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The Madonna of the future O.G. Rejlander and Sassoferrato


  

For photography there are new secrets to conquer, new difficulties to overcome, new Madonnas to invent, new ideals to imagine. There will be perhaps photographic Raphaels, photographic Titians, founders of new empires and not subverters of the old.1 ‘The photographic exhibition’, Journal of the Photographic Society, no. 51, February 1857, p. 217.

 

 In Henry James’s dramatic short story ‘The Madonna of the future’, 1873, a narrator tells the tale of Theobald, a charismatic Florentine artist who proclaims himself to be a genius engaged in the highlight of his career: a painting of the Madonna in the tradition of Raphael. In the story’s denouement the narrator is shocked to discover that Theobald’s promised ‘Madonna of the future’ is actually a blank canvas. The horror of creative paralysis is clear as the artist cries, ‘If I could transpose [my ideas] into some brain that has the hand, the will!’ 2 H. James, The Madonna of the future, Atlantic Monthly Magazine, 1873. The American writer Arthur Danto recently used James’s story as the basis for his own essay where a curator returns through time to view Theobald’s blank canvas declaring it to be a masterpiece of conceptual art. A. Danto, The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World, Berkeley, 2001, p. 422.

 

Art as fiction is a fitting starting point for this essay about the work of photographer O. (Oscar) G. Rejlander, a Swedish-born artist whose own relationship to the fictional and the real was a notable, even controversial, hallmark of his career. In common with Theobald, Rejlander began his career as a painter who studied and copied Renaissance art in Rome. But unlike the ill fated painter of James’s story, Rejlander had no obstructive blocks to his creativity. In 1853 when confronted with an aesthetic challenge in his painting, Rejlander successfully found a means around the dilemma in a way that was to change his life. As he later wrote:

What really hurried me forward [to becoming a photographer] was having seen the photograph of a gentleman, and this fold in his coat sleeve was just the very thing I required for a portrait I was then painting at home and could not please myself in this particular point.3 O. G. Rejlander, ‘An Apology for Art-Photography’, 1863 in V. Goldberg (ed.), Photography in Print: Writings from 1816 to the Present, New York, 1981, p. 142.

 

Rejlander may have initially learnt the rudiments of photography to help him in painting but increasingly he found himself captivated by the artistic possibilities of the new medium. By the time of his death in 1875 in England, Rejlander was widely praised as a pioneer of art photography. In an obituary published in the British Journal of Photography his distinctive genre, portrait and religious photographs were described as:

the plough [that] first opened the virgin soil in which his successors sow and reap. What a crowd of admirably-conceived and artistically-treated subjects pass before us as we think of all he did! 4 ‘The late O. G. Rejlander’, British Journal of Photography, no. 769, vol. XXII, January 1875, p. 54.

The most contentious aspect of Rejlander’s ‘artistically-treated’ subjects were those photographs that he modelled on, or were inspired by, traditional painting. The Virgin in prayer, c.1857 (fig. 1), is a prime example of this aspect of Rejlander’s practice and provides an excellent opportunity to examine some of the complex nineteenth-century debates surrounding reproductions and the original, and the allied issue of photography’s aspirations to artistic status.

These issues were suggested as early as 1844 when William Henry Fox Talbot presciently discussed different types of photographic ‘copies’ in his pioneering photographically illustrated book The Pencil of Nature. By including photographs of statuary, Talbot demonstrated how the use of different lighting by the sensitive photographer could accentuate the feeling intended by the sculptor. The result was not only a better photograph but also one that could help painters and sculptors as an aid to their own work. As an example of a different kind of copy, Talbot included a photographic facsimile of an engraving in his book as a demonstration of the medium’s ability to reproduce multiple copies of works of art. As he noted of this latter idea, [photographic] facsimiles can be made from original sketches of the old masters, and thus they may be preserved from toss and multiplied to any extent’.5 W. H. Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature, plate XXIII, 1844, quoted in J. Ward & S. Stevenson, Printed Light, Edinburgh, 1986, p. 23.

Photographs of works of art served an invaluable role for both the general public and artists and were commonplace enough by 1852 for Rejlander to write:

I was in Rome and saw photographs of the Apollo Belvedere, the Laocoon, the Torso, Gibson’s Venus, etc, etc, which I bought and studied; and I was delighted to have a fair chance of measuring the relative proportions of the antique on the flat and true copies of the original.6 Rejlander, An Apology for Art-Photography’, p. 141.

Public institutions also saw the advantages of making photographic copies of works of art both for public dissemination and security purposes. For instance, Roger Fenton was commissioned by the British Museum to photograph its works of art in 1854. In 1870, in Australia, the absence of access to many grand European paintings prompted the trustees of the Public Library, Museum and the National Gallery of Victoria to acquire a range of photographs of works of art including Guido Reni’s The Magdalane (taken by J. Laurent).7 Report of the Trustees of the Public Library, Museums, and the National Gallery of Victoria, Parliamentary Papers, 1871, vol. 2, pp. 61–6. Photographic reproductions became a special feature in exhibitions of the time Where they were considered as aesthetic productions in their own right, and the number of such images submitted to international exhibitions increased substantially between 1852 and 1858.8 For a discussion of this issue, see G. Seiberling, Amateurs, Photography and the Mid-Victorian Imagination, Chicago, 1986, pp. 85–9.

Photographic copies of works of art were clearly a useful application of the medium but Rejlander took the process into altogether more contentious territory when he used real models to enact poses in traditional painting. The results were photographs that not only aligned themselves to the High Art on which they were based, but which also boldly aspired to be considered in the same artistic league. By copying the subjects and styles of the classical painters Rejlander openly transcended the generally approved role of photography as a so called ‘handmaiden to the arts’. Even more problematic for some was that in his quest to produce photographic art, on occasion he freely subverted its usual ‘truthfulness’ by overtly manipulating reality. In his most ambitious and controversial photograph Two ways of life, 1857, Rejlander combined over thirty separate negatives to create a grand tableau vivant modelled after Raphael’s School of Athens, 1509–11.

Although he was not the first to promote photography as art, Rejlander’s career coincided with, and prompted, fierce debate about the nature and meaning of photography.9 For a modern extension of the copy/original debate in photography, see, for example, R. Krauss, ‘The originality of the avant-garde: A postmodern repetition’, October, Fall 1981, pp. 47–66. A review of contemporary literature reveals how his photographs provoked diametrically opposed views. In 1857, for instance, an unknown reviewer wrote positively of Rejlander’s work, choosing to highlight the NGV’s image (here called the Madonna from the Sasso Ferrato) in particular:

[Rejlander’s] Madonna from the Sasso Ferrato … and many others will be the models of his art which will form a weighty argument for maintaining the view that photography should be regarded as art in the highest sense. Some day, a history of art-photography will be written, in which the name of Rejlander will be cited as a star of the first magnitude.10 Journal of the Photographic Society, January 1857, quoted in E. Y. Jones, Father of Art Photography: O. G. Rejlander 1813–75, Connecticut, 1973, p. 32.

Others considered Rejlander’s promotion of the medium as art to be an unacceptable encroachment on territory that was not his province. In 1856 Robert Hunt reprimanded Rejlander’s ‘propriety’ when reviewing his exhibition at the Photographic Society, London:

They are all wonderfully clever, but after all they are but images of actors posed for the occasion; they all want life, expression and passion … We doubt the propriety of attempting to rival the historical painter. We believe, indeed that such pictures as those will have a tendency to lower the appreciation of Art in the eyes of the public, and unfit them for receiving the full impression intended by, or seeing the beauties of, the artist’s production.11 R. Hunt, quoted in Seiberling, p. 89.

Underlying Hunt’s scolding is the view that photographs disqualify themselves as Art because they are made through the agency of a machine. According to this argument the only means to bring ‘life, expression and passion’ to pictures was by the ‘artist’s hand’. Rejlander was understandably sensitive to such criticisms and blasted critics such as Hunt when he wrote:

We photographers have good ground of complaint against you art critics for the sneering overbearing manner in which you assign limits to our powers … We are satisfied that [photography] is an art in itself, only guided by the general canons of art for successful combination to produce an art-looking result.12 Rejlander, quoted in Jones, p. 37.

Rejlander gave visual form to his views in Infant photography gives the painter an additional brush, c.1856 (fig. 2). In this unusual, didactic photograph he has used the traditional painterly device of figures symbolising various concepts. Here ‘photography’ is personified as a young, cherubic child resting on a camera and passing a new brush to the older hand of ‘painting’ whose arm reaches through a curtain. In a gesture that is typical of the theatrical bent of the artist – and as a means, perhaps, of personalising his argument – Rejlander can be seen taking this photograph in a reflection in the mirror.

  

Infant photography was not simply a charming theoretical exercise but expressed a view on the interplay of photography and the arts that Rejlander embodied in his own practice. Rejlander not only copied specific figures from well-known High Renaissance paintings to hone his own modelling and compositional skills as a photographer but also to demonstrate how the new medium could help bring greater anatomical realism to the painter’s depiction of figures.13 See S. Spencer, ‘Art and photography: Two studies by O.G. Rejlander’, History of Photography, vol. 9, no.1, January–March 1985, pp. 47–52; G. Smith, ‘Rejlander, Raphael and Fusel’, History of Photography vol. 27, no. 1, Spring 2003, pp. 74–81.

Rejlander was particularly fond of the work of Raphael – an artist popular among the Pre- Raphaelite painters who were his contemporaries. He also stated that he looked at and copied the paintings of Titian, Correggio, Rubens, Murillo and Gainsborough.14 Spencer, pp. 49–50. Rejlander’s attraction to such art was certainly guided by an interest in how the body could be represented but also he seems drawn to those works that show strongly felt emotions.

In the mid 1850s Rejlander apparently visited the National Gallery in London where he would have seen The Virgin in prayer, 1640–50 (see p. 45, fig. 3), by Sassoferrato – an artist who was often mistaken for Raphael. For a photographer interested in sentiment, this classic study of the Virgin would have held great appeal as an image of spiritual devotion. Rejlander’s choice of this painting also reflects broader topical interests and, even more interestingly, signals some surprising parallels between the classical painter and the contemporary photographer.

The sixteenth-century Italian painter Sassoferrato (born Giovanni Battista Salvi) earned his living from producing devotional paintings such as The Virgin in prayer, modelling his work after the ‘pure’ style of artists such as Reni and Raphael. Paintings such as this were in demand as the Counter-Reformation reaffirmed the cult of the Virgin and encouraged the belief that images of Mary could work miracles. Sassoferrato recognised the demand for such images and produced at least fifteen ‘multiple originals’ of The Virgin in prayer. The paintings show a veiled Mary, her hands raised in prayer and her glance downcast. The image took on especial power when it was viewed from below and, from the perspective of a supplicant on bended knee or lying on their sickbed, the Virgin’s kind and calming gaze could act as an intercessor for their prayers. As the art historian Mrs Jamieson later observed of works in this genre:

Through all the most beautiful and precious productions of human genius and human skill … we trace … one prevailing idea; it is that of an impersonation in the feminine character of beneficence, purity, and power, standing between an offended Deity and poor, sinning, suffering humanity, and closed in the visible form of Mary, the Mother of our Lord.15 Mrs Jamieson, Legends of the Madonna: As Represented in the Fine Arts, New York, 1888, p. xvii.

The popularity of Sassoferrato’s work surged again some two hundred years later when, in 1854, Pope Pius IX proclaimed Mary to be the issue of Immaculate Conception in his Catechism of the Catholic Church. Two years later, and perhaps capitalising on its timely appeal, Rejlander decided to make his own version. Just as Sassoferrato had turned to the example of other artists for his own painting, so too did Rejlander turn to the sixteenth-century artist for inspiration for his photograph. Both artists also produced ‘multiple originals’ – although for Rejlander, of course, such ‘multiples’ were considerably easier to produce.16 The reproducibility of the medium became an issue in Rejlander’s career when he produced a ‘hit’ photograph. His image Ginx’s baby is estimated to have sold 60,000 copies (see P. Prodger, ‘Rejlander, Darwin and the evolution of Ginx’s baby‘ in History of Photography vol. 23, no. 3, Autumn 1999, pp. 260–8).

By choosing a young model with a similar expression of spiritual reverie, Rejlander has given the viewer a modern interpretation of Regina Virginum (a Madonna posed alone), albeit without the brilliant colour that played such a large role in Sassoferrato’s painting. While opening himself to criticism about his choice of medium, Rejlander also ran the gamut of disapproval by those for whom ‘earthly models’ taking on the role of the Madonna were suspect. As Mrs Jamieson observed:

Heads [of the Virgin] multiplied … from the beginning of the seventeenth century. From these every trace of the mystical and solemn conception of antiquity gradually disappeared; till, for the majestic ideal of womanhood, we have merely inane prettiness, or rustic or even meretricious grace, the borrowed charms of some earthly model.17 Jamieson, p. 12.

As Jamieson suggests, Rejlander was not alone in bringing the spiritual towards the human in his depiction of the Virgin. Rossetti’s The girlhood of Mary Virgin, 1849, for instance, emphasises Mary’s humanity by showing her learning how to embroider. Rejlander’s work exposed him to criticism, however, because not only did he show an earthly Virgin, he also chose photography to do so. An unknown reviewer of Rejlander’s work in 1859 commented:

It is not because he has faithfully copied a woman and child in a certain position that we admire a Madonna by Rafaelle, but because we see in its depth and purity of feeling a noble realization of an original and poetic idea. A photograph of the models he used in the positions he placed them, and surrounded by all the accessories he introduced, would no doubt be a valuable study for a painter, but it would be a sorry substitute for his picture.18 ‘The exhibition in Suffolk St’, Journal of the Photographic Society, no. 77, January 1859, p. 147.

Other critics had no such qualms and praised Rejlander’s ability not only to ‘obtain models of such beauty’, but to use their appearances in the service of art ‘to teach and elevate those around him, and raise them into a higher and purer atmosphere’.19 ‘The photographs of Rejlander’, Art Journal, vol. vii, 1868, p. 15.Indeed, the subject of prayer and devotion was one that he returned to on several occasions in the mid to late 1850s. Using the same model as The Virgin in prayer, Rejlander’s photograph Prayer (fig. 3) could almost be a companion piece. Although not apparently based on a classical painting, this latter work shows prayer from the perspective of the supplicant rather than the Virgin, the young woman’s untied hair and focused, upwards gaze suggest the intensity of her devotions. Rejlander also experimented with the subject of prayer using models of differing ages: he photographed an older woman fervently at prayer (fig. 4), her head veiled in a classicising gesture and, in a slightly later image, two children praying.20 For illustrations of these and other images by Rejlander, see the George Eastman House online archive at http:www.geh.org/fm/rejlander/htmlscr/.

The ability to capture emotions was central to Rejlander’s aims to ‘elevate’ the viewer through his photographs and, in this aim, his interests coincided with the widespread investigation into the emotions and physiognomy that took place in the mid nineteenth century. The English photographer Hugh W. Diamond was one notable practitioner who used the scientific imprimatur of the camera in his physiognomic study of patients at an asylum. In one instance Diamond photographed the same patient in four emotional states – melancholic, excited, convalescent and well – in a manner that suggested a typology of insanity and sanity could be detailed on a person’s features.

Rejlander’s own skills in documenting human emotions became well enough known that, in 1872, he was commissioned by Charles Darwin to illustrate his landmark book The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. Rejlander contributed photographs that show external evidence of various states of mind, including sadness, disdain and surprise, and on a number of occasions even used himself as the model. Darwin was impressed with Rejlander’s talents and in a letter to a colleague in 1871 noted:

I am now rich in photographs for I have found in London, Rejlander who for years had had a passion for photographing all sorts of chance expressions exhibited on various occasions.21 Charles Darwin, quoted in Prodger, ‘Photography and the expression of the emotions’ in C. Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Oxford, 1998, p. 407.

Included among the list of significant human emotions was a section on devotion, a state Darwin concluded was related to affection but mixed with reverence and sometimes fear.

Rejlander’s model for The Virgin in prayer may exhibit little in the way of fear in her devotions but the absence of that particular emotion is appropriate in her role as the Mother of God. Rejlander no doubt instructed the young woman acting as Mary to adopt expressions in keeping with the Sassoferrato painting; however, the success of his photograph clearly owes as much to his own creative talents as the ability of the young woman to strike a fitting pose. As an astute observer of Rejlander’s ‘Madonnas of the future commented:

The photographer with a true knowledge of the art will conceive the picture in his brain, train and manipulate his model to what he has conceived, and then make his model to be what he has conceived, and then make his camera reproduce the conception. This was the way Rejlander set about his work.22 W. Neilson, ‘Tribute to O. G. Rejlander’, British Journal of Photography, 12 February 1875, p. 81 cited in http:www.edinphoto.org.uk/3/3_pss_exhibitors_rejlander.htm.

Isobel Crombie, Senior Curator of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2004).

Notes
1      ‘The photographic exhibition’, Journal of the Photographic Society, no. 51, February 1857, p. 217.

2      H. James, The Madonna of the future, Atlantic Monthly Magazine, 1873. The American writer Arthur Danto recently used James’s story as the basis for his own essay where a curator returns through time to view Theobald’s blank canvas declaring it to be a masterpiece of conceptual art. A. Danto, The Madonna of the Future: Essays in a Pluralistic Art World, Berkeley, 2001, p. 422.

3      O. G. Rejlander, ‘An Apology for Art-Photography’, 1863 in V. Goldberg (ed.), Photography in Print: writings from 1816 to the Present, New York, 1981, p. 142.

4      ‘The late O. G. Rejlander’, British Journal of Photography, no. 769, vol. XXII, January 1875, p. 54.

5      W. H. Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature, plate XXIII, 1844, quoted in J. Ward & S. Stevenson, Printed Light, Edinburgh, 1986, p. 23.

6      Rejlander, An Apology for Art-Photography’, p. 141.

7      Report of the Trustees of the Public Library, Museums, and the National Gallery of Victoria, Parliamentary Papers, 1871, vol. 2, pp. 61–6.

8      For a discussion of this issue, see G. Seiberling, Amateurs, Photography and the Mid-Victorian Imagination, Chicago, 1986, pp. 85–9.

9       For a modern extension of the copy/original debate in photography, see, for example, R. Krauss, ‘The originality of the avant-garde: A postmodern repetition’, October, Fall 1981, pp. 47–66.

10      Journal of the Photographic Society, January 1857, quoted in E. Y. Jones, Father of Art Photography: O. G. Rejlander 1813–75, Connecticut, 1973, p. 32.

11      R. Hunt, quoted in Seiberling, p. 89.

12      Rejlander, quoted in Jones, p. 37.

13      See S. Spencer, ‘Art and photography: Two studies by O.G. Rejlander’, History of Photography, vol. 9, no.1, January–March 1985, pp. 47–52; G. Smith, ‘Rejlander, Raphael and Fusel’, History of Photography vol. 27, no. 1, Spring 2003, pp. 74–81.

14     Spencer, pp. 49–50.

15      Mrs Jamieson, Legends of the Madonna: As Represented in the Fine Arts, New York, 1888, p. xvii.

16     The reproducibility of the medium became an issue in Rejlander’s career when he produced a ‘hit’ photograph. His image Ginx’s baby is estimated to have sold 60,000 copies (see P. Prodger, ‘Rejlander, Darwin and the evolution of Ginx’s baby‘ in History of Photography vol. 23, no. 3, Autumn 1999, pp. 260–8).

17      Jamieson, p. 12.

18     ‘The exhibition in Suffolk St’, Journal of the Photographic Society, no. 77, January 1859, p. 147.

19      ‘The photographs of Rejlander’, Art Journal, vol. vii, 1868, p. 15.

20      For illustrations of these and other images by Rejlander, see the George Eastman House online archive at http:www.geh.org/fm/rejlander/htmlscr/.

21      Charles Darwin, quoted in Prodger, ‘Photography and the expression of the emotions’ in C. Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Oxford, 1998, p. 407.

22      W. Neilson, ‘Tribute to O. G. Rejlander’, British Journal of Photography, 12 February 1875, p. 81 cited in http:www.edinphoto.org.uk/3/3_pss_exhibitors_rejlander.htm.