The Beauty of the Heroine: Julia Margaret Cameron and the Poetic Portrait
August 27, 2013 | by Alexandra Pechman
“The beauty of the heroine is evident to every one,” Julia Margaret Cameron wrote as the postscript of a letter accompanying the first copy of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which she illustrated with photographs. She was speaking specifically of her image Vivien and Merlin, but, as evidenced in a show of her photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of Cameron’s greatest talents lay in animating many heroines of poetry through her unconventionally dreamy photographs.
Cameron only took photographs for eleven years, from 1864 to 1875, beginning at the age of forty-eight, while living on the Isle of Wight. Tennyson, a neighbor, was one of her earliest subjects, and encouraged her to keep at it. And a number of the thirty-eight photographs on view at the Met have a direct dialogue with the poets of Cameron’s past and present, particularly in her portraits of “great women thro’ love.” Her practice was poetic itself. She eschewed the popular style of gleaning realistic details in favor of her own artistry, focusing on light and shadow; speaking of a model she once wrote, “I long to meet her and try my master hand upon her.” She made her subjects sit for hours, but they didn’t always sit still. The results are hazily captured women, as elusive as the characters in the poems themselves.
The Mountain Nymph Sweet Liberty riffs on a line from a Milton poem:
Come, and trip it as you go
On the light fantastic toe;
And in thy right hand lead with thee
The mountain nymph, sweet Liberty.
The woman’s open face bursts forward at us out of a subtly blurred background. She looks less like defiant Liberty than someone out of a dream.
And in Zoe, Maid of Athens, Cameron imagines what the subject of Byron’s devotion in his poem might have looked like, her heavy-lidded eyes absorbing dark shadows.
Christabel draws on the character from unfinished poem by Coleridge, about the corruption of a “youthful hermitess / beauteous in a wilderness” by dark magic. The ghostly innocence of the subject, with her long hair, droopy eyes, and black dress, becomes that much eerier in the context of the poem that never came to be.
“From the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour,” Cameron wrote, “and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour,” and in that same spirit, poems came alive through her photographs. Cameron drew criticism in her time for such realistic interpretations of fantasy; the world of poetry looked too much like our own. Looking at the photographs now, her interpretation seems especially prescient.
Ali Pechman is a writer living in New York.