Julia Margaret Cameron's Paul and Virginia, c. 1865 was inspired by the popular 1787 romantic fable of the same title by Bernardin de St. Pierre.
St. Pierre's story expounds the virtues of chastity and true love, a fitting parallel to Victorian values in Cameron's day. Set on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the young lovers are separated when Virginia must return to France. As the two are about to be reunited her ship is wrecked before his eyes. A drowning Virginia can only be saved if she sheds the heavy clothes weighing her down. Unwilling to sacrifice her modesty, she dies. Consumed by grief Paul expires soon afterwards.
Cameron poses her child models, Freddy Gould and Elizabeth Keown, as the protagonists of the tragic tale. The open parasol, and fluid textiles that drape the small frames of the children suggest the idyllic setting of Mauritius. While denying that she ever retouched her negatives, handwork on the print can be seen at Paul's feet.
According to Julian Cox of the Getty, there are four versions of this image. Three of the versions are studies for the finished print. This final version is in the permanent collections of The J. Paul Getty Museum, George Eastman House, the Victoria & Albert Museum, The National Portrait Gallery, London, the Royal Photographic Society, and the Gernsheim Collection, Texas, as well as a half dozen private collections.