The great falls at Niagara captivated and challenged numerous American and British landscape painters during the nineteenth century. Samuel Finley Breese Morse portrayed the now much-eroded Table Rock on the Canadian side of the falls, describing the varied hues of the water, the spectacular...
The great falls at Niagara captivated and challenged numerous American and British landscape painters during the nineteenth century. Samuel Finley Breese Morse portrayed the now much-eroded Table Rock on the Canadian side of the falls, describing the varied hues of the water, the spectacular spray, and the arching rainbow that crowned one of the world’s natural wonders. Tiny figures—Native Americans and white tourists to Niagara—indicate the immense scale of the falls; the presence of Native Americans also locates the site clearly in the New World. Although the reverse side of the canvas bears Morse’s signature and the date of 1835, several historians have debated the attribution. Because the style of this painting is so unlike Morse’s other landscapes of the 1830s, several scholars proposed that the inscription and date on the reverse must have been added later. The composition resembles a painting of the falls by American artist John Vanderlyn, and this canvas was once thought to be one of Vanderlyn’s long-lost works. Vanderlyn had sought to capitalize on the popularity of Niagara by being the first American to paint the site and to sell prints made after his views of the natural wonder. When he reached the falls in 1801 he was overwhelmed by what he saw. He produced numerous sketches of Niagara from the Canadian shore and eventually had two of his compositions reproduced abroad in an edition of two hundred prints (unfortunately the series proved to be an economic failure). The MFA’s painting was also at one time attributed to Vanderlyn’s assistant in Paris, Benjamin Champney, who made copies from the elder painter’s sketches of Niagara over forty years later. Current scholarship now returns to favor the young Morse, who was a great admirer of Vanderlyn’s work and whose name appears on the reverse. Morse may have been inspired to paint the falls when he was studying with Benjamin West in London in 1809–10. He likely became aware of Vanderlyn’s ambitious project for the Niagara engravings through West and his fellow American expatriate John Singleton Copley, who had been in charge of inspecting the printed proofs executed for Vanderlyn in London. Despite all the questions surrounding the attribution of this composition, the painting stands as a testimony to the importance of Niagara for American landscapists. This sublime site, so identified with the New World, would later inspire many American artists, including Frederic Edwin Church (Niagara, 1857, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), Albert Bierstadt [64.418], Jasper Francis Cropsey [47.1238], William Morris Hunt [2000.1215], and George Inness [1982.209]. Notes 1. One scholar believes Vanderlyn’s lost painting is the canvas now entitled A View of the Western Branch of the Falls of Niagara, Taken from Table Rock, dated 1801, in the collection of Historic New England, Boston. See John Davis Hatch, “John Vander Lyn’s Prints of Niagara Falls,” Magazine Antiques, December 1990, 1254. This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).
Reverse, before relining: To Nath. Jocelyn./Sam. F.B. Morse.—/New Haven—1835
1835, given by the artist to Nathaniel Jocelyn (1796-1881), New Haven, Conn. Private collection, Baltimore. By 1944, with John Levy Galleries, New York; 1945, sold by John Levy Galleries to Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I.; 1948, bequest of Martha C. (Mrs. Maxim) Karolik to the MFA. (Accession Date: June 3, 1948)
Bequest of Martha C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815-1865