Anonymous, Niagara Falls (from Hennepin ca. 1698)
The first published image of Niagara was based on the overwrought recollections of Flemish Recollect priest Father Louis Hennepin—known to the French as the “Big Liar.” The waterfall is too tall and too narrow, the pine trees look like palms, the gorge is much rockier than in reality, and where did that extra fall on the right come from? Still, this picture—copied endlessly by other engravers—captured how Europeans felt in the face of the New World's natural landscape: Whoa!
Popular guidebook views
Early artists at the Falls focused not just on the big waterfalls, but on the charming scenery of Goat Island and adjacent areas. One popular view was the “Hermit's Cascade,” a mini-waterfall between Goat Island and the first of the Three Sisters. Looking at this print from an early guidebook, it's easy to see why many early tourists couldn't resist taking a dip in this sylvan spot.
Alexander Wilson, from American Ornithology (1808-1814)
Scottish immigrant Alexander Wilson founded the American school of ornithology with his nine-volume collection of ornithological drawings. He shows the Bald Headed Eagle in front of a view of Niagara Falls—two American icons side by side. Wilson had the opportunity to view both: he walked from Gray's Ferry, Pennsylvania to the Falls while preparing his sketches.
Thomas Cole, Niagara Falls (1830)
Niagara was well developed by the Porters and other tourist entrepreneurs when Thomas Cole arrived to paint it. But he still painted the Falls as iconic American wilderness—surrounded by dark trees and watched over by a dramatic sky. Like other Hudson River School painters, he was much influenced by theories of the Romantic sublime, which valorized incalculably huge, overwhelmingly powerful sights like Niagara as a means of evoking the right combination of beauty and terror to lead to admiration for the Creator.
Nathaniel Currier, The Falls of Niagara. From Clifton House. (1840-56)
The rage for the sublime brought tourists to Niagara Falls, and many of them wanted a souvenir of their visit. Lithographers such as Currier & Ives sold prints at popular prices, so even people who couldn't afford paintings could take home a Niagara landscape. Unlike the more “highbrow” artists, Currier's print here puts actual visitors in the picture, including a typical antebellum family and a couple of artists trudging their canvases home. The Falls seem much tamer than they do in the romanticized vistas of Thomas Cole and Frederic Church.
John Frederick Kensett, Niagara Falls and the Rapids (1851-52)
One of the less famous painters of the Hudson River School, Kensett is known for his balanced, beautiful compositions. What interests me about this view of Niagara is its vantage point. Kensett could have visited one of the period's popular observation towers on the Canadian side to sketch this view, or he may have simply made it from the top of the ridge that today, known as Fallsview, is populated by a thicket of highrise franchise hotels.
Frederic Edwin Church: Niagara (1857)
Perhaps the most famous painting of Niagara Falls, Church's Niagara is a panoramic landscape of the Horseshoe. Church famously zoomed in on the Falls themselves, ignoring the ticky-tacky buildings, billboards, factories and souvenir stands already crowding the waterfall's edge by this time. He took Niagara on the road, and everywhere crowds filled his exhibit rooms. Advertising the beauties of America and Niagara in particular, this painting helped establish American landscape art as a respected genre. Today, it can be seen in the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and it's still impressive.
T.G. Nelson and Sons, printers, Niagara Falls from Point Prospect, American Side (1860)
Throughout the nineteenth century, images of the Falls were not only a popular souvenir, but a common feature in drawing rooms. Advances in print technology, such as woodcuts, engravings, and chromolithographs, were quickly tried out at Niagara. This early view from Prospect Point was one of a set of pre-postcard paper “Views” sold at souvenir shops. Courtesy of the Niagara Falls, NY Public Library.
Frederic Edwin Church: Niagara Falls, from the American Side (1867)
Church painted a number of views of Niagara Falls. In this later one, he chose a nearly square format that captures both the American Falls and the Horseshoe, but fills most of the canvas with shimmering mist. He seems to have been fascinated with the visual effects created by the water and foliage at the Falls. This painting hangs in the National Gallery of Scotland today.
Thomas Edison, American Falls from Above, American Side (1896)
This view of the Falls from Prospect Point, made on December 12, 1896, was one Edison's first films to be shown commercially. There's very little action—people at the brink of the Falls gesture and point to the falling water. But interestingly, landscapes like this one were even more popular than footage of galloping horses or moving trains. Shown in theaters and music halls, often surrounded by a gold frame, early films were literally “moving pictures,” considered part of the pictorial rather than narrative tradition. That would soon change. Watch the whole film at http://memory.loc.gov. (Search for "Edison" and "Niagara.")
David Ellis, Panorama View of Niagara Falls, river and gorge, from Victoria Park, Canada (1913)
In the early 20th century, panoramic photographs of the Falls were all the rage. Painted panoramas had been around for decades, and were popular for depicting the Falls. The panoramic format displays a dissatisfaction with the usual limits of representation especially appropriate at Niagara: This waterfall is larger than life, ladies and gentlemen! What's so amazing about Ellis's halftone version is the way the Canadian park, at right, is counterbalanced by the American milling district (dominated by Alcoa's blast furnaces) at left. By 1913, the waterfalls were almost an afterthought.
Frank Moore: Niagara (1994)
Frank Moore's paintings from the early 90s carefully reproduce the most popular perspectives on the Falls. But the hidden elements begin to be visible too: the chemical compounds writhing around in the mist remind us that some of the most powerful human effects on Niagara are those you can't see. (Image from the collection of UBS, New York, and courtesy of the Gesso Foundation and Sperone Westwater, New York, NY.)
Lisa Kereszi, Untitled (2006)
Photographer Lisa Kereszi (who went to Niagara with me on assignment for the magazine Orion) captures some of the human-nature interactions at the Falls with poetry and a touch of humor. Here, the mist that so enchanted Church obscures the waterfall from the camera's eye; the plastic-wrapped visitors look as if they're wondering where it went. At the same time, Lisa's characteristic attention to surfaces—note the glossy, mist-slicked sidewalk—evokes the ongoing artistic attempt to capture the visceral experience of Niagara.
Lisa Kereszi, Untitled (2006)
Lisa was fascinated by the emergency suicide-hotline phones dotting the Niagara Falls, NY State Park. Here, the oval phone seems to open up a hole in the middle of a typical, sylvan landscape near the Three Sisters. Death at the center of beauty: what could be more Sublime?
Roger Welch, Roger Woodward Niagara Falls Project (1974)
Installation artist Roger Welch combined a sweeping helicopter shot up to the brink of the Falls with a video of Roger Woodward, who was swept over the brink after a boating accident in 1960 and miraculously survived with only bumps and bruises. You can see a video of the installation on YouTube.
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