The falls at Niagara are not only sublimely spectacular but, for centuries, they have also symbolized the power and potential of the New World. By 1900 the cataracts had been depicted more often than any other natural wonder in North America, and most of the leading American landscape painters...
The falls at Niagara are not only sublimely spectacular but, for centuries, they have also symbolized the power and potential of the New World. By 1900 the cataracts had been depicted more often than any other natural wonder in North America, and most of the leading American landscape painters had rendered them. The most celebrated image was Frederic Edwin Church’s grand horizontal composition Niagara (1857, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), which became well known through printed reproductions; Jasper Francis Cropsey [47.1238], John Frederick Kensett [48.439], Samuel F. B. Morse [48.456], Albert Bierstadt [64.418], and George Inness [1982.209] also captured the rushing waters. The site became a popular tourist destination. Hunt visited Niagara for a vacation in 1878, not intending to work at all, but he was so stirred by the scene that he sent to Boston for his painting materials. He remained in the area for a month, producing charcoal drawings, pastels, and several oil paintings of the falls and rapids. While Hunt was in Niagara, he received an important commission to paint two large murals for the New York State Capitol in Albany. The beauty and importance of Niagara prompted Hunt to contemplate making the falls the subject of one of his murals, but the authorities preferred an allegorical composition [44.48]. Nevertheless, Hunt was inspired to paint the falls on a monumental scale. Hunt painted two large canvases of Niagara Falls in his Boston studio: Niagara Falls in 1878 (Williams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, Massachusetts), and the MFA’s Niagara in 1879. These were the two biggest easel paintings Hunt had ever attempted. For the Williams College painting, Hunt portrayed the thundering cascade from atop Horseshoe Falls, the same vantage point of Church’s famous painting. He chose the view from the base of the American Falls—the spot that gives the most panoramic vista—for the Museum’s picture, as well as for a charcoal drawing (Niagara Falls, 1878, Cleveland Museum of Art), a pastel (Niagara Falls,1878, Harvard University Art Museums), and two other oil paintings (American Falls, Niagara, 1878, Corcoran Gallery of Art, and Niagara Falls, 1878, Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts). To paint the Museum’s picture, Hunt used casein, a protein derived from milk, as a binder for his pigments. As a result, Niagara has the somewhat chalky appearance of a pastel. The artist enhanced his shimmering effects by applying his paint in multiple layers, employing bravura brushwork to achieve the dramatic effects of rushing water and billowing mist and using blue, yellow, pink, and lavender hues to realize the opalescent spray. A New York Times critic in 1880 declared of Hunt’s Niagara paintings:“He may be said to be the only painter, so far, who has attempted to paint Niagara and not failed ignominiously.” The canvas was exhibited at the Hunt Memorial Exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1879 and was one of three Niagara paintings in a smaller exhibition of Hunt’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1880. Hunt’s Niagara paintings were praised on that occasion, and of the Museum’s painting, the New York Times critic wrote, “The largest is, perhaps, not the best, but it has bold effects of color near the top of the waterfall that are startling and yet truthful.” The Times also reported that the Hunt estate had refused an offer of $20,000 for the painting in 1880. Hunt’s reputation remained strong for the rest of the nineteenth century, and three of his paintings, including the Museum’s Niagara, were exhibited as part of a “Retrospective Exhibit of American Painting” at the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Niagara remained with the Hunt family until 2000 when it was given to the Museum, where had been on loan for most of the twentieth century. Notes 1. “A Valuable Collection: Hunt’s Pictures at the Museum,” New York Times, May 1, 1880, 5. 2. “Notes on Art Topics,” New York Times, April 4, 1880, 5. 3. “A Valuable Collection,” 5. Janet L. Comey
1879, the artist (1824-1879); 1879, by inheritance to the artist's wife, Louisa D. (Mrs. William Morris) Hunt (died 1897); 1897, by descent to her children, Paul Hunt, Elinor Hunt Diederich, and Enid Hunt Slater; by descent to the artist's grandson, William Morris Hunt II; 2000, partial gift of WIlliam Morris Hunt II to the MFA. (Accession Date: January 24, 2001)
Partial gift of William Morris Hunt II