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George Catlin painting a Chief

The Sublime and the Picturesque
Part III of III

Ferdinand V. Hayden. The Yellowstone National Park and the Mountain Regions of Portions of Idaho, Nevada, Colorado & Utah. Described by Prof. F.V. Hayden...Illustrated by Chromolithographic Reproductions of Watercolor Sketches, by Thomas Moran.... Boston, 1876.

Towers Falls

Thomas Moran, "The Towers of Towers Falls." (Chromolithograph)

Mount of the Holy Cross

Thomas Moran, "The Mount of the Holy Cross." (Chromolithograph)

These two plates are representative of the fifteen views of Yellowstone and the Rocky Mountains executed by Thomas Moran and chromolithographed by Louis Prang for their extravagantly romantic vision of the natural wonders of the American West. Surely Prang's masterpiece, the plates succeeded in matching the colors of Moran's iridescent originals. The final product, however, was hardly a reliable rendition of the landscape. Moran created a view of the Mount of the Holy Cross which cannot actually be seen in nature, viewed from a valley for increased dramatic effect. He may have used a made-up photographic montage by William Henry Jackson as the basis for his work; Jackson had already pioneered the creation of more perfect landscapes in photography.

Josiah Dwight Whitney. The Yosemite Book; A Description of the Yosemite Valley and the Adjacent Region of the Sierra Nevada, and of the Big Trees of California.... New York, 1868.

Nevada and Merced Falls

Carleton E. Watkins. "View Looking toward the Nevada and Merced Falls, from Glacier Point" (Albumen photograph)

Yosemite Falls

Carleton E. Watkins. "The Yosemite Falls." (Albumen photograph)

The great beauty of the Yosemite Valley was first brought to the attention of Americans in 1851 when a party of California militia stumbled upon it. By 1863, when the California Geological Survey began to map the valley, it had gained international renown. Josiah Dwight Whitney, the head of the Survey, played a major role in having the Valley declared a public park in 1864, and he employed the noted San Francisco photographer Carleton E. Watkins to illustrate the Survey's report on the Valley. 250 copies of the report each contained 28 original photographs. The 7,000 prints required represented an unprecedented use of photographs to illustrate a scientific survey.

Yosemite Valley

Carleton Watkins. The Yosemite Valley, ca 1864. (Albumen photograph)

In 1854 Watkins left his position as a clerk in a book and stationary store to work with one of San Francisco's most successful daugerreans, Robert H. Vance. Watkins soon adopted the new "wet-plate" process and began to develop the equipment and skills that made him a pioneer in the emerging field of landscape photography. In 1861 he began a series of photographs of the Yosemite Valley that brought him international acclaim. His custom-made camera featured a special, wide-angle lens and held oversized glass plates as large as 18 by 22 inches . Each of the "mammoth plates" weighed four pounds, and the various supplies that he carried overland to Yosemite weighed as much as 2,000 pounds. The thirty mammoth views that he made during the summer of 1861 brought him to the attention of Josiah Dwight Whitney and led directly to his participation in the California Geological Survey's work within Yosemite.

The Spirit of Place
Encountering Native Americans
Customs of the Country
Valor and Endurance
An Analytic Eye

Return to The Sublime and the Picturesque, Part I

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Send comments to George Miles, William Roberston Coe Curator of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

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