Related themes

Sets, Stories, and Situations

Throughout the history of the medium, photographers have staged images to evoke or reference literature, films, or real events.

Madonna with Children

Julia Margaret Cameron
(British, 1815–1879)

1864. Albumen silver print, 10 1/2 x 8 5/8" (26.7 x 21.9 cm)

Julia Margaret Cameron and her pictorialist contemporaries believed that, like painting, photography should be granted the status of high art. Cameron, a middle-aged mother of a large family, received a camera as a gift from her daughter in 1864, and enthusiastically took up photography. Apart from taking portraits of some of the most notable men of the day, Cameron produced photographs such as Madonna with Children, based on artistic, biblical, literary, and romantic themes. She cast friends, family members, and her servants in these allegorical roles, irrespective of their social standing in the rigid Victorian class system.

Many of these narrative scenes depicted women in idealized scenes of motherhood. Madonna with Children shows such a scene: a mother and her two children with what appears to be a large white halo behind her. Cameron often draped her subjects in dark cloaks and set them against plain backgrounds, which lends a timeless quality to her portraits. She also made reference to painting by softening the focus of her lens. By pursuing painterly compositions, subjects, and qualities, Cameron hoped to elevate the standing of photography in the realm of the arts.

Of or pertaining to the period of Queen Victoria’s reign in Great Britain (1837–1901); having the characteristics associated with that period, especially the observance of a conservative worldview or prudish thought and manner.

The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.

A representation of a particular individual.

An international style of photography in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, characterized by the creation of artistic tableaus and photographs composed of multiple prints or manipulated negatives, in an effort to advocate for photography as an artistic medium on par with painting.

A spoken, written, or visual account of an event or a series of connected events.

 The arrangement of the elements within a work of art. The composition is the interplay between the subject, foreground, background, and other elements in the photograph.