Although Julia Margaret Cameron took up photography relatively late in life, she embraced the medium, producing a distinctive body of work. Mother to a large family of children, her turn to photography was prompted by the gift of a camera from her only daughter in 1863. She was soon making sensitive portraits of some of the most notable Victorians of her day, among them author Charles Dickens and philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle. Cameron also cast her friends, family members, and strangers alike in allegorical roles for staged scenes based on art historical, biblical, literary, and romantic themes—irrespective of their social standing in the rigid Victorian class system.
Many of Cameron’s images feature women in idealized scenes of motherhood, as in Madonna with Children. Here she evokes the Virgin Mary with this tender vision of a mother and her two children surrounded by what appears to be a large white halo. She often draped her subjects in dark cloaks and set them against plain backgrounds, which lend a timeless quality to her images. By adjusting the focus of her lens to create a soft, slightly blurred effect, she referenced the qualities of painting. Cameron and her pictorialist contemporaries pursued painterly compositions, subjects, and qualities, hoping to elevate photography to a high art.