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Photoshop and Facebook, Victorian-style

Long before Photoshop and Facebook, upper-crust British ladies were cropping and splicing with giddy abandon and drawing spider webs inhabited with the pasted-on faces of their friends.

By Carol StricklandContributor / March 15, 2010

A peacock butterfly, embedded with portraits, was whimsically created by artist Marie-Blanche Fournier.

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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It’s not often art with a capital “A” can be called charming. And rarely do we see artworks so little known that their appearance seems a novel discovery. But the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage” is both charming and new. “It’s art,” says Malcolm Daniel, curator of photography, “but it’s OK to smile and laugh.”

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About 50 works from 13 photomontage albums created mainly by aristocratic Victorian women are on display through May 9. “You may think of [the exhibition] as a very un-Metropolitan-like show,” Mr. Daniel admits. “But it’s part of the full picture of the part played by photography in the 1860s and ’70s.”

In these albums upper-crust British ladies pasted cutout photographs on watercolor scenes they created themselves, often to hilarious effect. In one, Kate Edith Gough glued her head and that of her twin sister on torsos of two ducks placidly paddling on a pond surrounded by cattails. The sisters’ grave faces, crowned with impressive millinery, betray no awareness of the incongruity of their situation.

IN PHOTOS: Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage

Most shows of early British photography, Daniel says, feature “large, ambitious pictures by great masters of the medium – almost always a man.” In contrast, these works “are made by women for personal pleasure, not public consumption.”

William Henry Fox Talbot introduced photography to England in 1839. Due to the cumbersome equipment and time and expense required, photographs were the exclusive purview of the wealthy. In the 1850s, however, commercial cartes-de-visite with photographic portraits (the size of business cards today) became, as Daniel says, “wildly, wildly popular – a worldwide phenomenon.” Collecting and displaying these pictures fueled a fad called “cartomania.” When Queen Victoria had her portrait made in the 1860s, 3 million to 4 million copies were made and sold. “It was the Facebook of the 1860s,” according to Daniel.

This accessibility and democratizing effect posed a problem for the “upper ten thousand” of high-society England. Wishing to re-establish the display of photographs as an elite activity, amateur artists adopted a cut-and-paste technique that required ample leisure not available to the masses. The female album creators collaged images of family, friends, and celebrities, mixing fact (photographs) and fancy (the sometimes irreverent settings they drew).

Standard art history credits Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque with inventing the collage in 1912. Not so. These amateur artists were more “avant” than the 20th-century avant-gardists. Some of their bizarre juxtapositions also anticipate the antic scenarios of the Surrealists.

“The most creative part,” Daniel says, “is not the photographs but how they were combined.” Just one generation after the birth of photography and long before Photoshop and digital manipulation of images – the current craze in contemporary art – these ladies were cropping and splicing with giddy abandon.

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