Julia Margaret Cameron (England, 1815-1879): "For I'm to be Queen of the May Mother, I'm to be Queen of the May."

Albumen print, 4.5 x 4.75 inches, 1866 (?)

This photograph has been published recently with a variant title ("May Day") and with a date of 1875, which seems unlikely. This print is titled in ink in Mrs. Cameron's handwriting; the copyright notice is printed.

The subject is inspired by a poem written by Alfred Lord Tennyson, Mrs. Cameron's neighbor and idol. The sitters are (from left): Kate Keown, Mrs. Cameron's parlor maid Mary Hillier, the Camerons' house maid Mary Ryan, Freddy Gould, and an unidentified model. Kate Keown and Freddy Gould were local children who were often enlisted as models by Mrs. Cameron.

In Julia Margaret Cameron's Women (The Art Institute of Chicago/Yale University Press: 1998), Sylvia Wolf writes:

Packed with five figures and a profusion of flowers, the image is tightly composed, with slight vignetting to emphasize the circular composition around the central figure. The photograph is obviously staged... The zombielike state with which each sitter maintains her position makes this a somber occasion, not the joyful one the picture's title suggests.

...A tangle of leaves, twigs, and berries in the foreground and wilting flowers strung around the models' necks, or tucked behind their ears, add an element of disorder and decay that is reminiscent of the vanitas theme of a Dutch still-life painting--everything a bit ripe and overdone, as a reminder of mortality. What should be a photograph about fertility and abundance, about budding youth and potential, has instead a frozen sadness to it. This theatrical excess is precisely what makes the picture strangely powerful and touching.

 

{Julia Margaret Cameron's Women is available online through the Museum Bookstore and highly recommended!}
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