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Adelaide Marquand Hanscom: Pictorialist Photographer

October 4, 2022

Photography has been very seldom used as a basis for illustrating the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Joe Howard has sent us the following article about the first, and most important, illustrator who worked in this medium.

The first Rubaiyat edition illustrated using photographs was published in 19051. This, “Oriental Edition”, featured Fitzgerald’s IVth version and 28 photographs by Adelaide Hanscom.  It was very enthusiastically received, with newspaper articles and reviews describing it in terms such as, “A sensation”. This was Adelaide’s major professional photographic success and resulted in her reputation spreading rapidly from Berkely CA throughout the USA and overseas, especially to the UK.

Until the late 19th/early 20th century, photography was directed at accurately recording reality. This changed with the development of Pictorialism: the leader in this field was Arthur Stieglitz, who was based in New York. His Photo-Secession movement was founded to promote photography as a medium as expressive as painting. Following the publication of her Rubaiyat, Adelaide was invited to become an associate member.

Aged just 19, Adelaide (1876-1932) listed herself as an artist in the Berkley directory. Her art education continued as she studied design at the University of California and then attended the Mary Hopkins Institute of Art in San Francisco.  She was regarded as having considerable promise.  Adelaide became a well-respected and very successful society photographer (portraits, mainly of children) who took exquisite care over every aspect of her photography. A quotation from a newspaper interview2 about her Rubaiyat makes this plain:

In making my composition I first become absorbed in the thought and feeling of the quatrain; I feel it as intensely as I can, that is all the woes and joys, then I plan the general tone schemes. I think of people I know and do not know to fill the part. After I had selected the models came the task of costuming them. I studied my tone values very closely to get certain effects that would otherwise have been impossible. I studied the lines and composition before I made a direct photograph, and in many instances worked my plate to ‘the limit of the law’. I get my effects by any hook or crook that I can devise. I searched up and down the whole creation to find the face, figure, and temperament to fill the part. In many cases it was difficult to find the right model.

Contrary to the established style of sharply focused photographs, she would sometimes adjust the camera lens to selectively defocus part of a scene, therefore emphasizing the area left in focus. This effect could be enhanced by draping fine netting over some subjects to further soften their outlines and/or using contrasting tones. Choices of studio and scene lighting were crucial. Once the photograph was taken, her “post processing” included retouching the glass negatives by drawing or painting (India ink, chalk, crayons, charcoal, paint etc.) on them and/or drawing (scratching) patterns/texture with a variety of tools such as pallet knife, needle, wooden stylus, or sharpened pencil.  Air brushing was used to create larger areas of continuous shading, and a range of chemical treatments employed to adjust tones. She also combined and blended multiple negatives to generate a single composite image. This work was very delicate and took considerable skill, vision, and imagination. Note that while working on negatives, light and dark are inverted when compared with the final print. The work on an individual photographic plate frequently took many hours and was not always successful.

Printing presented more options, with the many different black and white technologies producing different “looks”. Prints could then be further processed, e.g., to produce sepia tints. Adelaide used both paper(s) and tissue as substrates: the latter, in my view, adds to the ethereal atmosphere of some of her Rubaiyat photographs. Examples exist of the same scene printed using different technologies3: all in search of fulfilling her vision. Preparation of her Rubaiyat took two years.

Using digital technology, such as available in Photoshop, the effects she helped pioneer are now routinely used by both professionals and amateurs.

I have chosen examples of four of her more extensively post-processed Rubaiyat photographs to illustrate the various techniques and their effects: note that the images reproduced here do not fully reflect the qualities of those in the original publication. Fig.2. & Fig.3. were inspired by the first quatrain. The Shaft of Light” (Fig.2.) is represented by the woman: her diaphanous garment and the contrasting backgrounds were created on the negative. Note how gracefully the figure appears to emerge from the “Field of Night”. In Fig.3. we see a man (Sun) scattering the stars into flight from the “Field of Night”. The swirling darkness was created with a pallet knife and the sword is hand drawn. Note the almost invisible image of a woman (Night?) on the lower right.

Although Adelaide often photographed her male and female models nude, a radical thing to do in the early 1900’s, their modesty is generally preserved by modifying the negatives, as in Fig.2, & Fig.3.

For quatrain XLVI, (The Eternal Saki from that Bowl has pour’d, Millions of Bubbles like us, and will pour), the studio set-up involved the model holding an empty bowl while perching on the edge of a circular table placed on its side. (Fig.4.)   The effect of a sphere (Earth) was created by manipulation of the negative and the bubbles were painstakingly drawn on the negative by hand. The same applies to the background and the “S-shaped” dark swirl (wings?) along the model’s back and to the right of the sphere.

One of her photographs from this 1905 edition, ‘the angel of the darker drink” was also used as the frontispiece for a separate small edition (3 by 6 ins) of the Rubaiyat4.

An excellent example of combining several different images into a single photograph is found on the frontispiece of the metrical translation of the Rubaiyat by George Roe5 (Fig.5.). It interprets his quatrain 85 (“When in the market-place I stopped one day/To watch the potter pounding his fresh clay…”) and comprises at least four separate photographs. They include three photos of Adelaide’s family: two of her baby, and one of her husband (naked man: the potter thumping his clay) plus one of Omar. The background was created by etching the glass plate and the images were blended by hand. A more detailed explanation of the image is given on a tissue facing the frontispiece of the book.

Adelaide was married in 1907 and her baby was born in 1909. Fig.5. also has her married name, Leeson, etched to the lower left, and so this photograph is likely to have been created specifically for the 1910 edition of Roe’s publication (see Note 1).

A 1905 publisher’s advertisement lists four versions of Adelaide’s Rubaiyat for sale:

                      1.  Cloth edition at $3.50                         2.  Cloth photogravure at $6.00                          

                      3.  Leather photogravure at $10.00         4.  Leather Artists edition at $50.00

Item 1 seems to be quite rare, while 2 & 3 are readily available. I have never seen a copy of option 4 mentioned anywhere other than on the advertisement. Given its extremely high price, I suggest it probably contained signed artists prints. I have seen these for sale but unbound. Information about this edition would be welcomed – please reply in the comments section below this article.

Adelaide won a prestigious national design competition ($500 prize) in 1907. She also, in 1912 with Blanche Cumming, published a version of her Rubaiyat in which the photographs were colourized6. Her last major work, “Sonnets from The Portuguese” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, illustrated with 19 of her photographs, was published in 1916. Although very well received, this was not judged to be comparable with her Rubaiyat. A combination of personal circumstances and tragedies led to Adelaide doing little photographic work from ca. 1918 onwards and over the years her work disappeared from public awareness. This began to change ca. 1980. Since then, her work has featured regularly in books, reviews, auctions, and exhibitions. She is now recognized as a leading female innovator of the Pictorialist movement and her 1905 Rubaiyat is regarded to be one of the most important, early twentieth century, photopoetic books.

Note 1

Potter 366 lists the “Roe Edition”, published by A.C. McClurg & Co. in 1906, and refers to a frontispiece by Adelaide Hanscom. The three copies I have seen do not have a frontispiece. Potter 366 also lists the 1910 edition published by the Dodge Publishing Company. Fig.5. is taken from my copy of the 1910 edition. I conclude that Potter’s reference to a frontispiece in the 1906 edition, is an error.


1. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Illustrations by Adelaide Hanscom, Dodge Publishing Co., New York 1905

2. Oakland Tribune March 19, 1906

3. Pictorialism in California, Photographs 1900-1940, M. Wilson & D. Reed, The Paul J. Getty Museum 1994.

4. Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Dodge Publishing Co., no date given, but often quotes as 1905-the date of the copyright on the photograph.

5. Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, George Roe, Dodge Publishing Co., New York, 1910

6. Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Adelaide Hanscom and Blanche Cumming, Dodge Publishing Co., New York, 1912

4 Comments leave one →
  1. David Bullivant permalink
    October 4, 2022 5:15 pm

    Thank you for this interesting article. I have several of her rubaiyats and once visited the town she was born – Empire City, which is now part of Coos Bay, Oregon.

  2. martinrkim permalink
    October 4, 2022 7:21 pm

    I tried to post the following reply to your latest information about Adelaide’s. But it would not accept anything I posted so here it is if you can use it: 25 or 30 years ago I did a deep dive into the pictorialist art and a greatly influenced my own photography. I have not heard of Adelaide so I much enjoyed reading about her and thank you for publishing this.

    From Martin K’s cell


  3. January 21, 2023 9:35 am

    Hi Sandra, congrats on this great article. We really enjoy it very much indeed


  1. Adelaide Hanscom’s Illustrated Rubaiyat: – Colourized Photographs | Omar Khayyam Rubaiyat

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