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The painting of wonders

Imagine even thinkingm of trying to make a painting out of Niagara Falls. But Frederick Edwin Church was so smitten with this overwhelming phenomenon that, between 1848 and 1867, he painted and sketeched it at least 20 times.

Church, one of the outstanding figures to emerge from the so-called "Hudson River School" of painters who glorified the American landxape during the first 70 years of the 19th century, studied with Thomas Cole. It was the older painter who had pointed to Niagara Falls as a sublime subject. He had written of this "wonder of the world": "In gazing on it, we feel as though a great void had been filled in our minds -- our conceptions expand -- we become . . . part of what we behold. . . In its volume we conceive immensity, in its course, everlasting duration, in its impetuosity, uncontrollable power. These are the elements of its sublimity . . ."

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To anyone who has seen the falls, this resonant eloquence must ring surprisingly true: they overwhelm tourism, scepticism and statistics with vast ceaselessness and primitive inevitability - with sheer, unimaginable scale and force. It is hard to imagine living equably near to them: indifference would be impossible, but a continual state of wonderment a little unsettling.

Ten years before he painted this painting, "Nigaria Falls, From the American side," Church had painted "Nigara" (1857), showing the falls from the Canadian side in a large horizontal composition (in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington). In 1858 he had sketeched from a boat below the falls, but he made the painting shown here without any further visit to Niagara. He used sketches and drawings, and also a sepia photograph which he worked over in oil, eliminating all evidences of tourism. To evoke the atmosphere and immediate drama of the scene after such a time lapse is in itself a remarkable achievement. He captured a great deal more than its delineation. A superb visual memory and a scientific interest in natural forms, together with a heroically excited imagination, brought a fascinated accuracy to bear on the affects on sunlight filtered through the clouds of spray thrown up by the plunging water, the changing play of shadow and luminosity, the eerie natural spectrum of a rainbow in the lower right corner, the brilliant cascade of truquoise in the center of the Canadian Fall (Horsehose Fall), the agitated swell and surface marbling of the water at the foot of the cataract. Church was influenced by Alexander Humboldt's "Kosmos" (its first volumes were published in the 1840s), which has been described as a work designed to convey "not only a graphic description but an imaginative conception of the physical world -- which should support generalization by details and dignity details by generalization." Like Humboldt, Church travelled widely in search of the large wonders of nature that best answered his vision -- though a deep admiration for the marvels of his own country remained paramount. Niagara Falls seems to have spoken to him directly as one of the thrilling spectacles of the New World, and no doubt also appealed to his sense of detail subserving a grandiose conception. He didn't find the universe in a grain of sand. Instead he (perhaps rather literally) found the universe suggested only by the grandest and most breathtaking displays: sunsets in the wilderness, icebergs, volcanoes and cataracts.

When "Niagara Falls, From the American Side" was first seen in Britain (only a year after it was painted), one enthusiastic critic compared Church's gifts to Turner. Perhaps the billowing vapors made the parallel particularly obvious, and admittedly Church's art comes in a line of development that goes back to Claude Lorraine (also, rather differently, to the romantic art of Salvator Rosa) in the 17th century. Claude was admired and emulated by Turner, though Turner's terrifyingly precipitous "Passage of the St. Gothard" of 1804 owes little to the French landscapist, and if there is a Turner which has more than a little in common with Church's Niagara paintings it is this one. It similarly places the observer in midair, in a state of vertigo, even, with an unknown drop beneath him. Church uses the device of a tiny pair of figures on an insecure (and completely imaginary) lookout to set the scale and increase the drama. Turner uses a couple of trudging packhorses in his "St. Gothard" to the same end, but less awkwardly. Both pictures add to their mystery and dimension with cloud and mist. They were both designed consciously to strike amazement into the onlooker's heart, to confront them with the fearful beauty of great heights and depths. But neither was painted directly on the spot, and they both act on the viewer with the intensity of an experience so vivid in the memory that it can be powerfully recalled.

But of the two, Church is the literalist. his painting is at the service of eye-baffling subject matter. He was a faithful naturalist who felt that nothing could be as staggering to the imagination as observed nature itself. But with Turner, more as his art developed, nature was at the service of his vision. If Turner had painted Niagara Falls it would have been primarily a Turner. Church's painting of it is primarily Niagara Falls.

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