Niagara Falls, 1855

Gignoux, Regis (Niagara Falls)
Regis Gignoux, Niagara Falls, 1855, oil on canvas, High Museum of Art

This painting by Regis of Niagara Falls, now in the High Museum in Atlanta, provided the inspiration for our visit to the falls and will be the starting point for Alan’s creative response to this location.  It is a delicately coloured summertime view of the falls with little sign of human intervention aside from the viewing tower at the edge of Goat Island and the two gentlemen in the foreground.  Although the falls appear impressive, the scene is peaceful, conforming more to the picturesque than the sublime, and the two men appear happily engaged in pleasant contemplation of the scene before them.

Already in Regis’s day this scene would have represented an idealized version of the scenery surrounding the falls – with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the introduction of the railways in the 1840s, the previously inaccessible Niagara Falls became a popular tourist site among the well-to-do, who had the means and the time to make such excursions. The falls were also, increasingly, the site of speculation and development for entrepreneurs who sought to harness their power for industrial purposes. Artists, however, often preferred to depict the falls in their pristine state,  undisturbed by commerce or industry; this was possibly because they wished to conform to the aesthetic conventions governing landscape painting in the nineteenth century, which derived from romanticism rather than realism.

It is unclear what purpose the figures in the foreground of Regis’s painting are intended to fulfil.  Are they tourists admiring the grandeur of the falls?  Are they speculators discussing the industrial potential of the scene?  Interestingly, the two men are not facing the Horseshoe Falls depicted in the painting; rather, they are facing towards the left in the direction of the American Falls, which are not featured in the work.  Regis may have used this as a device to expand the imaginative scope of the painting or to overcome the compositional difficulty of including both of the falls in a single image.  Either way, the artist considered it necessary to complete the scene.

On close inspection then, Regis’s 1855 summertime view of Niagara, although is not a representation of the falls as they appeared then; rather it is an illustration of the way in which nineteenth century middle class Americans saw themselves – as a refined and civilized people in sufficient control of the landscape around them to engage in the contemplation of scenery for pleasure or the use of it for industry.

Today, Niagara Falls is known as much for the carnivalesque features that surround it as for the beauty of the falls themselves.  In subsequent posts we will look at the ideas and events that gradually transformed this natural wonder from one of the country’s most revered national symbols to a somewhat beleaguered tourist attraction and a site for hydro-electric power and chemicals manufacturing.

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