In the nineteenth century, many American artists were inspired to portray Niagara Falls, widely considered the greatest natural wonder in North America and a popular tourist site. Spending time in nature not only provided an escape from the stresses of growing industry and commerce, but also held the promise for spiritual renewal. By the middle of the century, picturesque views of America were frequently depicted in books, travel literature, and popular prints. While many artists, such as Frederic Church and John Kensett, traveled to the region and sketched Niagara Falls from life, others, such as Thomas Chambers, never visited and instead based his view on popular prints.
Kensett traveled to Niagara three times, in 1851, 1852, and 1857. He chose to portray Luna Falls on the American side of the Falls, a less dramatic site than, for example, the Horseshoe Falls, painted by Frederic Edwin Church and in the collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Kensett included figures of Native Americans at the lower right of the canvas as a symbol of the Falls as primeval—a common theme by the mid-nineteenth century.
Thomas Chambers was a self-taught artist who specialized in marine scenes and landscapes. His paintings are admired for their bright colors and bold brushwork. It is likely Chambers did not visit Niagara Falls but instead drew his inspiration from popular printed imagery, such as etchings and engravings, a common practice for artists at the time. This may account for the stiff, stylized brushwork. The powerful swirling waves appear motionless and somewhat flat. The inclusion of a small figure in the foreground, however, conveys the scale and intensity of this celebrated landmark.
Church traveled to Niagara Falls in 1856 where he explored numerous viewpoints of the cataracts in his many sketches. This painting is one of only a few self-sufficient studio works completed that year, and depicts Horseshoe Falls from the American side. The artist chose a traditional vantage point below the falls, emphasizing the height and force of the rushing water, concerning himself with the downward plunge of the cataract and its changing qualities of light and density. A brilliant rainbow links the sky and water, and three tiny houses dot the far shore.
Alvan Fisher was one of the first American artists to specialize in landscape painting. Inspired by British ideas of the picturesque, Fisher and his American colleagues sought the poetic features of natural scenery. Fisher’s work served as a modest prelude to the later, larger compositions of the Hudson River School, led by Thomas Cole.
In the 1820s, Fisher traveled throughout Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts and upstate New York, making sketches on the spot which he later referenced for his paintings. In this view of Niagara Falls, taken from the Canadian side, the distant vantage point conveys the magnificence of this natural wonder which had also become a major tourist attraction. The artist included a curious element in the foreground of a rescue vignette at the cliff’s edge. This scene presages the many attempts by daredevils to conquer the falls in the following century.