Niagara's tremendous success both in the United States and abroad established Frederic Edwin Church's reputation as the most famous American painter of his time. Similarly, the acquisition of Niagara by the young Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1876 secured the institution's reputation and inspired other major artists to seek representation in the collection.
In the 19th century, many American artists attempted to capture the power and beauty of Niagara Falls. Widely considered the nation's greatest natural wonder as well as a symbol of its youthful vigor and promise, the site was also deemed far superior to any natural phenomenon in Europe. Church's majestic 1857 canvas reveals the vista from the Canadian shore, based on oil and pencil sketches he had made during several visits to the site in 1856. He was the first to render the spectacle on such a grand scale, with such fine detail, naturalism, and immediacy. He heightened the illusion of reality by selecting a non-traditional format of canvas with a width twice as wide as its height to convey the panoramic expanse of the scene. Moreover, he pushed the plane of the falls nearest the viewer significantly downward to reveal more of the far side as well as the dramatic rush of water. Most notably, he eliminated any suggestion of a foreground, allowing the viewer to experience the scene as if precariously positioned on the brink of the falls. As one writer enthusiastically noted, "this is Niagara, with the roar left out!"
Critics and public alike marveled at the painting, which debuted in a one-painting exhibition at a New York City gallery shortly after its completion. The 25-cent admission allowed each visitor to view the monumental canvas, sometimes using binoculars or other optical aids to enhance the experience. The admission price also included a pamphlet reprinting critics' praises of the canvas and offered exhibition-goers the opportunity to purchase a chromolithograph of the painting. Within two weeks, Niagara had lured 100,000 visitors to glimpse what one newspaper critic described as "the finest oil picture ever painted on this side of the Atlantic." Following its phenomenal success in New York, the painting was exhibited in major cities along the eastern seaboard, made two tours of Britain, and was included in the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris.
oil on canvas
overall: 101.6 × 229.9 cm (40 × 90 1/2 in.)
framed: 164.5 × 286.4 × 17.8 cm (64 3/4 × 112 3/4 × 7 in.)
Artists / Makers
Frederic Edwin Church (painter) American, 1826 - 1900
This image is in the public domain.
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lower right: F.E. Church / 1857
Sold 1857 by the artist to (Williams, Stevens & Williams, New York); forfeited to (Brown Brothers Bankers, New York); (sale, Exhibition to Benefit the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, Tiffany & Co., New York, December 1861); purchased by John Taylor Johnston, New York; purchased 1876 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.
Associated NamesCorcoran Gallery of Art
- Lloyd's Gallery, Gracechurch Street, London, June-August 1857, no catalogue.
- Tenth-Street Studio Building, New York, May 1857, no. cataogue.
- Williams, Stevens and Williams, New York, May 1857, unnumbered catalogue, as The Great Fall, Niagara.
- German Gallery, London, April-May 1858, no catalogue.
- James McClure and Son Gallery, Glasgow, June 1858, no catalogue.
- Manchester, England, June-July 1858, no catalogue.
- Mr. Grundy’s Gallery, Church Street, Liverpool, July 1858, no catalogue.
- Samson Cariss and Co., Baltimore, December-December 1858, no catalogue.
- Washington, D.C., December 1858-January 1859, no catalogue.
- Williams, Stevens & Williams, New York, September-December 1858, no catalogue.
- Armory Hall, New Orleans, March-May 1859, no catalogue.
- Hall of the Mechanics’ Institute, Richmond, January-January 1859, no catalogue.
- Williams and Everett’s Gallery, Boston, December 1859-February 1860, no catalogue.
- Williams, Stevens & Williams, New York, July 1859, no catalogue.
- Fifth Avenue Hotel, New York, 11 October 1860, no catalogue.
- Messrs. James S. Earle & Sons, Philadelphia, 28 February 1860, no catalogue.
- Tiffany Exhibition (To benefit the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor), Old Dusseldorf Gallery, New York, 1861-1862, no catalogue.
- Art Exhibition at the Metropolitan Fair, in Aid of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, New York, 4 April 1864, no. 14.
- Exposition Universelle, United States Section, Class 1: Paintings on Canvas, Paris, 1867, no. 8.
- First Winter Exhibition, Including the First Annual Collection of the American Society of Painters in Water Colors, and the Works from the American Art Department of the Paris Universal Exposition, National Academy of Design, New York, November 1867-March 1968, no. 646.
- Second Annual Exhibition of the Yale School of the Fine Arts, Founded as a Department of Yale College, by the Late Augustus Russell Street, of New Haven, Conn., Yale School of Fine Arts, New Haven, 1870, no. 52.
- Exhibition of Paintings, Engravings, Drawings, Aquarelles, and Works of Household Art, in the Cincinnati Industrial Exposition, Cincinnati, 1874, no. 132.
- John Taylor Johnston's Collection, National Academy of Design, New York, November-December 1876, no. 147.
- New York Centennial Loan Exhibition, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, July 1876, no. 102.
- Paintings by Frederic E. Church, N.A., Special Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1900, unnumbered catalogue.
- Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, 1915-1916, no. 2935.
- Survey of American Painting, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, 1940, no. 97.
- De Gustibus: An Exhibition of American Paintings Illustrating a Century of Taste and Criticism, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1949, no. 12.
- Painting in America: The Story of 450 Years, Detroit Institute of Arts, 1957, no. 106.
- American Painting, 1857-1869, Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts, Delaware Art Center, 1962, no. 13.
- Three Centuries of Niagara Falls, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, 1964, no. 23.
- Frederic Edwin Church, National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington; Albany Institute of History and Art; M. Knoedler and Company, New York, 1966, no. 39 (shown only in Washington).
- 19th-Century America: Paintings and Sculpture, An Exhibition in Celebration of the Hundredth Anniversary of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York, no. 105.
- The Beckoning Land: Nature and the American Artist: a Selection of Nineteenth Century Paintings, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, April-June 1971, no. 49.
- The Natural Paradise: Painting in America, 1800-1950, Museum of Modern Art, New York, October-November 1971, unnumbered catalogue.
- Wilderness, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 9 October - 14 November 1971, no. 62 (organized by the National Endowment for the Arts).
- Corcoran [The American Genius]. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1976, unnumbered catalogue.
- The Natural Paradise: Painting in America, 1800-1950, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1 October - 30 November 1976, no. 23.
- The American Landscape Tradition, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 31 January - 31 August 1978, no catalogue.
- Close Observation: Selected Oil Sketches by Frederic E. Church, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; University of Pittsburgh Art Gallery; Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University; University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor; Elvehjem Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Brunnier Gallery, Iowa State University, Ames; Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City, Missouri; Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York, 1979, not in catalogue (shown only in Washington).
- A New World: Masterpieces of American Painting 1760-1910, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Grand Palais, Paris, 1983-1984, no. 38.
- Niagara: Two Centuries of Changing Attitudes, 1697-1901, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; New-York Historical Society, 1985-1986, no. 49.
- American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1987-1988, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- Frederic Edwin Church, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1989-1990, no. 30.
- New Worlds From Old: 19th Century Australian and American Landscapes, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1998-1999, no. 73, repro.
- American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States, 1820-1880, Tate Britain, London; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2002, unnumbered checklist (shown only in Philadelphia).
- Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 2005-2007, checklist no. 26.
- Nature as Nation: 19th-Century American Landscapes from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 30 August 2008 - 18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
- American Paintings from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 June - 18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
- American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013 - 28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
- Macleod, William. Catalogue of the Paintings, Statuary, Casts, Bronzes, &c. of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1882: 56, no. 81, as Niagara Falls.
- Macleod, William. Catalogue of the Paintings, Statuary, Casts, Bronzes, &c. of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1887: 57, no. 81, as Niagara Falls.
- Corcoran Gallery of Art. Handbook of the American Paintings in the Collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1947: 41, as Niagara Falls.
- Kornhauser, Elizabeth Mankin. "'All Nature Here is New to Art' Painting the American Landscape in the Nineteenth Century." In Hudson River School: Masterworks from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. Exh. cat. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, 2003: 12, repro.
- Kugler, Richard C. "William Bradford." In William Bradford: Sailing Ships and Arctic Seas. Exh. cat. New Bedford Whaling Museum, 2003: 21-22, 24, 32.
- Manoguerra, Paula A. "A Felicity of Taste or Nature." In Classic Ground: Mid-Nineteenth Century American Painting and the Italian Encounter. Exh. cat. Georgia Museum of Art, 2004: 82-83, repro.
- Avery, Kevin. Treasures from Olana : Landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church. Exh. cat. Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, NY, 2005: 35, color repro., 36 n. 26.
- Bjelajac, David. American Art : A Cultural History. Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2005: 215, 217, repro.
- Cornell, Daniel. In Masterworks of American Painting at the De Young. Edited by Timothy Anglin Burgard. San Francisco, 2005: 105, 107, 109, repro.
- Howat, John K. Frederic Church. New Haven, 2005: 67, 71-74, 79, 88, 118, 128, 134, 186, 189, 190, repro.
- Wallach, Alan. "Some Further Thoughts on the Panoramic Mode in Hudson River School Landscape Painting." In Phillip Earenfight and Nancy Siegal. Within the Landscape: Essays on Nineteenth-century American Art and Culture. Carlisle, 2005: 99-105, repro., color repro plate 13.
- Davidson, Gail. "Landscape Icons, Tourism, and Land Development in the Northeast." In Barbara Bloemink et. al. Frederic Church, Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran: Tourism and the American Landscape. Exh. cat. Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, New York, 2006: 13-18, repro.
- Ellegood, Anne. The Uncertainty of Objects and Ideas: Recent Sculpture. Exh. cat. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, 2006: 99, color repro.
- Rosenbaum, Julia B. Visions of Belonging: New England Art and the Making of American Identity. Ithaca and London, 2006: 82-83, repro., 87.
- Simon, Janice. "'Impressed in Memory': John Frederick Kensett's Italian Scene. In Niagara Falls: An Intimate Portrait. Guilford, 2006: 69-72, color repro., 151 n. 19.
- Davidson, Susan, ed.. Art in America : 300 years of innovation.Exh. cat. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, 2007: 120-121, color repro.
- Barber, John. The Road from Eden: Studies in Christianity and Culture. Palo Alto, 2008: 417 repro., 420-422.
- Moore, Charlotte Emans. "Art as Text, War as Context: The Art Gallery of the Metropolitan Fair, New York City's Artistic Community, and the Civil War." Ph.D. diss. Boston University, 2009: xx, 90, 129, 329, 374, 386, 414, 450 (note 164), 456-459, 479, 494, 504, 523, 622, fig. 6-3.
- Galandi-Pascual, Julia. New Topographic:Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape. Freiburg, 2010: 169, color repro.
- Morden, Barbara C. John Martin : apocalypse now!. Newcastle Upon Tyne, 2010: x, 96, color repro.
- Cao, Maggie M. "Heade's Hummingbirds and the Ungrounding of Landscape." American Art 25, no. 3 (Fall 2011): 50-51, repro.
- Kelly, Franklin. "Frederic Edwin Church, Niagara." In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 30, 109, 112-115, 117, 263, repro.
- Perry, Clair. The Great American Hall of Wonders: Art, Science, and Invention in the Nineteenth Century. Exh. cat. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, 2011: 63-65, 69, 188, 196-197, 208, repro. 64-65.
- Zambello, Francesca. "Creating the World of the Ring." Playbill for Richard Wagner: The Ring of the Nibelung (Washington National Opera, 2016). New York, 2016: 12, color repro.
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