Like other landscape artists of the Hudson River School, Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900) painted wild scenes of the new land: an American wilderness that most people had never seen for themselves. Church worked with such attention to detail that his paintings mesmerized the society of his day.
He suggested how light could leap and swirl around great natural landscapes. This was shown to great effect in the paintings he did of Niagara Falls. He visited the falls often, inspired by its pounding water tripping over a rocky ledge in a steep fall to a plunge pool below.
The artist made many oil sketches and drawings during his visits, including one drawing based on a sepia photograph. His artistic efforts culminated in two impressive paintings: “Niagara Falls, From the American Side” (1867) and “Niagara,” also called “Niagara Falls From the Canadian Side” (1857).
Niagara Falls is made up of three impressive waterfalls at the southern end of the Niagara Gorge—Horseshoe, American, and the smaller Bridal Veil—and they link Canada’s Ontario province and New York state in the United States. The word “niagara” is said to derive from an Iroquois term meaning, aptly, “thundering water.”
Church made many sketches and drawings of the falls from 1856 to 1858. He used these studies for a painting of the American Falls that New York art dealer Michael Knoedler commissioned in 1866. When it was exhibited first in New York City and then in London, it caused a sensation.
In order for the viewer to appreciate the impressive size of the falls, Church had to paint on a great canvas. It was his largest, at 8 1/2 feet by 7 1/2 feet. The painting shows a person as a tiny speck watching the falls on the edge of an outcropping, where the surging water cascades down with uneasy energy. The human figure gives a sense of scale to the falls, a sense that spectators can fully appreciate. With this view, the falls is both stirring and terrifying.
The painting was composed to show the falls sweep across the canvas in a curve. In the immediate foreground on the left, the detail is more precise; on the right, the falls is shrouded in mist. The artist wanted us to feel “the cascade in person, hearing the rush of water, feeling the spray of mist. The marginalized line of the horizon is important in this sense, consuming the gaze in a tumult of flowing water,” according to The Art Story website.
Dark green trees on the clifftop break the sweep of the whooshing, unstoppable flow. Although the clouds are tinged with sunlight, they take a back seat as all eyes are on the churning cascade. The blue pool at the base of the painting is dramatically inviting. A cloud of spray hovers at the foot of the falls while a denser mass of spray lies in the center of the composition.
A rainbow emerges in the lower right corner, and rocks disappear as the water takes on an almost solid shape. The viewer feels an overwhelming sense of the vastness of a water-filled landscape.
Church’s painting “Niagara” (1857) is of Horseshoe Falls, most of which is on the Canadian side but straddles the international border. It’s the largest of Niagara’s three waterfalls. This was his first large-scale painting of the falls.
Over 100,000 people saw the painting during the first two weeks it was exhibited in a darkened Manhattan gallery where only the painting was illuminated. A decade later, it won a silver medal at the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris and established Church’s international reputation as the preeminent American landscape painter.
The painting presents a panoramic view on a canvas twice as wide as it is high at 7 feet, 7 inches wide. The painting was made horizontal so the viewer could experience the immense stretch of the falls.
The viewer is meant to feel close to the dangerous edge of the watery cliff at a precipice, nearing the very edge. This view is seen from Table Rock, a large shelf of rock that juts out from the Canadian shore.
The sky is overcast, as if a storm will soon arrive. The sights and sounds of a storm about to occur over the heavy water flowing down only intensifies the immense awe that the falls inspires. A watery white rainbow connects the darkened sky with the rushing water.
On the horizon in the upper right corner of the composition are a number of buildings; in the upper left corner stands Terrapin Tower, where a tiny figure stands on a platform, again showing in scale mankind’s place in an immense, awe-inspiring environment.
Through extensive study, Church depicted the effect of mist and turbulent water with great realism, and his work was considered a technical achievement. He painted the churning water as if it is alive, aware of its descent and the force of its downward movement. Art historian David C. Huntington said that, in this painting of the falls, the artist captured the “soul” and “spirit” of Niagara.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum wrote on its website about the artist’s visits to make compositional studies and how he had mastered the depiction of natural bodies of water:
“Church demonstrates his mastery of the depiction of rapidly flowing water. Critics had earlier admired Church’s ambition but criticized his handling of water. This prompted the artist to make a trip to Niagara Falls in 1856 to study the movement of water in preparation for painting ‘Niagara,’ which in the end, proved his mastery.”
A Meditation on Nature
Niagara Falls was the ideal place for Church to interpret the interplay of light and water. He observed, studied, and put to paper how on a misty morning, images of trees and even water would emerge only as blurry shapes. Historians call this style luminism, a term coined by art scholar and curator John I.H. Bauer in 1954 to describe naturalistic landscapes and seascapes that depicted light in all its natural forms in a glowing way.
Church was influenced by early American writers, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson. According to Emerson, natural light makes the world “transparent” so the “light of higher laws” can shine through nature. As described on The Art Story website, the Hudson River School painters displayed “nature infused with a divine light.”
Natural phenomena have a spiritual side that is filled with light, just as human beings are filled with spiritual light. Church painted that unseen, but important, side of nature. He saw nature as a gift from God. He also showed us that our place in the natural world is really just a speck in the immensity of creation.
Church’s paintings evoke quiet reflection on the magnificence of a natural phenomenon. With his own observations, he helps us notice the beauty of nature. He did this by presenting parts of the natural world that we normally don’t notice, such as sunlight, moonlight, clouds, and mist. Using his oil paints like watercolors, he thinned the viscosity of the paint to create the effect of air being lit by radiant light. His colors were applied with precision, so brushstrokes could not be seen on the surface, and the artistic process was invisible. If the painting was a day scene, the sunlight was a wash of yellow. For a night scene, moonlight became awash in white to transform the night’s landscape into a silhouette.
Church’s paintings of Niagara Falls allow us to raise our minds and hearts to higher things, just as his imposing canvases of the falls allowed viewers of his time to immerse themselves in the phenomena of ethereal light, watery mist, and the pounding water of a natural wonder.
As we reflect on his paintings of a natural treasure, we might see what he saw: that Niagara Falls is alive with the light and love and vibrancy of creation. Church’s works encourage us to step away from our material concerns for a moment and appreciate what God has created for mankind.