Niagara Falls is one of nature’s wonders and one of America’s treasurers. Formed over 12,000 years ago from melting glaciers, it was first discovered by Native Americans of the region, and then written about by the Belgian explorer Father Louis Hennepin in December 1678. Hennepin’s “Front of the Falls” (1698) (print) was drawn according to his description of the Falls. There are several theories regarding the name Niagara, given to the Falls by the Indians who lived in the region. The Iroquois names in English were “point of land cut in two” and “noisy point of portage.” The Mohawk called it “the neck,” the portage and neck of land between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Hennepin’s description of the Falls brought it to the attention of Europe, and explorers from many European nations arrived to survey the land and witness this natural wonder.
Boston artist Louisa David Minot traveled to see the Falls in 1815, and she wrote an essay in the North American Review that same year in which she described the Falls: “The roar deepened, the rock shook over my head, the earth trembled. It was some time before I could command my pencil.” Minot’s “Niagara Falls” (1818) is one of two paintings she made, and they are the only known works by the artist. Minot’s view from Table Rock clearly reflects her words. Two tiny humans perch on Table Rock, witnessing the immense power of the rushing water and the dramatic sky.
The Erie Canal opened on October 25, 1825. It was 365 miles long and connected Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes with the Hudson River. The trip from Albany to Buffalo took only five days, rather than two weeks over land. Because of its link to the Canal, New York became America’s major port city. The Erie Canal promoted the great western expansion, and a great number of businesses created to enhance sightseeing at Niagara Falls.
Thomas Cole (1801-1848) immigrated with his parents from England to the United States in 1818. Cole was determined to be a painter. His first sketching trip in 1825 took him up the Hudson River into the Catskills. The result was three landscape paintings he exhibited in a bookseller’s window in Philadelphia. They were purchased by three prominent Pennsylvania Academy of Art members. The following year, these three artists and others formed the National Academy of Design (1826). The purpose of the group was to establish an art that would define the American experience. Landscape painting was considered a third-rate genre, but when Cole was elected to the Academy as a landscape painter, landscapes were elevated officially to equal status with history paintings and portraits. Cole’s landscapes were the beginning of the Hudson River School.
Cole first visited Niagara Falls in May 1829. Returning home to New York City, he began to paint the Falls. “Distant View of Niagara Falls” (1830) (19” x 24’’) (Art Institute of Chicago) depicts Cole’s view of America and its vast landscape as both epic and romantic. Set in autumn, when nature blazes with reds, oranges, and yellows, the scene shows the immense power of the Falls. Cole provides a panoramic view from Table Rock of forest, Falls, and mountains, against a cloudy sky. Typical of Cole landscapes, the factories, scenic overlooks, and hotels that were by then a part of this popular tourist attraction were omitted.
Cole’s paintings reflect his view of America, the grandeur of untrammeled nature. He was concerned about the environment and what industry was destroying. The two solitary Native Americans on Table Rock are meant to express this sense of loss. Cole wrote poetry, and his writing expresses his opinion: “The landscape belonged to every American. It is his own land; its beauty, its magnificence, its sublimity – all are his; and how underserving of such a birthright, if he can turn towards it an unobserving eye, and unaffected heart!”
Thomas Cole’s first pupil was Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900). Cole passed on to Church his unbounded appreciation of nature, and of Niagara Falls in particular. Church studied the Falls intensely, making dozens of oil and pencil sketches. Church made a fifth visit to the Falls in 1856, before he painted “Horseshoe Falls” (1857) (40” x 90.5”) (National Gallery of Art). Church’s panoramic view is seen from the Canadian side. The viewer does not stand on the shore, but hovers over the rocks and the rushing water. In the lower left, the branch of a tree rises precariously above the water. Whether it is caught in a crevice of a rock or being swept over the Falls, viewers are reminded of their insignificance in relationship to nature. Mists and sprays of the water in the flickering sunlight cause the rainbow effect.Terrapin Tower (upper left) is revealed in the distant landscape beyond the Falls. Built in 1829, it was the first tower erected to provide a view of the Falls.
Church’s painting was exhibited in a Manhattan gallery from May 1 until May 29, 1857. Tens of thousands of people paid 25 cents to view it. A chromolithograph was made of the painting, and over a thousand subscriptions were sold; an artist’s proof cost $30.00, and a print $15. “Horseshoe Falls” was then exhibited in England and Scotland in the summer of 1857 to great acclaim. When the painting was returned to New York, the Cosmopolitan Art Journal echoed the praise heaped upon it by the European press: “The reputation of this work has greatly increased by its English tour. It is now regarded as the finest painting ever executed by any American artist.”
Church began the Free Niagara movement in 1856. He was joined by such notable Americans as Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park in New York City; Henry Hobson Richardson, designer of the New York State Capitol in Albany; and writers Henry James, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Their objective was to preserve the natural beauty of the Falls on both sides of the border. In 1883, Grover Cleveland, then governor of New York, signed legislation establishing the Niagara Falls State Park. Queen Victoria Park was established in 1888 on the Ontario side.
Note: American Independence Day is celebrated on July 4. Canada Day is celebrated on July 1.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.