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Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage

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Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage is the first exhibition to provide an in-depth look at a little-known art form—combining photographs and watercolors—that flourished in the 1860s and 70s. And what a delight this small but exquisite show is.

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Originally organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, it will remain on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 9th. Women, in particular, should find the show fascinating, compelling and inspiring. Why? Because it honors an art form that was almost exclusively practiced by women and, until recently, not considered worthy of a museum show.

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Malcolm Daniel, Curator of the Department of Photography at the Met, points out while recent exhibitions have featured masterpieces of 19th Century British photography by prominent professionals and serious amateurs—mostly men—this is the first time the Met is exhibiting mostly female artists—all amateurs—who used photography in highly imaginative ways and created pictures meant for private rather than public consumption.

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Photocollage albums, displayed in drawing rooms for sharing with families and friends, showed off one’s social status, wit, creativity and artistic accomplishments. Turning the pages of one’s album with a young man, it seems, also had the added advantage of being an acceptable form of flirting.

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Among upper-class English women, including Alexandra, Princess of Wales (photo above), making a photocollage family album was all the rage, much as scrapbooking is all the rage today.

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Why, one generation after the birth of photography, did this craze begin? Largely due to advancements in photo technology, which for the first time made it easy and relatively inexpensive to create multiple studio portraits. They became hugely popular and millions of them, the size of a visiting card— known as cartes de visites—were printed. Thus began the hobby of collecting and exchanging photos.

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Albums were manufactured to hold the cartes de visite. You could say they were the Facebook of the 1860s, linking people to each other, and in some instances, publicizing one’s connection to royalty, the celebrities of their day.

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Women with money, leisure and talent began to cut up their photos and create watercolor scenes and settings in which to display them. The show reveals what talented and clever artists many of these women—and the occasional man—were.

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The painted settings range from simple (an oval portrait set in a pink teacup, a set of cards, an umbrella) to complex (an Alice in Wonderland vista, with multiple photos). Some are exquisite (the butterfly image); some are amusing (gliding ducks with female heads) and others have a delicious tale to tell.

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For example, Lady Filmer, a noted beauty and flirt, creates a drawing room (photo above) in which she is at the rear—with her album, paintbrush and pot of glue—the Prince of Wales is stage center, and a tiny figure, her husband, is below, near the family pet. ‘Nuff said.

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Playing with Pictures may be about the past but demonstrates the many ways in which that past is linked to the present. At a time when Photoshop allows us, amateurs and professionals alike, to play with images in amazing ways, we can look back and see how our Victorian ancestors used photocollage to do much the same thing.

Eleanor Foa Dienstag, one of the first female speechwriters on Wall Street, won a variety of awards as chief speechwriter for the CEO of a major financial-services company. Since starting her own corporate communications business, she’s written for a variety of CEOs and senior executives in the travel, publishing, banking, beverage, fashion, retail and hospitality industries. She particularly enjoys working with female executives. She also lectures on the art of speechwriting to public relations professionals. For an overview of her work, go to www.eleanorfoa.com

Photo Credits (from top)

1. Constance Sackville-West (English, 1846-1929) or Amy Augusta Frederica
Annabella Cochrane-Baillie (English, 1853-1913)
Untitled page from the Sackville-West Album, 1867/73
Collage of watercolor and albumen silver prints
Courtesy of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film

2. Elizabeth Pleydell-Bouverie (English, died 1889) and Jane Pleydell-Bouverie (English,
died 1903) or Ellen Pleydell-Bouverie (English, 1849-?) and Janet Pleydell-Bouverie
(English, 1850-1906)
Untitled page from the Bouverie Album, 1872/77
Collage of watercolor and albumen silver prints
Courtesy of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film

3. Georgina Berkeley (English, 1831-1919)
Untitled page from the Berkeley Album, 1867/71
Collage of watercolor and albumen silver prints
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Photo credit: Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY

4. Frances Elizabeth, Viscountess Jocelyn (English, 1820-1880)
“Diamond Shape with Nine Studio Portraits of the Palmerston Family and a Painted
Cherry Blossom Surround,” from the Jocelyn Album, 1860s
Collage of watercolor and albumen silver prints
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

5. Alexandra, Princess of Wales (English, born Denmark, 1844-1925)
Untitled page from the Princess Alexandra Album, 1866/69
Collage of watercolor and albumen silver prints
The Royal Collection © 2009, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

6. Georgina Berkeley (English, 1831-1919) Untitled page from the Berkeley Album, 1867/71
Collage of watercolor and albumen silver prints
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Photo credit: Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY

7. Kate Edith Gough (English, 1856-1948)
Untitled page from the Gough Album, late 1870s
Collage of watercolor and albumen silver prints
V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

8. Maria Harriet Elizabeth Cator (English, died 1881)
Untitled page from the Cator Album, late 1860s/70s
Collage of watercolor and albumen silver prints
Hans P. Kraus, Jr., New York

9. Marie-Blanche-Hennelle Fournier (French, 1831-1906)
Untitled page from the Madame B Album, 1870s
Collage of watercolor, ink, and albumen silver prints
The Art Institute of Chicago, Mary and Leigh Block Endowment, 2005.297

10. Mary Georgiana Caroline, Lady Filmer (English, 1838-1903)
Untitled loose page from the Filmer Album, mid-1860s
Collage of watercolor and albumen silver prints
Paul F. Walter

11. Victoria Alexandrina Anderson-Pelham, Countess of Yarborough (English, 1840-?),
and Eva Macdonald (English, 1846/50-?)
“Mixed Pickles” (detail), from the Westmorland Album, 1864/70
Collage of watercolor and albumen silver prints
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

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