Painting with Photography: Camera is My Muse ..
A show at Tate Britain reveals just how deeply photography influenced British artists
By RICHARD CORK
‘Painting With Light: Art and Photography From the Pre-Raphaelites to the Modern Age,” a pioneering exhibition at the Tate Britain, begins with an enormous, landmark painting that took nearly 23 years to complete. Almost 12 feet wide, it contains fanatically detailed portraits of 457 rebellious people involved in signing the agreement that set up the Free Church of Scotland in 1843. Although painted by David Octavius Hill, it relied on photographs he took with Robert Adamson. Widely considered the first painting to be based on images taken by a camera, this aptly named “Disruption Portrait” is crammed with earnest faces.
The Tate show, which spans over 75 years and nearly 200 works, reveals just how deeply artists in Britain were influenced by the camera’s revolutionary advent in 1839. John Ruskin, the art critic who had championed J.M.W. Turner, photographed Venice around 1850 with the help of his valet, John Hobbs. Their daguerreotype of the “North-West Angle of St. Mark’s, Venice” tackles almost the same view chosen by Ruskin when he made a watercolor of the building. He described the camera as “a noble invention,” capable of taking a picture “perfectly and faultlessly in half a minute.” It made him laugh at his own “blundered and stammered” attempt to draw Venetian architecture, taking four days to complete one picture.
Ruskin supported the Pre-Raphaelite artists’ determination to study nature with a sharper intensity, making their work “in the actual place, let the water damp your feet, stand in the chill of the shadow itself.” John Everett Millais ’s early painting “The Woodman’s Daughter” (1850-51), where an innocent girl finds herself threatened by the intrusion of an imperious aristocratic boy, is filled with minutely observed plants. Their depiction is close in spirit to the work of William Henry Fox Talbot, renowned for inventing photography on paper and making tenacious images like “Dandelion Seeds” around 1858.
The images produced by women photographers look especially impressive. Julia Margaret Cameron, who based many photographs on poems by her great friend Alfred Lord Tennyson, stands out with “Call, I Follow, I Follow, Let Me Die” (1867). The young woman pictured in profile is Tennyson’s dying heroine Elaine, longing for the knight Lancelot. With her blanched face turned up and eyes almost closed, she looks completely withdrawn from the life of the world. Cameron may well have been inspired by Dante Gabriel Rossetti ’s “ Beata Beatrix, ” a painting begun several years earlier. It was intended as a portrait of his wife, the artist Elizabeth Siddall, but Rossetti put it aside after her death in 1862.
Later, though, the soft treatment of the flesh in Cameron’s photograph could have influenced Rossetti when he finished “Beata Beatrix” around 1870. Face also tilted upward, his subject shuts her eyes in a deathlike trance. It is one of Rossetti’s most heartfelt paintings—and far better than his garish “Mariana,” a flashy 1870 painting of Jane Morris that looks very superficial compared with John Robert Parsons ’s photograph of the same woman. Parsons, hired by Rossetti to take portraits of Morris in the artist’s London garden, shows her seated in a chair, contemplative and slightly vulnerable. But Rossetti’s painting exaggerates her makeup so much that she looks like a preening pinup.
In this respect, “Mariana” could hardly be more different from the portrait of Cameron painted by her friend George Frederic Watts. He sees her as a pale and austere woman, and in February 1864 she photographed him dressed up defensively in a large, dark hat and cloak. The result may have inspired Watts to paint his “Self-Portrait” in the same year, wearing an identical outfit and flaunting his majestic beard. In 1865 Cameron photographed him again, yet this time he clutches a violin while a child whispers in his ear. Another girl leans against him, and Cameron called this painterly photograph “Whisper of the Muse.”
Even a proto-modernist as experimental as James Abbott McNeill Whistler found photography stimulating. His 1878 etching “The Adam and Eve, Old Chelsea” relies on James Hedderly ’s c. 1865 photograph of the same location. Whistler wanted to reconstruct this river frontage when it was dominated by a tavern subsequently demolished. And after Whistler had painted his adventurous, semi-abstract nocturnes, the innovative U.S. photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn described how he became “steeped” in these paintings when, in 1909, he photographed a collection of Whistler’s work in Detroit.
This was also the year when John Cimon Warburg made an enchanting, blurred color photograph of “Peggy in the Garden” that looks back to John Singer Sargent ’s delightful painting “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.” But Warburg’s use of an autochrome glass plate also looks forward, heralding the enormous possibilities opened up by the invention of color photography, so the Tate’s illuminating show ends on a highly expectant note.
Mr Cork’s latest book, “Face to Face: Interviews with Artists” (Tate), was published in 2015.