Museum Home Past Exhibitions Julia Margaret Cameron, Photographer

October 21, 2003–January 11, 2004 at the Getty Center

Beatrice / Cameron
Beatrice, 1866


Cameron was fascinated by the story of Beatrice Cenci, a 16th-century Roman noblewoman executed for plotting the murder of her father. Beatrice's 1599 trial was retold in Percy Bysshe Shelley's play The Cenci (1819). The melodramatic story appealed to Victorian tastes, and the tragic figure of Beatrice was a favorite subject among contemporary painters.

Cameron made more than a half-dozen pictures of the subject. Here, Cameron's niece, May Prinsep, plays the condemned Beatrice, whose downcast eyes and wistful expression suggest that she is resigned to the fate that awaits her.

Cameron's passion for literature is seen in many of her photographs that illustrated specific passages and characters from well-known novels, plays, and poems. Although some are obscure to audiences today, most were immediately recognizable to Victorian viewers.

I Wait / Cameron
I Wait / Rachel Gurney, 1872


In this study Rachel Gurney partially undermined Cameron's desire to transform her image into a cherubic likeness with her confrontational gaze and blasé expression. Despite her sitter's lack of enthusiasm, Cameron created an engaging and technically accomplished picture.

Throughout her life Cameron was surrounded by children. In addition to her one daughter and six sons (one of whom died in infancy), she adopted five more children. Other children were related by blood or became known to her through social circles in Freshwater, where she lived on the Isle of Wight. With young models readily available, it is not surprising that one-sixth of Cameron's total artistic output consists of photographs of children.

Iago/Study / Cameron
Iago/Study from an Italian, 1867

Portraits of Men

The effects that Cameron achieved in her monumental portraits were revolutionary for their time. Their forceful, direct design, combined with a distinctive approach to focus and depth of field, was new to her Victorian audience. To achieve these results, Cameron worked in close proximity to her subjects, using dramatic, carefully controlled lighting that animated and expanded their form.

This striking image of Angelo Colarossi is the only surviving print from the negative. Colarossi was a leading member of the thriving London colony of professional Italian models who posed for the popular Italian subjects favored by Victorian painters.

Holy Family / Cameron
A Holy Family, 1872


Prayer and religious observance were integral to Victorian culture and very much part of daily life in the Cameron household. Cameron believed passionately that her art was capable of association with the highest Christian ideals, and her Madonna and Child groupings represent her most explicit attempt to elevate photography to the realm of "high art." They emulate the madonnas of Italian Renaissance paintings, particularly those of Raphael, which were familiar to Cameron's Victorian audience as engravings.

Typically, Cameron employed her domestic servant Mary Ann Hillier as the Virgin in this photograph, and local children to perform the roles of the infant Jesus, left, with hands clasped in prayer, and John the Baptist, right, holding a wooden cross.

Charles Norman, Daughters / Cameron
Charles Norman with His Daughters, Adeline and Margaret, July 1874


Family life formed the cornerstone of Cameron's art and she drew much of the inspiration from these individuals. Her husband, Charles, and her children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews were all pressed into service before her camera.

Charles Lloyd Norman married Julia Hay Cameron, the Camerons' only daughter, in 1859. It was Charles and Julia Norman who gave Cameron her first camera, in December 1863. Julia died in childbirth in 1873, and this photograph, taken the following year, shows her bereaved husband with two of their six children. The girls' joined hands envelope their father, symbolizing their "natural" role as supportive daughters, consolidating and carrying forward the memory of their deceased mother.

Unknown Girl / Cameron
Unknown Girl, Ceylon. 1875–79
audio Listen to a discussion of this photograph.


In 1875 Cameron set sail for Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka), where she lived until her death in 1879. The family's income was tied to large coffee plantations that were in jeopardy due to the country's economic decline after a fungal disease had destroyed successive crops.

Cameron was unable to devote much time to photography in Ceylon. She no longer had the audience or market for her work that had existed in England and could not justify the expense. Less than 30 works survive from this period.

While Cameron admired her Ceylonese subjects for their beauty and poise, they are clearly represented as "other" in her photographs. Intimate in scale, this picture emphasizes the ethnicity of the child, whose bare and hardened feet are prominently lighted.