The study of the female form has been a reccurring theme in artworks for millenia and many museum masterpieces focus on the exploration of a woman’s body . In the late 19th century, this theme was often explored either as the study of beauty or as a representation of motherhood. The Pictorialist photographers concentrated their attention on softly focused images of elegantly dressed women that exuded a certain kind of mystery. Unfortunately, these photographs only showed the charm and stylishness of their sitters instead of the “individual[‘s] strength of character.” An affiliated theme is that of showing women and children occupied with a leisure activity or playing in a home or garden. These types of photographs interested both female and male photographers and they subsequently created images that showed romanticized versions of informal family life.
The Pictorialists helped transform what used to be a “prosaic genre subject into a comforting visual idyll of middle-class gentility.” An example of these kinds of photographs is the work on Gertrude Käsebier (1852-1934), who started her career only after her children were grown up. Käsebier focused her photography on portraiture and she often chose mothers and children as her sitters. She was a founding member of the Photo-Secession and the Pictorial Photographers of America and had her work published in Camera Notes and Camera Works .
The Picture Book shows what seems to be two randomly arranged scene with a mother and a child sitting next to each other in a garden under a tree. Both figures seem peaceful and not troubled by any household or social problems. Even though Käsebier’s works were created with the techniques and tones of the Pictorialists, they still have a direct and natural quality. Another example of her work is the portrait of Louise Grace, who was a member of a distinguished New York family. Blessed Art Thou among Women which Käsebier took after being introduced to the family of Francis Watts Lee also possesses these qualities . The image might have been taken at their fashionable home in Boston and is a good example of the “Victorian ideals” of motherhood and the feminine. These ideals are enhanced by the use of the biblical title and the painting of the Annunciation situated behind the two figures. At the same time, the photograph also eludes to the picturesque domesticity that the Arts and Crafts movement was known for.
In 1899 at the London Salon, the American Pictorialist photographers were praised for the “virtues of concentration, strength, massing of light and shade and breadth of effect.” Several aspects of the American movement made it seem more energetic than the European version. For instance, in the United States the movement was very broadly based, not just in cities but also small towns. It also seemed to attract people from different social, regional as well as economic backgrounds. Contrary to the European movement which was mainly made up of wealthy men or male artists, the American movement represented both genders working in business, the arts, and commercial photography. At the time, female photographers that were active in the United States were quite numerous in Pictorialism. The most famous of them all was Gertrude Käsebier who was applauded for having elevated artistic portraiture more “than any other artist of her time” – be they photographers or painters – with her discriminating “sense of what to leave out.”
Can you think of any other photographers or other artists that use motherhood and femininity as one of their themes in their work? Can you think of any other Pictorialist photographers? How does her work compare to that of Mary Cassatt?