Thundering through the Falls of Niagara is the overflow of all the Great Lakes except Lake Ontario. The combined waterpower of Horseshoe Falls and American Falls has been estimated at some four million horsepower. Both Falls drop more than 150 feet; their combined width is nearly four-fifths of a mile.
Even Oscar Wilde, like Sarah Bernhardt before him, was persuaded to put on an ungainly waterproof coat before strolling in the spray of these awesome waters. Thousands of other tourists arrived at the Falls in the 19th century. Henry James (no common tourist he) complained of the “horribly vulgar shops and booths and catchpenny-artifices which have pushed and elbowed to within the very spray of the Falls.”
Among these tourists appeared the painters, engravers, and photographers whose work graced The New York Historical Society this winter in “Niagara: Two Centuries of Changing Attitudes, 1697-1901.” The catalog of the show reads like a “Who’s Who” of the Hudson River School of landscape paintings.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, organized the exhibition to celebrate the centenary of the Niagara Reservation, the oldest state park in America. The Corcoran’s painting of the Falls by Frederic Edwin Church was the centerpiece of the show.
Like most of the representation of Niagara Falls in the exhibition. Church’s work captures the aesthetic splendor but not the transcendent terror of the experience of Niagara. These artists have tamed Niagara as a symbol of power, just as modern technology has regulated the actual flow of the Niagara River. Only John Trumbull’s eerie double panoramas of the Falls comes close to translating the spiritual significance of Niagara.
What we have forgotten is the way in which Niagara Falls once embodied the spirit of America, both here and abroad. Until the era of modern advertising—with its pitches for Niagara starch, Niagara biscuits, and other noble additions to the notion of Niagara—the sublime beauty-and power of Niagara Falls represented the essence of the new American continent.
Europeans who made the pilgrimage to Niagara Falls went so far as to christen it a holy place, confirming what the Iroquois had known for ages. Visitors immersed themselves in the roaring wonder of Niagara. Nathaniel Hawthorne was mesmerized; Charles Dickens perceived an indelible “image of Beauty”; Harriet Beecher Stowe claimed that she sensed God in the perpetual rainbow at the Falls.
This exhibition, with its memorabilia and artifacts, teaches us that anything can be trivialized and exploited. We can only be grateful that Frederick Law Olmsted and the State of New York worked together back in 1895 to restore the Falls to their natural setting.
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