Rijksmuseum stages major retrospective of 19th-century photography

April 6 2017 - 9:25 AM

This summer the Rijksmuseum is presenting a major retrospective of 19th-century photography. Three hundred photos from the museum’s own collection will show just how varied photography was immediately after its invention in 1839. The exhibition will include portraits, nudes, cityscapes and travel photos, as well as scientific and commercial photography, and the first amateur snapshots.

The exhibition New Realities will feature work from leading photographers including William Henry Fox Talbot, Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton and Gustave Le Gray, alongside anonymous surprises which have never previously been shown. One highlight will be work by the first woman photographer, Anna Atkins, who published the first book illustrated with photographs. The Dutch photographers George Hendrik Breitner and Willem Witsen will also be represented.

Revolutionary medium

Today photography is a universal language that everyone speaks and understands, but this was far from the case in the early days of the medium. There is a vast contrast between the casual snapshots of today and the experiments of the earliest photographers, which took such great effort to produce. This new and magical medium caused a revolutionary shift away from the styles of imagery people were accustomed to seeing in paintings, drawings or engravings. Photography introduced an entirely new way of seeing and representing reality.

New Realities

New Realities will show how people set out with their camera to explore the world, from personal life to the unfamiliar peoples of distant Asia. X-rays and photos of botanical collections will illustrate the use of photography in the scientific world. There will also be examples of practical applications such as police photographs of criminals, and the first uses of photography in advertising. The exhibition will cast light on how photography established its position as an artistic medium, initially with subjects and compositions derived from painting. Finally, we will see how amateur photography took off and the medium came to be used increasingly as a source of entertainment.

Rijksmuseum photo collection

All the photographs in the exhibition come from the Rijksmuseum’s own collection, which has gained major international status thanks to donations and financial support from individuals and sponsors. In large part the collection comprises unique albums and prints of which only a single specimen or a handful of originals exist. The Rijksmuseum collection now contains more than 150,000 photos from the 19th century to the present.


The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue, designed by Irma Boom. This book follows on from the previously published retrospective of 20th-century photography which accompanied the exhibition Modern Times in autumn 2014.

More photography

Concurrently with the New Realities exhibition, the Rijksmuseum will be exhibiting Sea Views, a selection of contemporary photographic seascapes acquired as part of an anonymous donation, with work by photographers including Ray Metzker, Viviane Sassen and Franco Fontana. See also Photography exhibitions at the Rijksmuseum

New Realities. Photography in the Nineteenth Century | 17 June to 17 September 2017

Sea Views | 17 June to 17 September 2017

The collection of 19th-century photography of the Rijksmuseum has been established with the generous support of private and institutional benefactors.


George Hendrik Breitner, Marie Jordan naakt op de rug gezien, 1890
Anna Atkins, Algae, c. 1843 - c. 1853. Belongs to ‘Photographs of British Algae. Cyanotype Impressions’. Purchased with the support of the BankGiro Lottery, the Familie W. Cordia/Rijksmuseum Fonds and the Paul Huf Fonds/Rijksmuseum Fonds
Johann Heinrich Schönscheidt, Railwaybridge over the Lek near Kuilenburg (Culemborg), 1868. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
A.W. Möller, Wooden house with a woman standing in the doorway, c. 1895. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Thomas Annan (attributed to), Street in a slum of Glasgow, 1868. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Antonio Cavilla, Portrait of a North African man, c. 1880. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Eduard Isaac Asser, Portrait of Charlotte Asser, daughter of the photographer, 1842
Robert Macpherson, View on Rome from Monte Pincio, 1860-1863
Willem Frederik Piek, On board, 1892
John Hall-Edwards, Reclamefoto voor banden van Midland Tyre, 1897. Schenking van de heer S.F. Joseph, Brussel
M.G. Demeny, Sequence of shapes of the mouth when pronouncing ‘Je vous aime’, c. 1881 – in or before 1891. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Photo Rijksmuseum
Photo Rijksmuseum
Photo Rijksmuseum
Photo Rijksmuseum
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