As determined as any of the artists of his day to paint the definitive representation of Niagara, Regis painted many views of the falls. According to Adamson, the artist’s Niagara, The Table Rock – Winter from 1847 was one of the earliest ambitious winter portrayals. The composition is a conventional view, which Regis individualises by presenting the falls in the depths of the frozen winter under dark, snow-laden clouds: “Few nineteenth century portrayals of Niagara match the Gothic horror of this gloomy, ice-girt depiction.”¹
Photographs of the falls in winter from the period and today suggest that this painting could be interpreted as a straightforward representation of a natural wonder as it appears in winter. (Interestingly, the falls actually froze over in March 1848, the year after Regis painted this work, and no water fell for as much as forty hours.)
However, given the falls’ growing status as a national icon, could it be that this painting, with its heavy sense of foreboding, alludes to the perilous state of the nation as it faced the prospect of the secession of the southern states, the division of the Union and Civil War? It has been suggested that the eagle (designated the national bird in 1784) flying through the mists towards the ice formations, is an allusion to nationalism – possibly to the concept of Manifest Destiny, the 19th-century belief that the expansion of the United States throughout the American continents was both justified and inevitable.
Art historians have also pointed out that the figure in the foreground carrying a staff and portfolio may be the artist himself. It seems that Regis intended to identify himself with the idea of landscape painting and perhaps also with the notion of the artist as commentator.
The painting is today in the United States Senate Collection. Colonel Charles Carroll of Maryland, the son of Charles Carroll of Carollton, the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence, acquired Regis’ Niagara, The Table Rock – Winter, shortly after its execution. His widow left instructions that, upon her death, the painting should be donated to the US government. It now hangs in the United States Capitol, where Alan and I were fortunate to see it in the company of Melinda Smith, the Senate Collection Curator, in May 2017.
The Table Rock Today
The view depicted in the painting shows the Table Rock, a promontory that was popular as a viewing platform in his day, with the Horseshoe Falls in the background. After centuries of continuous erosion the Table Rock, following a series of smaller rockfalls, collapsed on June 26th, 1850, taking a carriage with it (the driver survived).
Further rock falls occurred in subsequent years, and for safety reasons, the remaining rock was blasted in 1935. Today the Table Rock Welcome Centre commemorates the site of the old promontory. Inside the Welcome Centre visitors can take an elevator down 125 feet to a series of tunnels built in 1889 that lead behind the sheet of falling water.