Important Australian + International Fine Art
26 August 2015



oil on canvas

61.0 x 132.5 cm

inscribed indistinctly lower left: L...
framers label attached to frame verso: Charles Augustus Molton, Adelaide, c.1878

$60,000 - 80,000

Private collection
Private collection, Adelaide
Private collection, Adelaide

Catalogue text

By the mid-nineteenth century the American art world had experienced a period of unprecedented growth. The exploration of the continent, the Californian Gold Rush in 1848 and a fast growing railway system, opened up new frontiers for American landscape painters. At the same time there was an increasing trend for American artists to travel and study in Europe, particularly England, Germany, France, and Italy. The Hudson River School founding artists, stylistically indebted to the seventeenth century European masters, responded to the ruggedness and drama of nature to create works of a higher order that evoke the Sublime. From the 1850s a second generation of Hudson River School painters, including Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt, extended the heroic landscape visions of Thomas Cole, exploring new territory in South America and the American West, producing large dramatic paintings.

Four of the most important paintings of Niagara Falls belong to this period: Thomas Cole's Distant View of Niagara Falls, 1830; Frederic Church's Niagara, 1857 and Niagara Falls, from the American Side,1867 and John Frederick Kensett's Niagara Falls and the Rapids, c.1851. Some decades later George Inness' Blue Niagara, 1884 captured the atmospheric effects of the subject with a spiritual vision.

The Düsseldorf School, with its dedicated school of landscape painting and its emphasis on academic painting and fine detail had a significant influence on the Hudson River School. Many American artists enrolled at the Düsseldorf Academy during the 1830s and 1840s including Albert Bierstadt, George Caleb Bingham, William Morris Hunt, Eastman Johnson, and the German émigré Emanuel Leutze. The Academy then was directed by Wilhelm von Schadow, and among its students was the Austrian born artist Eugene von Guerard who later migrated to Australia in late 1852.

The opening of the Düsseldorf Gallery in New York in 1849, an event that received considerable publicity, generated further American interest in the Düsseldorf painters. The gallery initially displayed the private Düsseldorf art collection of John Boker. The showing there in 1851 of Emanuel Leutze's monumental history painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851 contributed to the popularity of the Düsseldorf School in New York and it encouraged more American artists to travel to Germany and join the Academy.

In 1848, Goupil, Vibert & Cie, a leading Paris print publisher with a growing international network of offices, opened in New York promoting affordable engravings and lithographs, commissioning French and American artists. Strong competition developed between these international commercial ventures and the local American Art-Union, Brooklyn Art-Union, National Academy of Design and the new International Art Union. With heightened gallery and exhibition activity from the late 1840s, demand for international and American paintings increased, attracting overseas artists to visit America. Artists such as Hippolyte Sebron from Paris arrived in New York in 1849. Sebron painted at least four versions of Niagara Falls during the 1850s with prints being commissioned by Goupil and Michael Knoedler. In 1867, Knoedler commissioned Frederic Church's monumental Niagara Falls, from the American Side (National Galleries of Scotland).

The painting on offer, Niagara Falls, from the Canadian Side c.1850s shows the influence of the Düsseldorf School in its aesthetic conception and fine, detailed painting technique. This elevated and panoramic view sweeps across the vast expanse of flooded plains towards Lake Erie. The flat distant horizon line is echoed by an elongated cloud formation, parting way to reveal the brilliant glow of a setting sun to the right.

The artist's viewpoint and overall composition were assisted by access to a growing number of wooden observation towers on the Canadian side catering to a burgeoning tourist industry. Three 'battlefield' towers were erected between 1845 and 1850 on the site of the Battle of Lundy's Lane, 'the bloodiest and deadliest battles of the entire War of 1812.'1

Notable features close to the falls recorded in this painting are: Robinson's American Pagoda to the left, a square shaped heavy timber structure, one hundred feet tall, built in 1845 and dismantled in 1860; the then privately owned Goat Island between the falls and Terrapin Tower, a circular stone viewing structure built in 1833 at the eastern edge of the Horseshoe Falls, next to Goat Island. Table Rock, the dramatic shelf of rock jutting out from the Canadian shore in the foreground was a favourite and spectacular early vantage point prior to the development of man-made tourist viewing facilities. The two figures on Table Rock are featured against a stark white cloud of spray and foam, reminiscent of the German romantic landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich's contemplative figures silhouetted against contrasting backdrops.

Minute features are recorded with scientific detail, including the small timber Prospect Point Observation Platform suspended from the rock-face near the American Pagoda, built in 1835 and reported as dismantled in 1845,2 and the paper mill on Bath Island established in the early 1820s.

The subject of Niagara Falls, the most famous natural wonder in North America, has a long art history, beginning with late seventeenth century published images based on Flemish recollections, through to Gerhard Richter in the 1960s. There is little doubt that the most iconic images were painted by the Hudson River School artists of both generations, in particular those produced in the 1850s.

The artist who created the painting on offer is yet to be identified, as is its early history. The painting was framed in Adelaide in the 1870s and has remained there until now. Assuming the work is a contemporary image, it does appear to belong to the period before 1860 (the year Robinson's American Pagoda was dismantled), when European engagement with American art was at a high point.

1. Niagara Falls: The Towers, a history, 1824 to Present, viewed 30 July 2015 http://www.niagarafrontier.com/towers.html
2. Ibid.

Baumgärtel, B., (ed.), The Düsseldorf School of Painting and Its International Influence 1819-1918, Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf, 2011
Knoedler Gallery Archive c.1848 - 1971, The Getty Research Institute, http://www.getty.edu/research/special_collections/notable/knoedler.html
Spassky, N., American Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, vol. II, New York, 1985
Stehle, R., 'The Düsseldorf Gallery in New York', New York Historical Society Quarterly, 58, 1974, pp. 305-315