Born in Sweden and based in England, the painter and photographer Gustav Rejlander enjoyed his first success (and a whiff of scandal) in 1857 with The Two Ways of Life, a majestic allegorical study with a composition inspired by the tradition of grande peinture.
Also that year he produced this scene evoking the origins of art itself, via Pliny the Elder's account of the invention of both drawing and sculpture: in order to preserve the image of her lover before he traveled to a foreign land, the daughter of the Corinthian potter Butades drew an outline around the cast shadow of her beloved's face. Painters began depicting this episode evoking the birth of their art back in the eighteenth century. Steeped in the traditions of painting, Rejlander's ambition was to win recognition for photography as a full-fledged artistic discipline.
Taking the British tragedian John Coleman as his model, in The First Negative he posits a similar origin for photography, thereby raising it to the level of the noble arts, in keeping with the goals of the High Art Society, of which he was one of the most prominent members. By making the art of fixing shadows fundamental to the photographic act, he was surely not unaware that “skiagraphy”—writing in shadow— was the name given by William Henry Fox Talbot to the photogenic process whereby he obtained his first negative back in 1835.