Hidden in Havana

Regis Gignoux, Niagara Falls, oil on canvas, 130 x 200 cm, 1858, Museo de Bellas Artes, Havana

In Niagara: Two Centuries of Changing Attitudes, 1697-1901 (the catalogue that accompanied the Corcoran Gallery 1985 exhibition surveying historical artistic responses to Niagara Falls),  art historian Jeremy Elwell Adamson tells us that Regis painted four wintertime Niagaras.  He explains that the most famous of these, and one of the most popular paintings of the Falls in the mid-nineteenth century, was the artist’s Niagara Falls in Winter (1858), which he describes as “a sunrise view of the Horseshoe Falls from Goat Island celebrated for its delicate coloration.” ¹

Adamson explains that at the time of writing the whereabouts of this painting was unknown – it is, however, known that the work was purchased by the New York gallery Williams and Stevens as “a pendant for Church’s Niagara.”²  Church’s painting is one of America’s best loved landscapes and was considered in its day to be the most successful representation of the Falls to date and an expression of the promise of the young nation.

In July 1859 both paintings were exhibited side by side;  Adamson quotes the critical response of New York Leader, which wrote: “TWO GREAT PAINTINGS… should always be viewed together, for they are counterparts of Niagara.”³  By this the critic might have meant that the two paintings offer views of the Falls from opposite shores.  If you look carefully at the Church painting below, you can just see Terrapin Tower and Goat Island on the far left.  The two paintings together show the complete curve of the Horseshoe Falls.

Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826 – 1900 ), Niagara, 1857, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

We were curious to find this missing painting and decided to start with the most obvious step – Google it.  Imagine our surprise when our search returned a reference to a page in a novel on Google books – David McFadden’s, An Innocent in Cuba (2005) – in which the author describes a visit to the Museo de Bellas Artes in Havana, where he encounters a painting of Niagara Falls:

It’s a frigid winter scene in the far north, Niagara Falls, in 1858, with a lighthouse sitting on an ice-covered rock at the far end of the falls.  The lighthouse is caked with ice, there are icicles hanging from it like tears from a snowman.  There is a wooden walkway along the lip of the falls leading from the shore to the lighthouse, and the walkway is also of course covered with ice.  Hard to imagine anyone walking on that walkway.

This quotation set us off on a search via a friend in Madrid, who has a friend, who is a curator in Havana, who contacted the curator of nineteenth century art at the Museo de Bellas Artes, Carlos Fernandez.  Carlos, who has been very helpful, was able to confirm that the painting is still there and sent us the image above.  He was unable to confirm the provenance, but thinks that it may have been included among works appropriated by the state from Cuban art collectors, such as sugar trader and financier Julio Lobo (1898-1983) or sugar and railroad magnate Oscar B. Cintas (1887-1957), during the revolution in 1960.

Is this the very same painting to which Adamson refers?  We think that there is a good chance that it is – it is the correct view and season and the soft pink light on the spray from the falls may indicate that it is early morning.  The painting is highly finished and monumental in size – indicating that it was a work of some importance to the artist or, if it was commissioned, the collector.  Art historians in the U.S. may not have been aware of its whereabouts because of the opaque relations between their country and  Cuba at the time.  We’ll need to do further research into how this wintry painting from 1858 found its way to the sun-drenched shores of Havana before we can reach any conclusions.

If this is indeed the missing painting, it would be interesting to reunite the two works – Church’s famous view from the Canadian side and Regis’ view from the American side at Goat Island.

¹Adamson, Jeremy Ellwell, Niagara: Two Centuries of Changing Attitudes, 1697-niagara 1901 (Washington, D.C.: The Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1985), p. 57.






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