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Big River, from the Rancherie, Mendocino, California

Black and white photograph of river seen through pine tree forest.
CC0 Public Domain Designation

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  • Black and white photograph of river seen through pine tree forest.




Carleton E. Watkins
American, 1829-1916

About this artwork

Like the vast and untapped landscape of the American West, Carleton Watkins’s photographic images are grand in spirit and in size. Using a giant wet-plate camera whose thick glass negatives—coated with a sensitized emulsion called collodion and exposed while still wet—were often as large as the average easel painting of the time, Watkins here fused a sense of the picturesque with a Romantic expression of nature’s timelessness, immensity, and silence. The trees are sharply defined, still, and majestic. Depicted with equal clarity is the river, which winds into the receding hills. This technical and aesthetic perfection was all the more remarkable considering the difficulty of the wet-plate process for a frontier photographer. In the field, Watkins had to transport (with the aid of several pack mules) mammoth cameras, dark tents, chemicals, and as many as four hundred glass plates. He also had to contend with constant packing and unpacking, the lack of pure water, and the tendency of dust to adhere to the sticky collodion. Photographs such as Big River and Watkins’s famous views of Yosemite (which helped persuade the US Congress to pass legislation protecting the valley’s wilderness) provided the world with some of the first glimpses of the American West.


Currently Off View


Photography and Media


Carleton Watkins


Big River, from the Rancherie, Mendocino, California


United States (Artist's nationality:)

Date  Dates are not always precisely known, but the Art Institute strives to present this information as consistently and legibly as possible. Dates may be represented as a range that spans decades, centuries, dynasties, or periods and may include qualifiers such as c. (circa) or BCE.

Made 1863


Albumen print


Printed recto, on mount, below image, lower center, in India ink calligraphic script in the style of Fulgenzio Seregni [style note from Naef]: “Mendocino River / from the Rancherie, Mendocino, Cal.” verso unchecked


40 × 52.5 cm (15 3/4 × 20 11/16 in.); Mount: 55 × 68.4 cm (21 11/16 × 26 15/16 in.); Image/paper: 40.1 × 52.6 cm (15 3/4 × 20 11/16 in.)

Credit Line

Gift of the Auxiliary Board

Reference Number


IIIF Manifest  The International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) represents a set of open standards that enables rich access to digital media from libraries, archives, museums, and other cultural institutions around the world.

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Extended information about this artwork

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