National Gallery of Art

Washington, D.C.


Photos from left to right: View of the West Building of the National Gallery of Art (1941) Looking East Towards the U.S. Capitol along Constitution Avenue, NW, photo by Dennis Brack / Black Star; After Dark: View of the East Building from the West Building, Fourth Street Entrance, Opened 1978, Architect: I. M. Pei & Partners, photo by Dennis Brack / Black Star; Interior of East Building atrium of National Gallery of Art, featuring Alexander Calder mobile; photo: John Hazeltine, ©1987


Carleton Watkins Exhibit Provides New Technology for Visitors


Visitors to Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception will not only see Watkins' breathtaking photographs of the American West, but also will be able to explore his work on interactive computers, using state-of-the-art three-dimensional imaging technology, and on original Victorian-era stereoscopes. Watkins (1829-1916) is today considered the finest American landscape photographer of the nineteenth century. The exhibition of more than 90 photographs, on view in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, 20 February through 7 May 2000, presents many photographs never reproduced or exhibited before this tour. The show was previously seen in San Francisco and New York; Washington is its final venue.

According to the National Gallery of Art: "Stereographs were extremely popular in the nineteenth century. They consisted of two near-identical photographs of the same scene, which when seen through a binocular viewer called a stereoscope, created an illusion of startling three-dimensional depth. By the 1850s, stereo views were a widespread and inexpensive mass-marketed form of entertainment: a stereo viewer and basket of cards were to be found in every proper Victorian parlor. Watkins made more photographs in stereo than in any other format, inventing imagery that made spectacular use of its three-dimensional effects." Using modern technology "...designed specifically for the exhibition tour to stimulate the stereoscopic effect, ...viewing stations provide access to approximately 200 stereo views by Watkins, organized by year, subject matter, and region. Using special eyeglasses with LC (liquid crystal) lenses that synchronize with the computer via a transmitter, the museum visitor sees the selected images in three dimensions. The software interface for this unusual presentation was designed by the multimedia firm Perimetre Design, using stereo-imaging technology developed by StereoGraphics, creators of the stereo-viewing system for Mars Pathfinder." (left: Piwac, Vernal Falls, 300 feet, Yosemite, 1861, albumen print from collodion negative, 15 11/16 x 20 9/16 inches, Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift (Partial and Promised) of Mary and David Robinson)

The exhibition is supported by The Henry Luce Foundation, Inc., and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In-kind support is provided by SGI and Stereographics.

"Carleton Watkins' pioneering work, created more than a century ago, remains unsurpassed in its aesthetic sophistication, poetic vision, and technical craftsmanship. Watkins worked under extremely difficult conditions but was able to produce some of the most accomplished photographs ever made," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art.

With photographs on loan from museum, corporate, university, and private collections throughout North America, the exhibition includes more than 70 mammoth or large-format prints (many measuring up to 18 by 22 inches), several panoramic photographs--works placed side-by-side to orchestrate a vast sweep of visual terrain and many stereo views. The stereo views--two small photographs, which when placed in a special optical viewer give their beholder the startling sensation of three-dimensional depth will be hung in the exhibition and also displayed in Victorian-era stereoscopes and in a novel interactive computer base.

Work from Watkins' famous series of the pristine and then virtually unknown Yosemite Valley will be on view. These images helped convince President Abraham Lincoln to sign the Yosemite Bill in 1864, an important precedent in establishing the present system of national parks. The photographs were exhibited at the 1867 International Exposition in Paris, where they were awarded a first-prize medal, and were later seen by Napoleon III. There are also many other, often lyrical, images that captured not only the physical landscape of the American West, including the Columbia River and the rugged Pacific Coast, but also the burgeoning mining activity in the Sierra foothills that followed the Gold Rush and the boom towns that sprang forth along the routes of the newly built Central and Southern Pacific railroads. In addition to sweeping vistas, there are studies of trees and surprising close-ups of lily pads and a crate of peaches.

Born and raised in Oneonta, New York, Watkins settled in San Francisco at the height of the Gold Rush, taking up the still-new medium of photography in the mid-1850s. During his career of more than 30 years he intrepidly traveled the western United States, hauling heavy equipment and supplies to remote areas and at times losing glass-plate negatives when his mule tripped. Nonetheless, he made thousands of remarkable, historically important photographs that were admired by an international audience. By 1895, however, poor business sense, failing health, and bad luck left him and his family living in a railroad boxcar. In 1906, when he was almost totally blind, much of his life's work was destroyed by the most violent earthquake to strike San Francisco. Watkins died ten years later, a patient at the Napa State Hospital for the Insane.

The exhibition catalogue, published by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, features more than 100 tritone plates--including four gatefolds illustrating Watkins' rarely reproduced panoramas--and twenty duotone illustrations. An introduction by Maria Morris Hambourg, curator in charge of the department of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; a scholarly essay by Douglas R. Nickel, associate curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and biographical material by Peter E. Palmquist, an independent scholar and Watkins biographer, are included. The catalogue is available in softcover ($35) in the Gallery's Shops, through the Gallery Web site at, or by calling 1-800-697-9350. A hardcover version ($60), co-published with Harry N. Abrams, is also available through the Gallery or at booksellers nationwide.

Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception was curated by Nickel and Hambourg; the organizing curator for the National Gallery is Sarah Greenough, curator of photographs. The exhibition was organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and with special cooperation from the Huntington Library and Art Gallery, San Marino, California.

Please also see our article Carleton Watkins: The Art of Perception (6/15/99)

Read more in Resource Library Magazine on the National Gallery of Art

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

rev. 1/6/11

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.