by Roderick Conway Morris

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How Photography Cast New Light on Art

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 16 June 2016
NPG, London
Jane Morris by John Robert Parsons, 1865



The invention of photography was an epoch-making event in the history of art, presenting both challenges and benefits to artists as the market was flooded with an unprecedented quantity of almost instantly manufacturable images.

Within a decade of Louis Daguerre's publication of the process in 1839, half a million plates had been sold in Paris alone. Many artists embraced the technology, while some remained reticent about the extent to which they employed it in their own work.

Monet, who owned at least four cameras, responded tetchily to the suggestion that he had used a photograph of the Houses of Parliament for one of his famous series of paintings of the Thames, writing to a friend that 'whether my cathedrals, my Londons and other canvases are painted from nature or not is nobody's business and is of no importance.'

Cézanne, on the other hand, was frank about using illustrations from magazines to paint flowers and even a photograph to paint a self-portrait. Degas was an open enthusiast and an early purchaser of a Kodak portable.

British artists, and indeed art critics, seem generally to have responded positively to the introduction of the new medium as both tool and art form in itself. This attitude emerges from 'Painting with Light: Art and Photography from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Modern Age' at Tate Britain. Curated by Carol Jacobi, Hope Kingsley and Tim Batchelor, this absorbing collection of nearly 200 pictures and photographs, on display until Sept. 25, gives a complex and enlightening account of the dynamic relationship between these art forms.

The show opens with the story of the pioneering collaboration between the Scottish painter David Octavius Hill and the photographer Robert Adamson, whose brother John Adamson had been carrying out experiments with the new technology at the University of St. Andrews.

A split in the Church of Scotland occurred in 1843, when dissenting ministers walked out of the annual assembly to form the Free Church of Scotland. Hill decided to commemorate this significant event in the nation's life with a monumental painting depicting the hundreds of participants of the packed meeting at a former gas works. He turned to Robert Adamson's Edinburgh studio to photograph their likenesses in preparation for his enormous canvas, for which over 2,000 images were shot over five years. The canvas itself, the so-called Disruption Portrait, is on loan from the Free Church of Scotland along with several of Adamson's salted paper portrait prints.

An engagingly bizarre artifact in itself (it took 23 years to complete), Hill's 'Disruption Portrait' contains a number of figures who were not present on the day (including Robert Adamson depicted with his camera). In a surreal touch, peering down on the proceedings through two skylights are the faces of half a dozen fisherman photographed by Adamson in the port of Newhaven near Edinburgh.

Shown together here are Hill's paintings of views of Edinburgh, inspired by the likes of Turner's 'Edinburgh, Calton Hill' (also on display), and Hill and Adamson's photo-panoramas of the city, the first of their kind in Britain. Equally innovative was Hill and Adamson's photograph of the painter William Etty, who used it to paint his own self-portrait a couple of years later. The work depicts Etty in profile looking downwards at the canvas, an angle which would have been impossible if painted in the traditional manner by the artist looking at his reflection in a mirror.

The critic John Ruskin came to see the Middle Ages as the happiest and most harmonious period in Western art and deplored many subsequent developments. But he welcomed photography as 'a noble invention' and incomparable aid to the study and teaching of art.

Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites and their milieu are the subject of the next section, 'New Truths,' which opens with a Ruskin watercolor of the 'North-West Angle of St. Marks, Venice' and a daguerreotype image of the same subject executed with the help of his valet John Hobbs. Of the daguerreotype, Ruskin observed that what had taken him four days with pencil and brush had been done 'perfectly and faultlessly in half a minute.'

Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites shared the philosophy that the natural world was already a work of art in itself, and it was the camera that laid the foundations for the art movement's striving for the quasi-photographic precision in their depictions of nature. This relationship is cogently illustrated here by the placing side-by-side of John Everett Millais's classic 'The Woodman's Daughter' of 1859-61, in which every leaf and blade of grass are minutely rendered, and contemporary, crystal-clear shots of woodland, including Francis Gresley's 'At Wynterdyne.'

Daguerreotype images of models were already being used by artists in the 1840s. Establishments such as Heatherley's Art School, where Millais studied, built up archives of photographs along with their other more conventional props for the use of their students. With the help of an amateur photographer friend, Millais kept his own personal archive of the models he had used while at the school. Thomas Heatherley himself was captured in a photo by Samuel Butler (who went on to become a successful writer and author of 'The Way of All Flesh'), taken in the studio at the school, against a backdrop of casts of a classical discus thrower, a massive reclining nude statue and a skeleton. Butler subsequently used the photographic image as the basis of an oil, here hung alongside it.

The influence of photography on art was reciprocal. 'Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,' 1885-1886, by John Singer Sargent, a popular hit at the Royal Academy in its day, bears a strong resemblance to a later photograph taken by John Cimon Warburg at his family's villa in the French Riviera. Both works are part of the Tate exhibition.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti immortalized two of his models: Elizabeth Siddal and Jane Morris, both of whom feature in the 'Whisper of the Muse' section, which examines painted and photographic portraiture in these circles in the 1860s and 70s. Siddal's ecstatic pose in Rossetti's 'Beata Beatrix' is closely echoed here in an image by the leading female photographer of the day, Julia Margaret Cameron.

Rossetti finished 'Beata Beatrix' from memory after Siddal's untimely death. But he later collaborated with the artist, photographer and dealer John Robert Parsons to have 18 full- and half-length photographs taken of Jane Morris, examples of which make fascinating companions here to some of his paintings of her such as 'Mariana,' in which he even further enhances her long neck, bee-stung lips and exotically sensual facial features.

The professional and personal lives of artists and photographers during this period were often intimately interwoven, and trends in the parallel media closely related. As a section entitled 'Life and Landscape' unfolds, the vibrant, ethereal qualities Whistler achieved in his waterscapes threw down a gauntlet to photographers to achieve similar effects in their photographic prints. The photographer Peter Henry Emerson, like Ruskin, was originally hostile to Whistler's penumbral productions. But he came to admire them and even successfully emulate them, as the exhibition demonstrates by placing Whistler's 'Nocturne: Blue and Silver — Cremorne Lights, 1872' next to Emerson's 'The Bridge.' The latter is a misty, highly atmospheric photogravure of the smoke of a ghostly steam train drifting across water.

Conversely, another juxtaposition reveals that Whistler's famous etching of the Thameside tavern, 'The Adam and Eve, Old Chelsea,' dated 1878, was not made on the spot but from an albumen photo print taken by James Hedderly around 1865 — the pub and surrounding buildings having in the meantime been demolished to make way for the Chelsea Embankment.

In 1907 the Lumière brothers introduced a method of producing full-color photography, the results of which are on display in the final section of the show, 'Out of the Shadows.' The following year the critic Dixon Scott described the new process as mobilizing 'a fabulous army' of 'starch grains colored green, violet and orange, densely and adroitly marshaled, some four million to the square inch.' These autochrome plates produced a unique image that could then be processed into a lantern slide or a four-color print.

The results could be captivating. Alvin Langdon Coburn's portrait 'Elsie 'Toodles' Thomas' — with his sitter in a fashionable scarlet kimono holding an orange flower — echoes the poses of Pre-Raphaelite beauties. The colors and luminosity of John Cimon Warburg's 'Peggy in the Garden,' a photo taken in 1909 at the family's villa on the French Riviera, bear an extraordinary, even if perhaps serendipitous, resemblance to John Singer Sargent's painting 'Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,' which had been a popular hit at the Royal Academy in 1887 and is shown here along with Warburg's autochrome image.

Painting remained a major stimulus to art photographers and the range of works they had at their disposal without having to see them in the flesh was vastly increased with the publication of collections of them with high-quality photogravure prints.

One such publication was Henry Marillier's 'Dante Gabriel Rossetti: An Illustrated Memorial' of 1899. The exhibition closes with Rossetti's alluring 1874 painting of Jane Morris, in the guise of 'Proserpine' holding a suggestively gashed pomegranate exposing a glimpse of its vermilion flesh, flanked by two photographic revisitations of the theme: Zaida Ben-Yusuf's graceful, tapestry-like 'The Odor of Pomegranates' from 1899 and Minna Keene's eerily dream-like carbon print 'Decorative Study,' from around 1906, of her daughter bearing a dish of the sacred fruits.

First published: New York Times International Edition

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023