Ravine in the Simplon opposite Isella

John HerschelSeptember 1, 1821

The J. Paul Getty Museum

The J. Paul Getty Museum
Los Angeles, United States

Sir John Herschel's camera lucida drawings form an important transition from the pre- to the post-photographic era. They define a category of visual thinking that we may call "documentary" as opposed to "creative." The camera lucida is a small transportable optical instrument that uses a prism. When an artist angles the prism toward an actual landscape or a person, that subject appears to be floating on the surface of a sheet of paper so that the artist can then sketch it. Herschel, an accomplished British scientist, would surely have been disappointed if anyone had considered his drawings works of art, because in his day, the words art and fiction were virtually synonymous, while his goal was to achieve highly objective records of the topographical scene before him. Herschel believed that truth (or fact) was to be valued more than beauty (or aesthetics) and that his drawings should be reports, not poetic evocations. The challenge for photographers in subsequent decades would be to establish a new visual language that reconciled truth and beauty, as the purely documentary began to overlap significantly with the purely creative.
Adapted from Weston Naef, The J. Paul Getty Museum Handbook of the Photographs Collection (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1995), 5. © 1995 The J. Paul Getty Museum.


  • Title: Ravine in the Simplon opposite Isella
  • Creator: Sir John Frederick William Herschel
  • Date Created: September 1, 1821
  • Physical Dimensions: 29.7 × 20.5 cm (11 11/16 × 8 1/16 in.)
  • Type: Graphic art
  • External Link: Find out more about this object on the Museum website.
  • Medium: Graphite drawing made with the aid of a camera lucida
  • Terms of Use: Open Content
  • Number: 91.GG.98.48
  • Culture: British
  • Credit Line: The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Gift of the Graham and Susan Nash Collection
  • Creator Display Name: Sir John Frederick William Herschel (British, 1792 - 1871)
  • Classification: Drawings (Visual Works)

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