In Julia Margaret Cameron’s greatest portraits of women the models are drawn from within her family circle. She watched many of these individuals grow from girlhood to adulthood, and the process of photographing them was as much about documenting their maturation as transforming their person into works of an ideal nature. A favorite model was her niece May Prinsep (1853-1931), who at age thirteen was one of several orphans adopted by Sara and Thoby Prinsep. She possesses a rare, classical beauty; her Italianate looks were made the subject of many portraits in the years 1866 to 1874 (see also 84.XP.259.28).
The title of this work refers to a character from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s play The Cenci (1819), which is based on the true story of a sixteenth-century Roman family. Beatrice Cenci was the daughter of Count Francesco Cenci, a tyrant who terrorized his wife and children. In retaliation for his abuse, Beatrice plotted with her stepmother and older brother to kill him. Though it’s not completely clear who committed the actual murder, an investigation uncovered the involvement of two men along with the three Cenci family members. The two men died before being brought to the gallows. Beatrice, her stepmother, and older brother Giacamo were all executed on the tenth of September 1599. Only Beatrice’s younger brother Bernardo was spared execution.
Cameron was fascinated by the story and made a number of different studies of the central figure of Beatrice. This version is modeled on a painting, then attributed to Guido Reni, now in the collection of Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Rome. The painting was widely reproduced as an engraving in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One such print by Samuel Cousins was available at Colnaghi’s, a commercial art gallery and print publisher in London, where Cameron also showed her work. Cameron’s portrait has been impeccably stage-managed. As Beatrice, Prinsep wears a headdress, and her downcast eyes and wistful expression suggest that she is quietly resigned to the fate that awaits her. The lighting is perfect, and the hair at the left side of the face falls in a scrolling pattern that, together with the left eye, defines the composition’s central axis.
Adapted from Julian Cox. Julia Margaret Cameron, In Focus: From the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1996), 54. ©1996 The J. Paul Getty Museum.
For further information about Beatrice Cenci: