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Rebecca

  • Object:

    Photograph

  • Place of origin:

    Isle of Wight (photographed)

  • Date:

    1866 (photographed)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Cameron, Julia Margaret (photographer)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Carbon print from copy negative

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Mrs Ida S. Perrin, 1939

  • Museum number:

    25-1939

  • Gallery location:

    Prints & Drawings Study Room, level F, case X, shelf 311, box O

Julia Margaret Cameron looked to painting and sculpture, and in this instance, biblical references, as inspiration for her allegorical and narrative subjects. Some works are photographic interpretations of specific paintings by artists such as Raphael and Michelangelo. Others aspired more generally to create ‘Pictorial Effect’.

Cameron's harshest critics attacked her for using the supposedly truthful medium of photography to depict imaginary subject matter. Some suggested that at best her photographs could serve as studies for painters. The South Kensington Museum mainly acquired 'Madonnas' and 'Fancy Subjects', and exhibited them as pictures in their own right.

This figure is inspired by Rebecca in the Old Testament (Genesis 24:42-67). Rebecca was a young virgin seen drawing water from a well and taken to Isaac to be his wife. The story of Rebecca is regarded as a prefiguration of the annunciation. The soft focus of the image and the exotic costume of the sitter implies the dreamlike distance of a story.

Physical description

Photograph of the profile of a woman's head. She is wearing a headscarf and gazing downwards.

Place of Origin

Isle of Wight (photographed)

Date

1866 (photographed)

Artist/maker

Cameron, Julia Margaret (photographer)

Materials and Techniques

Carbon print from copy negative

Marks and inscriptions

Freshwater 1866 Julia Margaret Cameron
In pen on base of mount.

Dimensions

Height: 36 cm image, Width: 29 cm image, Height: 41 cm sheet, Width: 33 cm sheet

Object history note

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–79) was one of the most important and innovative photographers of the 19th century. Her photographs were rule-breaking: purposely out of focus, and often including scratches, smudges and other traces of the artist’s process. Best known for her powerful portraits, she also posed her sitters – friends, family and servants – as characters from biblical, historical or allegorical stories.

Born in Calcutta on 11 June 1815, the fourth of seven sisters, her father was an East India Company official and her mother descended from French aristocracy. Educated mainly in France, Cameron returned to India in 1834.

In 1842, the British astronomer Sir John Herschel (1792 – 1871) introduced Cameron to photography, sending her examples of the new invention. They had met in 1836 while Cameron was convalescing from an illness in the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa. He remained a life-long friend and correspondent on technical photographic matters. That same year she met Charles Hay Cameron (1795–1880), 20 years her senior, a reformer of Indian law and education. They married in Calcutta in 1838 and she became a prominent hostess in colonial society. A decade later, the Camerons moved to England. By then they had four children; two more were born in England. Several of Cameron’s sisters were already living there, and had established literary, artistic and social connections. The Camerons eventually settled in Freshwater, on the Isle of Wight.

At the age of 48 Cameron received a camera as a gift from her daughter and son-in-law. It was accompanied by the words, ‘It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude at Freshwater.’ Cameron had compiled albums and even printed photographs before, but her work as a photographer now began in earnest.

The Camerons lived at Freshwater until 1875, when they moved to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where Charles Cameron had purchased coffee and rubber plantations, managed under difficult agricultural and financial conditions by three of their sons. Cameron continued her photographic practice at her new home yet her output decreased significantly and only a small body of photographs from this time remains. After moving to Ceylon the Camerons made only one more visit to England in May 1878. Julia Margaret Cameron died after a brief illness in Ceylon in 1879.

Cameron’s relationship with the Victoria and Albert Museum dates to the earliest years of her photographic career. The first museum exhibition of Cameron's work was held in 1865 at the South Kensington Museum, London (now the V&A). The South Kensington Museum was not only the sole museum to exhibit Cameron’s work in her lifetime, but also the institution that collected her photographs most extensively in her day. In 1868 the Museum gave Cameron the use of two rooms as a portrait studio, perhaps qualifying her as its first artist-in-residence. Today the V&A’s Cameron collection includes photographs acquired directly from the artist, others collected later from various sources, and five letters from Cameron to Sir Henry Cole (1808–82), the Museum’s founding director and an early supporter of photography.

Descriptive line

Photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron 'Rebecca' (sitter unknown), carbon print, 1866, printed later

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Weaver, Mike, Julia Margaret Cameron 1815-1879 (John Hansard Gallery Southampton 1984) p.126
Cat. no.548, p. 281
Cox, Julian and Colin Ford, with contributions by Joanne Lukitsh and Philippa Wright. Julia Margaret Cameron: The Complete Photographs. London: Thames & Hudson, in association with The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles and The National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, Bradford, 2003. ISBN: 0-500-54265-1
Weiss, Marta. Julia Margaret Cameron: Photographs to electrify you with delight and startle the world. London: MACK, 2015, p.160.

Labels and date

Object Type

This photograph was produced by Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) as a work of fine art to be shown in the context of a museum or gallery. It was not intended for mass reproduction, or as a portrait of the sitter, but as an artistic expression in its own right.

People

We do not know who the sitter is, but Julia Margaret Cameron photographed family, friends, servants and professional models. Cameron often posed women as well-known literary, mythical and biblical figures.

Subjects Depicted

This figure is inspired by Rebecca in the Old Testament (Genesis 24:42-67) although this photograph has also been titled 'Zöe' and 'The East'. Rebecca was a young virgin seen drawing water from a well and taken to Isaac to be his wife. The story of Rebecca is regarded as a prefiguration of the annunciation.

Cameron made some photographs very similar to 'Rebecca'. Apparently from the same sitting, 'Herodias The Mother of Salome' shows the same model in the same clothes and has a similar composition. 'Zuleika', shows a similar sitter in the same outfit. Zuleika is a character in the poem 'The Bride of Abydos' written by Lord Byron (1788-1824) in 1813.

Cameron treats the subject sympathetically, and the expression could be read as one of either sadness or happiness. The soft focus of the image and the elaborate 'oriental' outfit worn by the sitter create the dreamlike distance of a story. Cameron's concentration on the head as opposed to the whole figure of Rebecca at the well suggests that the viewer is intended to concentrate on the psychological emotion of the character.

[2005]

Materials

Photographic paper

Techniques

Carbon process

Subjects depicted

Religious (people); Virgins; Christianity

Categories

Photographs

Collection

Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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