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Pictorialism

Pictorialism Collage
Started: 1885
Ended: 1915
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As music is only sound under governance of certain laws, so is pictorial effect only the combination of certain forms and lights and shadows in like manner harmoniously brought together.
Henry Peach Robinson

Summary of Pictorialism

Pictorialists took the medium of photography and reinvented it as an art form, placing beauty, tonality, and composition above creating an accurate visual record. Through their creations, the movement strove to elevate photography to the same level as painting and have it recognized as such by galleries and other artistic institutions. Photography was invented in the late 1830s and was initially considered to be a way in which to produce purely scientific and representational images. This began to change from the 1850s when advocates such as the English painter William John Newton suggested that photography could also be artistic.

Although it can be traced back to these early ideas, the Pictorialist movement was at its most active between 1885 and 1915 and during its heyday it had an international reach with centers in England, France, and the USA. Proponents used a range of darkroom techniques to produce images that allowed them to express their creativity, utilizing it to tell stories, replicate mythological or biblical scenes, and to produce dream-like landscapes. There is no straightforward definition of what a Pictorialist photograph is, but it is usually taken to mean an image that has been manipulated in some way to increase its artistic impact. Common themes within the style are the use of soft focus, color tinting, and visible manipulation such as composite images or the addition of brushstrokes.

Key Ideas

Key Artists

Overview of Pictorialism

Pictorialism Image

Early photographers such as Julia Margaret Cameron, David Octavius Hill, and Robert Adamson greatly influenced the development of Pictorialism. Hill, who was a successful painter of Romantic landscapes, worked with Adamson, a photographer and printer, between 1843 and 1847, to make over 1500 portraits of people in Newhaven, a small British fishing village. The portraits were compared by some critics of the time to those of Rembrandt. Alfred Stieglitz later dubbed Hill "the father of pictorial photography" and featured his and Adamson's photographs in his publications and at the Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession in 1906.

Important Art and Artists of Pictorialism

Henry Peach Robinson: Fading Away (1858)

Fading Away (1858)

Artist: Henry Peach Robinson

This composite print, combining five different negatives, focuses on an intimate scene of a very sick young woman, surrounded by three family members. To the left, her mother, sits in profile, her gaze resigned. To the right, an older sister, bends over the back of the chaise longue and in the center, the father stands with his back to the viewer, as he looks out the window, his dark shape outlined against the light. Various elements - the closed book that rests abandoned on the mother's knee, the two women watching the dying girl intently as if she might speak, and the contrast between dark and light - create an emotional impact. Robinson employs chiaroscuro to contrast the somber hues of the parents' clothing with the white worn by the dying girl. This is further emphasized by the dark drapes at the window which frame a turbulent sky reflecting the grief within the room. The subject matter is drawn from a wider 19th century obsession with death and a British trend for paintings that featured sick or dying children.

Robinson pioneered the composite image, which became a foundation of Pictorialism. To his contemporary audience the photograph was controversial, as many felt that photography was too literal a medium to portray such an intimate and painful scene. Despite its realism, however, the image contains elements of 19th century symbolism drawn from genre painting of the period with the white of the two young women indicating purity and innocence while the open window and its verticals suggest the ascent to heaven. This controversy in conjunction with the fact that the print was purchased by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, ensured Robinson's popularity. Robinson's composite images, or montages, are predecessors to the later works of Mortensen, Duane Michals, Lucas Samaras, and Cindy Sherman, amongst others.

Julia Margaret Cameron: The Mountain Nymph Sweet Liberty (1866)

The Mountain Nymph Sweet Liberty (1866)

Artist: Julia Margaret Cameron

This portrait shows a model, known only as Miss Keene, staring directly at the viewer with an expression that hints at wildness, which is echoed by her tumbling hair. She fills the frame, dramatically emerging from the dark background and her pale features are illuminated by the contrast between the two, perhaps indicating the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The most notable thing about the image is the startling sense of presence of the model which raises all sorts of questions about both the real and imagined young woman portrayed in the photograph. Sir John Herschel, Cameron's friend and mentor, wrote of the image that "She is absolutely alive and thrusting out her head from the paper into the air". While Herschel was famous as an astronomer, he had a deep interest in photography, and is credited as the first to use the word 'photography', derived from the Greek for 'light writing', to describe the new media.

This portrait's title is taken from a line in John Milton's L'Allegro, a pastoral poem from the 17th century which extols the virtues of an active and cheerful life, it reads:
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.
It is possible that the choice of title reflects Cameron's belief that women should be more active and involved in society. Although, as an aristocratic older woman, Cameron was given more leeway than most, restrictive notions of appropriate behavior for women would have shaped and controlled her activities and her involvement with male-dominated photographic circles.

As art critic Laura Cumming noted, Cameron "revolutionised photography and immortalised the age of the eminent Victorian through her monumental photographs with their muzzy focus and dramatic use of light." It has been also suggested that Cameron's combination of mythology and character-driven portraiture influenced the approach of the Pre-Raphaelites, particularly Dante Gabriel Rossetti. While her images were originally met with harsh criticism, in 1873 The Times reviewed her work, comparing it to the art of Giotto, Van Dyck, and Reynolds. Her psychologically compelling photographic portraits, such as this, equaled the emotional complexity that could be achieved in paint, making them important to both the development of photography as a whole and particularly to Pictorialism. The photographer herself said, "My aspirations are to ennoble photography and to secure it for the character and uses of high art".

George Davison: The Onion Field, Mersea Island, Essex (1890)

The Onion Field, Mersea Island, Essex (1890)

Artist: George Davison

In Davison's landscape, storm clouds gather over a distant farmhouse, the darker foreground with its low growing plants accentuates the stalks of the onions and the flowers above catch the light. The white of the onion flowers is echoed in the sky and the smoke emerging from the farmhouse and these highlights create a vibrant sense of atmosphere. The photograph was created using a pinhole camera, a device that produces images without the sharp detail of traditional apparatus to create the overall soft focus of the piece. This is further emphasized by the rippling pattern of onion flowers which blur together towards the horizon. Pinhole photography was one of a number of techniques that Davison experimented with in order to create impressionistic images that captured the play of light.

This photograph with the alternative title 'An Old Farmstead' was published in a 1907 issue of Camera Work, but by then, it had already become one of the most significant and controversial works in the debate between Pictorialism and Straight Photography. Although awarded a medal at the 1890 annual exhibition of the Photographic Society of Great Britain, the work ignited a debate, with The Amateur Photographer negatively noting that it "marked [the] advance and influence of what may be termed the 'school of foggy photography','' while, in contrast, The Times found that, "Perhaps no more beautiful landscapes have ever been produced by photographic methods... atmospheric effect is admirably rendered, and, looked at from a suitable distance, the picture gives a wonderfully true rendering of the subject".

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kate Stephenson

"Pictorialism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kate Stephenson
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First published on 24 Jul 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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