Nature’s Grandest Scene in Art

Frederic Church, Niagara, 1857, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

From 1760-1900 Niagara Falls was the most frequently described and depicted natural wonder in North America, appearing not only in paintings and engravings, but also in more unusual contexts, such as on dinnerware, wallpaper, sheet music and lamp shades.  Although they were a spectacular sight, the falls’ overwhelming popularity can be explained by the way in which they came to represent the supreme manifestation of the sublime in nature to the nineteenth century European and American mind:

Without the notion of sublimity to infuse the scene with meaning, Niagara Falls would have remained little more than a spectacular display of falling water, but with it, Niagara became the ultimate Romantic landscape, pregnant with meaning of the most transcendent sort.¹

Artists vied with one another to depict the falls from novel angles, in different seasons and at different times of the day seeking to capture the cataracts’ elusive sublimity.  The falls were regarded as “the most defiant of all natural subjects” – indeed, they were thought to be beyond the scope of the painter’s brush – and successful critical reception represented the ultimate prize.

First displayed in the rear gas-lit showroom of the exhibition rooms of Williams & Stevens, Frederic Church’s monumental Niagara of 1857 (it was 3 1/2 feet high and 7 1/2 feet long) was in his day considered to be the ultimate portrayal of the falls.  It was an instant popular and critical success,  inspiring ecstatic commentary, such as:

“…this is the Niagara, with the roar left out!”

“incontestably the the finest oil picture ever painted on this side of the Atlantic…”

“the chef d’oeuvre of Niagaras upon any canvas”

“Mr. Church came, saw and conquered”²

All agreed on the painting’s vraisemblance and Church’s powerful illusionism, but more to the point, his painting had succeeded in unlocking Niagara’s “innermost meanings” and was “representative of the nation’s collective aspirations.”  Part of the success of Church’s painting is down to the unusual viewpoint from above the falls, which dramatized the great curve of the Horseshoe Falls and captured the waters at the point at which they come crashing over the edge.  This perspective draws attention to the unceasing flow of the waters and also to the distant horizon from which the water has traveled, two factors which help to convey the scale, magnificence and unlimited resources of the American landscape – a metaphor for the future of the young nation itself.

Alan and I went to view the Horseshoe Falls from the Canadian side to try to find where Church might have stood to make his famous painting.  Here is Alan’s video taken from by the Table Rock Welcome Center on 6th April, 2018:


¹Adamson, p.14

²Adamson, p.15


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