Oscar Rejlander and the beginning of art photography
Known as the 'father of art photography', the Victorian artist Oscar Gustaf Rejlander is today primarily remembered for a moralizing photographic work called Two Ways of Life (1857). Controversial in its time, this work is considered his masterpiece and was an early and technically ambitious attempt at combining several negatives to create one single photographic image. The National Gallery of Canada's exhibition Oscar G. Rejlander: Artist Photographer looks at his contribution and his artistic production, both before and after his most iconic work. Although his name looms large within the history of photography, Rejlander's works – paintings, drawings, lithographs and photographs – have never been brought together in a major retrospective.
The multi-talented Rejlander had a rich and varied career as an artist that spanned more than thirty years. He was originally from Sweden, but the details of his life prior to his arrival in Great Britain remain sketchy. Arriving in England in 1839, he soon settled in the industrial Midlands town of Wolverhampton where he opened a studio as a portrait painter and copyist. His business proved successful and in 1848 one of his works was shown in the prestigious annual exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts in London. During his time in Wolverhampton, and later in London, Rejlander succeeded in cultivating friendships with many wealthy members of British society. His friends and colleagues would remember him as kind, witty and generous – “a man beloved by all who knew him”.
Originally a painter, Rejlander only adopted photography in 1853, aged 39. It is not known if he had been inspired by the Exhibition of Recent Specimens of Photography held by Royal Society of Arts in 1852, which featured nearly 400 photographs by some 76 photographers and was the first devoted solely to the medium. The artist credited a visit to Rome earlier that year as the catalyst for his interest and his subsequent career in photography. Shortly after his return, Rejlander took a few photography lessons with Nicolaas Henneman, a former assistant of William Henry Fox Talbot, and then quickly adapted his studio for the purpose of photography. He would run four such photographic studios in his lifetime: the first in Wolverhampton until 1862 and then three in London until his death in 1875.
From the beginning, Rejlander was exploring both the technical and creative possibilities of the medium. Two of his early works are particularly notable for their pioneering use of combination printing – The Canal Boys and The Wayfarer. In The Canal Boys Rejlander combined the negative of a small group of figures with a negative of tall trees and water, thus creating in the photograph a scene that never existed. For The Wayfarer of 1859 he used at least five negatives to arrive at the roadside scene of the old workman pausing for a humble bite to eat on his journey. Both works also illustrate the artist’s life-long interest in the subject of rural workers and the unsung heroism of the working class.
Inspired by paintings, Rejlander would emulate historical works in his photographs, and religious and classical themes form a significant part of his oeuvre. His enigmatic Allegorical Study appears to reimagine Titian’s painting Sacred and Profane Love of 1514. At the lower edge of the print Rejlander has added through the technique of combination printing an image of an anchor, a symbol of faith. It is a motif that recurs in several of his works, including a work titled A Vision of Aspromonte, Garibaldi Supported by Hope, Pointing to Rome and at least one version of Two Ways of Life.
The business-minded artist would create photographic figure studies and details of parts of the human anatomy for artists to use as studies. The Victorian painters George Frederic Watts, Lawrence Alma-Tadema and George Price Boyce are known to have owned examples. He also produced more conventional studies of nudes and women in stock poses that would have been found in any art academy of the period.
Humour often formed an integral part of Rejlander's photographs and he delighted in incorporating witty puns into many of the titles. Alongside such lightheartedly moralizing images as The Cup that Cheers and The Glass that Inebriates, many of his photographs explore witty pairings of opposites. The artist’s series of Jane and Joe images, shown at various Photographic Society exhibitions, proved very popular and reflects his comical observations of everyday life.
His seminal work Two Ways of Life, exhibited in The Art Treasures of Great Britain exhibition of 1857 and seen by over 1.3 million visitors, proved to be a turning point in his fortunes. Considered a masterpiece of photographic production when it was first displayed, the photograph was made using over thirty negatives. The scene includes a sprawling view of figures, both clothed and nude, positioned across the picture plane in a vaguely pyramidal formation with a central figure at the top. It appears that Rejlander made at least nine different versions, with Prince Albert and Queen Victoria purchasing three, one to be installed in Prince Albert’s dressing room at Balmoral. The work caused a sensation and although first impressions were positive, the enthusiasm for the photograph soon began to fade. It divided the photographic community in Scotland where is was refused for inclusion in the Photographic Society of Scotland's annual December exhibition. The work became the lead example in wider debates around photography and art at the end of the 1850s, including the question of nudes as acceptable subjects and the technique of combination printing as beneficial to the development of photography as an art form.
By the end of 1858 Rejlander appears to have been both spiritually and financially defeated. Although he continued to be a regular contributor to most of the major exhibitions until 1861, it was about this time that he decided to move to London. The artist had always captured domestic scenes and the work of ordinary people, and in the British capital his close observation of the working poor, and in particular children, found new expression. His keen eye for the human condition is particularly apparent in the tender sympathy of Night in Town (also known as Poor Jo), in which a boy in ragged clothes takes refuge against the elements in a doorway. By 1865 he stopped making combination prints and concentrated his efforts on portraiture, a branch of photography that had been a part of his practice from the beginning.
Rejlander's career received a final high point when on April 1, 1871 the eminent Charles Darwin paid him a visit at his studio in Victoria Street, commissioning the photographer to provide images for his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. The photographer had always been a keen observer of facial expressions and, as he was struggling financially, Darwin’s project provided welcome income. Of the thirty photographs Darwin selected to illustrate his theories, eighteen were by Rejlander, including self-portraits and one his wife.
By the time of his death in London in 1875, Rejlander's reputation was waning, never having fully recovered from the scandal surrounding Two Ways of Life. The National Gallery of Canada’s exhibition provides an opportunity to reassess his contribution to the history of photography and celebrate the life and work of an artist who tested the boundaries of the medium and paved the way for others to exploit photography’s potential as a tool for artistic expression.
Oscar G. Rejlander: Artist Photographer is on view at the National Gallery of Canada from October 19, 2018 to February 3, 2019. This article is an edited version from the illustrated accompanying catalogue, now available from the NGC Boutique. See the NGC Public Program for a full listing of related events. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page. Subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest Gallery news, and to learn more about art in Canada.