Object of the Month: “Portrait of Maud”

By Bowdoin College Museum of Art
a blurred photo of a young woman in white with vegetation surrounding her.

Portrait of Maud, 1870-1872, vintage albumen print by Julia Margaret Cameron. Museum Purchase, Lloyd O. and Marjorie Strong Coulter Fund. 1994.9

“Come into the garden, Maud,
For the black bat, night, has flown,
Come into the garden, Maud,
I am here at the gate alone;
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad,
And the musk of the rose is blown.”
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Maud, 1855

Aligning with a broader Victorian tradition of using fine art to illustrate literature, Julia Margaret Cameron’s Portrait of Maud (1870–1872) is a visual interpretation of the poem Maud by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. As England was attempting to raise its status in the global art world during the Victorian era, many artists, including Luke Fildes and Cameron, relied on Britain’s already dominant literary culture as a source of subject matter. Tennyson’s poem, published in 1855, tells the story of a man whose father commits suicide following a fall into financial ruin. In his grief, the morbid narrator falls in love with Maud, the daughter of his wealthy neighbor who orchestrated his father’s financial demise. Maud ultimately dies and the narrator is sent off to war. Followers of Tennyson protested the dark and hysterical nature of this poem, although it remains one his most well-known works.

This portrait is representative of Julia Margaret Cameron’s artistic practice. A self-trained photographer, Cameron used her photographs to explore literary and religious themes and subject matter. Working in the early years of photography, she was a pioneer in promoting the medium and attempted to raise its status. Unlike many photographers of the time, Cameron did not have a commercial studio or make commissioned works. Instead, Cameron spent most of her career photographing family, friends, and people hired to work for her family. Mary Hiller, Cameron’s parlor maid, was the model for Portrait of Maud.

In Portrait of Maud, Cameron portrays a solemn Maud standing against an overgrown garden wall. The setting is distinctly evocative of the tone of the poem, which describes the narrator and Maud’s meeting: “At the quiet evenfall, in the garden by the turret, of the old manorial hall.” Draped in vines and flowers, Cameron shows the subject turned away from the camera, vacantly looking down. While a certain amount of the picture’s lack of focus is due to technical limitations of the time, Cameron also deliberately chose to shoot this image slightly out of focus. To make this photo, Cameron used an albumen-washed sheet of paper to take a print from a glass plate negative. This technique was the dominant photographic process from the 1850s through the 1880s, until they were replaced by gelatin silver prints. The blurred edges and the model’s hollow, yet somber expression contribute to the eerie nature of this photograph.

Although Portrait of Maud echoes the somewhat mournful overtones of Maud, through the use of flora and costuming, Cameron simultaneously constructs an image of Maud being trapped in Tennyson’s poem and idealized descriptions. He writes, “Maud with her sweet purse-mouth when my father dangled the grapes, Maud the beloved of my mother, the moon-faced darling of all.” Her long flowing hair, white dress, and soft facial features visualize the beauty and attraction that Tennyson illustrates through his literary account. Through Cameron’s placement of vegetation, she likens Maud to the passionflowers that enwrap her, while also creating a barrier between the model and viewer that traps Maud within the composition. Additionally, Cameron’s intentional blurring of the portrait helps convey the unrealistic portrayal of Maud in both the poem and photograph: Maud is of the narrator’s imagination.

Quinn Cox ’24
Academic Year Student Education Assistant
Bowdoin College Museum of Art