Frederic Edwin Church’s ‘Niagara’ Flabbergasted the 19th-Century Public. Here Are 3 Things You May Not Know About This Epic Picture

The colossal seven-foot painting captured the spirit of a burgeoning (and complicated) American national identity.

Frederic Edwin Church, Niagara (1857). Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.
Frederic Edwin Church, Niagara (1857). Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

Niagara Falls has been called the American Mecca—a natural wonder and famed destination for honeymooners and daredevils alike. The colossal cataract at the border of New York and Ontario was the single most frequently depicted landscape in the Americas from 1800 to 1860. 

One depiction, however, captured the public’s imagination more than the others: Frederic Edwin Church’s Niagara (1857), a seven-foot-wide colossus that seemed to press viewers dizzyingly close to the waterfall’s precipice.

The only student of Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole, Church first made his name with luminous and exotic landscapes of South America. But in the 1850s, he was drawn back north, and spent 1854 to 1856 extensively visiting Nova Scotia, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and, of course, Niagara Falls.

Niagara is one of Church’s most celebrated paintings—and perhaps his most important. It cemented him as the most famous painter of the age in the United States. 

“Of the hundreds of paintings made of Niagara, before Church and after him, this is by common consent the greatest,” wrote the critic Pierre Berton. Another called the painting the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” 

For Labor Day, we decided to take a closer look at Niagara. Here are three surprising facts about the painting that might make you see it in a whole new light.

 

The Painting Was a Celebration of Nature—and Business 

Frederic Edwin Church, circa 1855–1865. Collection of the Library of Congress.

Frederic Edwin Church, circa 1855–1865. Collection of the Library of Congress.

Niagara is a spectacle of raw, sublime nature. But it also represents the ambition and showmanship of urban commercial culture in the United States.

A carnival-like hubbub accompanied the grand painting’s arrival in New York City. In May 1857, when the painting was exhibited at the gallery of Williams, Stevens, and William, visitors were offered a glimpse of the painting for 25 cents. It was shown in a darkened gallery in which only the painting was illuminated. In the exhibition’s several-week run, more than 100,000 people passed through, the painting becoming a rival to the Falls itself as an attraction.

Church’s merchandising acumen was second to none: admission also gave viewers the opportunity to purchase a print of the work, which cost $30 for an artist’s proof chromolithograph or $15 for a colorized print. About 1,000 were sold.

The painting was then sent on a tour of cities along the Eastern seaboard before heading to the UK that same year. Church would select Niagara to represent him at the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris, where it won second prize. French academician Jean Léon Gérôme would refer to the painting as “las bas” (the foundation) of American artistic identity.

So great was the public draw—and the monetary allure—of Niagara that when the recently opened Corcoran Gallery of Art acquired the painting in 1876 for $12,500, the institution was deemed to be a sure success. 

 

It Was Read as a Truly Modern Spectacle  

Thomas Cole, Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830). Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Thomas Cole, Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830). Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Despite the grandeur of the image, Church’s 1857 masterpiece was actually famed for its restraint and near-scientific attention to natural detail. Earlier paintings by Church had drawn criticism for an unrealistic depiction of water. To get this one exactly right, the artist journeyed to the Falls in 1856 to work on site.

But Church’s wider approach differentiated his painting from the many, many other depictions of the Falls in more than just the details. Compare Church’s Niagara to Distant View of Niagara Falls, an 1830 painting by Church’s mentor, Thomas Cole. The latter conjures an atemporal, pseudo-Edenic state. Though European settlers had long taken over the land surrounding the Falls, Cole shows Native Americans standing on a cliff overlooking the roaring waters.

Church was influenced by Cole’s style, but by 1857, he had adopted a far more mathematical approach to depicting the environment. Scope and detail, not Arcadian allegory, are what Church aims to convey in Niagara—including through the work’s then-unconventional panoramic format, which makes you feel up close and personal with the Falls rather than like you are viewing a misty, far-away place.

 

Niagara Became the Banner Image for Manifest Destiny 

Detail of Niagara by Frederic Edwin Church.

Detail of Niagara by Frederic Edwin Church.

Church, it seemed to the public, had been able to capture the power and majesty of Niagara Falls within his canvas—to bring it under his control. Already in 1859, American author Adam Badeau would write that the painting was a testament to a national spirit defined “by the broad continent we call our own, by the onward march of civilization, by the conquering of savage areas.”

In other words, Church’s painting was taken as a natural icon of Manifest Destiny: the belief in the divine right of the United States to colonize the North American continent (a term first coined in 1845) and which, brought to reality, would subsequently result in the displacement of numerous Native American peoples, and with it, bring an incalculable loss of life. 

For 19th century adherents, Manifest Destiny fused a belief in the superiority of the US’s modern commercial society with faith in its divine mission. In a parallel way, Church’s canvas fused cutting-edge scientific detail with widely understood religious symbolism. As Church scholar David C. Huntington put it: 

Here ‘the supernatural’ was ‘clothed in the natural, the spiritual in terms of physics.’ In Church’s day the Bible provided transcendent types for the prophetic interpretation of nature (cf. the characterizations of Niagara’s components previously cited: e.g., the river as “flood,” the rainbow as “covenant,” the column of mist as “the pillar of cloud that guided the Israelites,” etc.).

Detail of Niagara by Frederic Edwin Church.

Detail of Niagara by Frederic Edwin Church.

Huntington even suggested that the branch heading towards the falls in Church’s Niagara symbolizes the inevitability of progress sweeping its obstacles out of the way:

[A]bout to be hurled into the “abyss,” an uprooted tree, black as death, contorted as a serpent, races helplessly to its imminent doom. In another moment this sinister shadow will have passed, purged from the scene as from the wilderness, no longer present as an antagonist to the divine beauty of the Sun’s prism.

In other words, this picture is a whole lot more than a postcard-worthy waterscape.


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