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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Romanticizing the familiar

Niagara, 1857, by Frederic Edwin Church

Yesterday, I talked about the differences between what is actually present in a landscape and what an artist paints. This morning I thought I’d look at a subject I know intimately: Niagara Falls.

Distant View of Niagara Falls, 1830, Thomas Cole
Thomas Cole, the patriarch of the Hudson River School, was interested in celebrating the untamed American wilderness. In Distant View of Niagara Falls, he presses the forest up against the cataracts. Two noble savages observe the view; other figures are distantly present on the Canadian shore.

Although this picture was taken in 1858, it probably better represents what Niagara Falls looked like in 1830 than Cole’s painting does. It's exactly contemporary with Church's Niagara.
By 1830, Niagara Falls had been host to white settlement and exploration for almost two centuries. The cataracts themselves were surrounded by factories, thriving towns, and the hotels, shops and other businesses serving the tourist trade. A band of Tuscarora lived in a village on Goat Island (that bit between the cataracts), selling their handicrafts to tourists.

Niagara Falls, from the American Side, 1867, by Frederic Edwin Church. This view is so accurate to reality that it is no surprise to learn that he had a sepia photograph to use as reference.
In editing the real into the sublime, Cole made the forests and the sky his primary subject. He sets the viewer so far back from the Falls that the grandeur of the scene lies in its setting, not in the cataracts themselves.

Frederic Church’s most well-known canvas of Niagara takes an entirely different approach: he strips out the inconsequential, focusing on the rim of water. This corresponds so exactly to our psychological reaction that we locals think it’s triggering memory. In fact, a hundred thousand viewers flocked to see it in the first two weeks of its debut; most of them had probably never visited Niagara, but they all felt the roar of the Falls. From a strictly visual standpoint, however, it doesn’t reflect reality any more than Cole’s painting did, because Goat Island is much closer than he represented it to be. 

The view (approximately) which Church painted in 1857.
Both Cole and Church sought to eliminate man's touch on the landscape; both succeeded. Niagara Falls has been painted so many times, by so many first-rate artists, and they almost all share that goal. Here is Bierstadt’s painting, and here is William Morris Hunt’s


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