A Painting a Day: Ellen Terry at 16, by Julia Margaret Cameron

Today's painting isn't a painting at all, but a photograph...so guess the year. When I first saw this image, I assumed it was a modern black and white photograph. The clarity of the image, coupled with the seemingly modern pose and the model's unblemished youth, points to a faux-vintage image. Clearly she's trying to capture another age and time, as evident in her dreamy expression and antique dress, but this couldn't be a stuffy Victorian portrait, could it? Ah, but it could...the date of this portrait is 1875, though the negative is earlier still--1864.
This is a portrait of Ellen Terry, a famous child actress who grew into a tempestuous young woman who captured the public's imagination (here she is at 16, just coming into her adult fame). The photographer is Julia Margaret Cameron, a famous portrait taker who captured images of Darwin and Tennyson, among others. Her artistic mentor, the painter George Frederic Watts, married Ellen despite an enormous age difference, and not surprisingly the marriage barely lasted the year.
This photo is from the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and I first encountered it recently in an exhibition catalog from the museum. I found it startling because it reminded me of a Pre-Raphaelite painting come to life. Indeed, Ellen posed for her husband and other painters, so she literally IS just such a painting, which gives you a hint of why these men were so inspired. Though an idealized portrait, Cameron captures her as the very epitome of Victorian womanhood: beautiful, dreamy, melancholic, isolated, and even a bit dangerous. She reminds me of what Helen of Troy might have looked like, a woman who was probably well aware of her power over men, and not above showcasing it theatrically (Ellen became a Dame by 16--no mean feat for a girl born in the theater circuit!). The pose seems affected and definitely staged, not just by the photographer but by the model herself. She seems to be longing for release or fulfillment, yet for all its allurements, she seems to resist being sexually enticing. Instead, she emerges as a vision of classical innocence, unattainable to any man save the artists who can merely capture her image for the ages. But if he tries to get closer he will find himself clasping a shadow--or a medusa.
The rounded portrait shown here is called a tondo, and was a style preferred by the Pre-Raphaelites in their paintings. The connection between photography and painting has been lost in recent ages, but this reminds us that a photo doesn't record life as it is, but is carefully staged and edited by the eye of the photographer. Ellen was reportedly quite a hellion even at 16, and hardly the ethereal innocent we see before us. But if social media teaches us nothing else, it's that we manipulate images to suit our identity of the moment: how Ellen Terry would have loved Facebook and Instagram!