Important Photographs and Artists of Pictorialism

Progression of Art
Henry Peach Robinson: Fading Away (1858)

Fading Away

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.

Albumen silver print from glass negatives - George Eastman House Collection, Rochester, New York

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

The Mountain Nymph Sweet Liberty

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".

Albumen silver print from glass negative - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

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

The Onion Field, Mersea Island, Essex

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".

Photogravure - Minneapolis Institute of Art

Alfred Stieglitz: Winter on Fifth Avenue (1893)

Winter on Fifth Avenue

Artist: Alfred Stieglitz

This iconic print depicts a blizzard on Fifth Avenue as a horse drawn carriage moves toward the viewer, the driver, outlined against the snowy sky, urges the horses forward. In the distance are other carriages and a few pedestrians, dark shapes in the windblown snow. The lines of the ruts in the snow-covered street, which extend from the foreground towards the oncoming carriage, intersect with the movement of snow across the image at a 45 degree angle forming strong, linear compositional elements to the image. In the background the dark shapes of the building merge into the haze of the blizzard. This creates the impression of a Romantic struggle between nature's forces and human labor.

Stieglitz was particularly intent on the effects of atmosphere and here the snow is rendered with a soft focus which makes it look like it has been painted on. This allowed a sharper focus to be placed on the carriage, highlighting it as the central subject. To capture the scene, he spent over three hours in the snow taking a number of photographs, he then spent further time in his darkroom as art critic Sarah Boxer writes, "cropping, touching up and reprinting until he got it right". Stieglitz's images brought to Pictorialism a mastery of artistic effect, combined with a sensibility tuned to the zeitgeist of the times, as Boxer notes, he "always pressed his pictures to represent something beyond themselves". The work, with its emphasis on the patterns in the snow also prefigures Stieglitz's later move to abstraction, in his Equivalents series (1922-1935), which depicted abstract clouds patterns.

Photogravure - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

Fred Holland Day: Last Seven Words (1898)

Last Seven Words

Artist: Fred Holland Day

These seven close-up self-portraits depict the photographer as Christ being crucified. Above the images are sayings (known as words) that are biblically attributed to Jesus during his crucifixion. These start with "Father Forgive them, they know not what they do" and end with "It is finished". Each of the seven images relates to one of the sayings and the title of the piece is also taken from these. In 1895 Day launched a project that sought to photographically portray the life of Christ, with himself in the title role. By the time he had finished the project in 1898 he had made more than 250 negatives. To prepare, he let his beard and hair grow, went on extended fasts, and imported props, including a cross and linen, from Syria. These images, viewed by art critics as the strongest in the series, were taken just prior to his staging of a full photographic reenactment of the Crucifixion.

Day's project had several influences, including a trip to Germany in 1890 where he saw the famous Passion Plays. Day was also affected by the writer Oscar Wilde. Wilde was a friend and mentor of Day's, and Day's earlier photographs were often homoerotic male nudes. Wilde's trial in 1895 for gross indecency and his two years of imprisonment had a significant effect on many gay men in his circle, including Day who moved away from imagery with homosexual undertones. Wilde had written, in 1891, of Christ as "God realizing his perfection through pain," and like Wilde, Day seemed to identify with the discrimination and suffering that Christ endured. With this project Day placed himself directly in the role of the persecuted.

In the same manner as Robinson's Fading Away (1858) many viewers found these images unsettling as they utilized a modern, factual medium to present a biblical tale. This controversy was heightened by the sacred nature of the story. Steichen defended Day's work noting that, "Few paintings contain as much that is spiritual and sacred in them as do the 'Seven Words' of Mr. Day...If we knew not its origin or its medium how different would be the appreciation of some of us". Day's combination of self-portraiture and storytelling was innovative in Pictorialism, and an important predecessor for contemporary artists such as Mark Morrisroe, Chris Burden, and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Platinum print - Library of Congress, Washington DC

Clarence H. White: The Ring Toss (1899)

The Ring Toss

Artist: Clarence H. White

This image depicts three girls, attired in white frilly dresses, playing ring toss. The soft focus and bright light from the window, which reflects on the wooden floor, gives the photograph an idyllic feeling which captures the innocence of childhood play. The light also draws the viewer's attention to a ring lying in the center of the pictorial frame which provides an unusual focal point. This image became one of White's best-known and most popular when it was published in 1903, as it portrays an idealized version of upper middle-class life. This was particularly relevant at the turn of the century when traditional class values and structures were being threatened by rapid industrial change and urbanization.

The work greatly resembles William Merritt Chase's painting Ring Toss (1896) which depicts three girls, though younger in age, in a similar formation. White's photograph, therefore, shows an ambition to make photography equivalent to fine art by adopting the composition and subject matter of a noted painting of his day. Unlike Steichen and Stieglitz who later turned to modernist photography, White continued advocating for Pictorialism throughout his career. His work informed the movement in his treatment of light, as art historian Peter Bunnell writes, "White was able to transform the sensory perception of light into an exposition of the most fundamental aspect of photography - the literal materialization of form through light itself. His prints...display a richness, a subtlety, and a luminosity of tone rarely achieved in the history of photography".

Gum Bichromate print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

Gertrude Käsebier: Blessed Art Thou Among Women (1899)

Blessed Art Thou Among Women

Artist: Gertrude Käsebier

This intimate and ethereal portrait shows Agnes Rand Lee, a noted Boston poet and children's book author, and her daughter, Peggy, standing in a doorway. Behind Lee's head is a partially visible painting of the Virgin Mary, a reference to the Annunciation, this is reinforced by the title of the photograph. The folds of Lee's gown echo those of the Virgin and she is dressed in white, a color symbolic of purity. Lee looks towards her daughter with an expression of tenderness, whereas Peggy faces the camera with a purposeful and poised expression before going into the world. The timeless nature of Lee's garment is contrasted with the neat and business-like attire of Peggy, perhaps indicating her future opportunities as a modern woman in a new century. The image's soft focus and hazy light idealizes the figures and furthers the parallels between sacred motherhood and the mother-daughter relationship portrayed in the image.

As art historian Raphael Fitzgerald notes, Käsebier was "one of the most influential photographers of the early 20th century known for soft imagery of mothers and children" and was particularly regarded for her ability to capture the personality of those she photographed. Käsebier was the first woman elected to the Linked Ring Society, and she was part of the founding group, along with Stieglitz, Clarence H. White, and Edward Steichen of the Photo-Secession in 1902. Stieglitz had earlier published this image in Camera Notes in 1900 and he republished it in Camera Work's first issue in 1903.

Photogravure - The Museum of Modern Art, New York, New York

Robert Demachy: Struggle (c. 1903)
c. 1903


Artist: Robert Demachy

This image shows a female nude, her back turned to the viewer, her face lowered as she seems to struggle with the coarse, scratched background. Gum bichromate was invented in 1855 but then seldom used until Demachy took advantage of the technique in the 1890s which allowed for the use of color and brush-like effects in a photograph. Here, the color used references sanguine, a reddish chalk often used in life drawings. The overall effect is Expressionistic, the title reminiscent of Munch's The Scream, as if the image conveys some deep and universal crisis of being. There is a clear sense of movement in the piece which is reinforced by the scratched background. Through the simplified elements of the composition, ambiguity is created; the background might be viewed as a wall that the figure tries to ascend, or a floor which she tries to move across, this causes the viewer to question the image and their own viewing of it.

Along with Puyo, Robert Demachy was a leader of French Pictorialism, cofounding and directing the Photo-Club de Paris. As art historian Julien Faure-Contorton has written, prints like this one were "a photographic revolution at a time when pictorial photographers were struggling to find new and artistic printing methods," and "Demachy's gum prints made him immediately famous throughout Europe and the United States".

Gum bichromate print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Edward Steichen: The Pond (1904)

The Pond

Artist: Edward Steichen

This photograph resembles a Tonalist painting in its subject matter, color palette, and poetic atmosphere. The hazy effect, muted foreground, and lack of distinction between reality and reflection render the image dream-like in appearance. The pond in the image was located in Mamaroneck, New York, where Steichen was staying with friends while recuperating from an illness. Steichen hand-colored the bluish green tones by adding layers of gum bichromate to the original platinum black and white plate. Gerry Badger, a photography historian, has suggested that the image was shot at sunset and that it was made darker in the printing process to create the moon-like glow. As art historian David Clark writes, the work was "a landmark image in the development of photography as an art form and arguably one of the finest pictorialist images ever made."

Steichen was in his twenties when he made the image, and already a master of landscapes, often taken at twilight or at night, emphasizing the moon and using gum bichromate for what Clark described as, "a great richness of tone and a beautiful, almost luminous quality." Steichen's work was to influence the subsequent generation of Pictorialists such as Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham, though they were also to follow his example in turning later to other styles of photography.

Platinum print with applied color - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

Émile Joachim Constant Puyo: Montmartre (c. 1906)
c. 1906


Artist: Émile Joachim Constant Puyo

This photograph shows a Parisian housemaid, in her work uniform, peering from an upper level balcony at the street below. Behind her, certain buildings emerge from the haze to give an impression of a busy city extending into the distance, filling the rest of the frame. The contrast between the strong diagonals - of the balcony railing, the handle of the duster pointing at the street below - and the maid's vertical form leaning create a sense of movement and spontaneity, while emphasizing the vastness of the view beneath her.

Puyo led the Pictorialist movement in France and, at the beginning of his career, cofounded the Photo Club of Paris in 1894, eventually becoming the president of the club in the 1920s. Emphasizing photography as an artistic medium, this work was inspired by Edvard Munch's Impressionistic painting Rue Lafayette (1891). In the original painting, however, a gentleman is peering over a balcony and Puyo has replaced him with an attractive young woman in this image. Photographs like this one brought an element of spontaneous observation and a sense of fun to Pictorialism, here Puyo seems to capture an unposed moment in the ordinary life of a household worker. The subject is in contrast to the portraiture of British and American Pictorialists who primarily photographed close friends, family members, or well-known cultural figures.

Bromoil print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York

Anne W. Brigman: Soul of the Blasted Pine (1907)

Soul of the Blasted Pine

Artist: Anne W. Brigman

This photograph combines a nude self-portrait with the rugged landscape of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The nude stands within the trunk of a pine reaching into the stormy sky. The contrast between the diagonal of the mountain, slanting horizontally from right to left, with the verticality of the figure create a dramatic and energetic effect, as if the woman were the embodiment of the tree, springing out of the earth, her reach extending into the clouds at the top of the pictorial frame.

Brigman, originally studied painting, but in 1902 took up photography. In this new medium she noted that her favored subjects were "hearty, unaffected women of early maturity living a hardy out-of-door life...toughened to wind and sun" and her placement of these within landscapes was largely unprecedented within the field of photography. Brigman sought to blur the boundaries between humans and nature, stating that "In all of my years of work with the lens, I've dreamed of and loved to work with the human figure - to embody it in rocks and trees, to make it part of the elements, not apart from them." Brigman extensively reworked her photographs, made during camping excursions into the wilderness, in the studio, often eliminating detail and adding emphasis to create her distinctive style.

Here, this pioneering subject matter is combined with the artist's self-exploration. Rather than eroticizing the nude, Brigman's self-portrait becomes an archetypal symbol, embodying an elemental and independent force, straining to break free from adversity, as represented by the blasted pine. As art critic Christopher Knight notes, "As an artist Brigman was a Symbolist, plain and simple. Her pictures telegraph a cerebral otherworldliness, which laid important foundations of subjectivity for what we now think of as modern art". As the Photo-Secession's only West-Coast photographer, Brigman became a leader in the Pictorialist movement. In their early Pictorialist work, Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Imogen Cunningham were all influenced by her, often visiting her studio or going on her many photographic camping trips into the wilderness.

Platinum print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York


Human Relations

Artist: William Mortensen

This composite image shows a man's head at the upper left as an arm reaching at a diagonal from the lower right extends its fingers to grip into the man's eye sockets, while the thumb grabbing his chin, holds his lips shut. The arm, accentuated by a gold armband, reminiscent of those worn by Roman soldiers, becomes symbolic of anonymous power and the impact that abuses of power can have on individuals. The inclusion of the title on the piece reinforces this message. Mortensen's work reflected his interest in psychology and the darker aspects of human behavior. As he wrote, "When the world of the grotesque is known and appreciated, the real world becomes vastly more significant".

Considered to be one of the last great practitioners of Pictorialism, Mortensen developed his practice in the late 1920's, at a time when the F/64 Group, led by Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, emphasized Straight Photography. Mortensen's romantic stills of early film celebrities and his macabre images of witches and incubi were commercially popular but considered archaic. He and Ansel Adams has several notable public debates with Mortensen referring to realistic photography as a 'blind alley'.

As Adams and the straight photograph won the debate, Mortensen's work faded into obscurity, although the past decade has seen a re-evaluation and renewal of interest in his pieces. His work is now viewed as an important precursor to artists like Robert Balcomb and Barbara Kruger. Art critic Chris Campion noted in 2014, "for all the griping of Adams and F/64, it turns out that Mortensen was the true modernist all along, not them. For today, we are surrounded by images of the fantastic and unreal".

Gelatin silver print - Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson

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