Photocollages Reveal Wit and Whimsy of the Victorian Era in Metropolitan Museum Exhibition

In the 1860s and 1870s, long before the embrace of collage techniques by avant-garde artists of the early 20th century, aristocratic Victorian women were experimenting with photocollage. Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage, on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 9, 2010, is the first exhibition to comprehensively examine this little-known phenomenon.

Maria HarrietWhimsical and fantastical Victorian photocollages, created using a combination of watercolor drawings and cut-and-pasted photographs, reveal the educated minds as well as accomplished hands of their makers. With subjects as varied as new theories of evolution, the changing role of photography, and the strict conventions of aristocratic society, the photocollages frequently debunked stuffy Victorian clichés with surreal, subversive, and funny images. Featuring 48 works from public and private collections—including many that have rarely or never been exhibited before—Playing with Pictures will provide a fascinating window into the creative possibilities of photography in the 19th century.

“In other recent exhibitions at the Metropolitan, we’ve shown masterpieces of 19th-century British photography by the period’s most prominent professionals and serious amateurs (almost always men), whose works were often displayed at the annual salons of the photographic societies and sold by printsellers throughout England and Europe,” commented Malcolm Daniel, Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs. “What is so exciting about this exhibition is that we see a different type of artist—almost exclusively aristocratic women—using photography in highly imaginative ways, and creating pictures meant for private pleasure rather than public consumption. It is an aspect of photography’s history that has rarely been seen or written about.”

In England in the 1850s and 1860s, photography became remarkably popular and accessible as people posed for studio portraits and exchanged these pictures on a vast scale. The craze for cartes de visite—photographic portraits the size of a visiting card—led to the widespread hobby of collecting small photographs of family, friends, acquaintances, and celebrities in scrapbooks. Rather than simply gathering such portraits in the standard albums manufactured to hold cartes de visite, the amateur women artists who made the photocollages displayed in Playing with Pictures cut up these photographic portraits and placed them in elaborate watercolor designs in their personal albums.

With sharp wit and dramatic shifts of scale akin to those Alice experienced in Wonderland, Victorian photocollages stand the rather serious conventions of early photography on their heads. Often, the combination of photographs with painted settings inspired dreamlike and even bizarre results: placing human heads on animal bodies; situating people in imaginary landscapes; and morphing faces into common household objects and fashionable accessories. Such albums advertised the artistic accomplishments of the aristocratic women who made them, while also serving as a form of parlor entertainment and an opportunity for conversation and flirtation with the opposite sex.

Playing with Pictures showcases the best Victorian photocollage albums and loose pages of the 1860s and 1870s, on loan from collections across the United States, Europe, and Australia, including the Princess Alexandra Album lent by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Thirty-four photocollage album pages will be shown in frames on the wall and 11 separate albums will be displayed in cases, open to a single page. These works will be accompanied by “virtual albums” on computer monitors that allow visitors to see the full contents of the albums displayed nearby. As an introduction, the exhibition also includes two carte-de-visite albums of the period and a rare uncut sheet of carte-de-visite portraits from 1859.

Playing with Pictures: The Art of Victorian Photocollage is curated by Elizabeth Siegel, Associate Curator of Photography at The Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibition is organized at the Metropolitan Museum by Malcolm Daniel.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue by Elizabeth Siegel, focusing on the themes and social meanings of photocollage, as well as the avant-garde character of the art form. It features essays by Elizabeth Siegel, Patrizia Di Bello, and Marta Weiss; contributions by Miranda Hofelt; and 140 illustrations. The catalogue is published by Yale University Press for The Art Institute of Chicago. It sells for $45, hardcover, and is available in the Museum’s bookshops.

Playing with Pictures was on view at The Art Institute of Chicago prior its presentation at the Metropolitan Museum. The exhibition will travel to the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, June 5 – September 5, 2010.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a variety of educational programs, including a Sunday at the Met program on March 7 with talks by Elizabeth Siegel and Ann Bermingham, professor, Department of Art and Architecture, University of California; gallery talks by Malcolm Daniel; film screenings; a teacher workshop; and programs for both English- and Spanish-speaking families; as well as a gallery tour for visitors with disabilities.

The exhibition was organized by The Art Institute of Chicago.

The exhibition in New York is made possible by The Hite Foundation in memory of Sybil E. Hite.

Playing with Pictures will also be featured on the Museum’s website at

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