(American; b. Hartford, Conn., 1826–d. New York City, 1900)
40 x 90 1/2 in. (106.5 x 229.9 cm)
Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund
In the 19th century, many American artists were inspired to portray Niagara Falls, widely considered the nation’s greatest natural wonder. The site reached its highest acclaim with Church’s majestic 1857 canvas of the falls as viewed from the Canadian shore. The painting was introduced to the American public shortly after its completion, as a one-painting exhibition at the commercial gallery of Williams, Stevens, and Williams in New York City. Art lovers and thrill seekers alike paid 25 cents each to view the monumental canvas, sometimes using opera glasses or other optical aids to enhance the experience.
The price of admission included a pamphlet that reprinted contemporary critics’ praise of Church’s picture and offered exhibition-goers the opportunity to purchase a chromolithograph of the canvas. Within two weeks of its debut, 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 all along the eastern seaboard, taken on two tours of Britain, and included in the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris.
Critics and the public marveled at the picture’s grand scale, fine detail, and especially its illusion of reality. Unlike his predecessors, Church had 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!” Niagara’s tremendous success secured Church’s reputation as the most famous painter in America and brought him international recognition. Its acquisition by the Corcoran in 1876 was an important one for the young museum and inspired other major artists to seek representation in the collection.