out of Dostoevsky, with a cheerful twinkle in his eye. Cameron, who mothered five children and adopted six others, had a lot of experience with kids. But the girls in her photographs often appear sulky, likely due to the long poses they were forced to endure—and perhaps annoyed as well by Cameron, who was sometimes described as “bossy.” Nevertheless, her subjects Elizabeth and Kate Keown are rapt with the Pre-Raphaelite artist G. F. Watts, who plucks his violin, in The Whisper of the Muse (1865). Annie (1864), a portrait of a young girl, was Cameron’s first success. The subject, who was visiting the Isle of Wight with her family, looks both somber and pretty. Another success from the same year is Lucia, which shows one Mary Hillier in three-quarter profile, wearing a shawl. Her face is sharp. Cameron once said that women between eighteen and seventy should not be photographed, but A Sibyl After the Manner of Michelangelo (1864) breaks this rule. The Tennysons owned prints based on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, and these inspired Cameron. Her sibyl takes after the Erythraean Sibyl, though Cameron’s sits at a piano, not a stone table.
Cameron coaxed family members and servants as well as “poets, prophets, painters, and lovely maidens” into her studio housed in a former chicken coop. Her husband’s coffee crops in Sri Lanka began to struggle in the 1860s, and she was happy and proud to bolster the family’s fortunes with her camera. She photographed some of the most eminent men of her time. Next to one of Cameron’s images of Tennyson, the exhibition shows her portrait of Longfellow. “I have brought you a great man,” Tennyson told Cameron when he introduced Longfellow to her; “He will let you immortalize him.” Tennyson told Longfellow to “do whatever she tells you. I will come back soon and see what is left of you.” Longfellow looks suitably majestic in his 1868 portrait. In a portrait from the same year, Charles Darwin—with his impressive forehead—seems quizzical.
A devout Christian, Cameron wrote that her portraits were the “embodiment of prayer,” a kind of epiphany. But a generation later, Cameron’s niece Virginia Woolf—an atheist—took an opposite, somewhat sneering approach in her 1926 book written with Roger Fry, Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women. And in her only play, Freshwater, a satirical skit about her aunt, Woolf made fun of Cameron’s insistence on beauty and her worship of great men. Woolf and her Bloomsbury cohorts won their age, short on beauty and greatness like ours, but the aunt may have been closer to the truth than the niece. An 1867 portrait of Virginia’s mother, Julia Stephen, could be mistaken for Virginia.
Tennyson so enjoyed Cameron’s pensive photographs that he asked her to provide photographic illustrations of Idylls of the King (1874), his poetic revival of the Arthurian legends. We are used to seeing Arthur and his knights played by dashing, clean-shaven twentieth century actors, so it can be a surprise to see them depicted with thick, wooly beards in Cameron’s photographs. She also portrayed figures and scenes from the Bible, Shakespeare, and classical mythology. I Wait (1872) shows the child Rachel Gurney with large angel wings curved around her skeptical face. The 1868 Rosebud Garden of Girls takes its title from a lyric by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the picture’s romantic, flower-wielding women display the influence Pre-Raphaelitism had on Cameron. The Kiss of Peace (1869), based on Tennyson’s St. Agnes’ Eve, was her favorite of her own works. These story photographs were typically dismissed by critics, but they are richly satisfying. The same is true of almost everything in “Arresting Beauty,” proving that Cameron went a long way in raising photography to the level of high art.