View of Niagara Falls and Terrapin Tower from the American Side
This is one of the first of Richardt’s several attempts to capture the spectacular view of both the American Falls and the Horseshoe Falls at Niagara (For another, see Acc. No. 89.14). His painting succeeded at the time for several reasons, not the least of which was its sheer size. Its eight-foot breadth puts it on the scale of the semicircular painted panoramas whose great popularity had not abated since their invention in the late 18th century. Although the canvas is not curved, the sweep of the river that fills the foreground is treated as a powerful receding oval, and the painting’s surface is also organized into a huge oval, defined by the dark shoreline and clouds and giving an effect not unlike viewing the scene through a lens.
Born in Denmark and already a painter of Scandinavian landscape views, Richardt came to America in 1855 specifically to paint Niagara Falls, then still the most famous natural wonder of the New World. Although he painted other American sites, including city views, his reputation was established with his Niagara paintings. A rapid worker, Richardt was able to exhibit The Niagara Gallery as early as 1857 (at the Stuyvesant Institute and Henry Leeds and Co., New York), an exhibition at which the Department of State’s painting was probably number 17: “Ferry Landing on the Canadian Shores, where carriages take visitors up the steep winding road to the Clifton House.” The New York Evening Post proclaimed it “among the most accurate views of Niagara Falls . . . ever exhibited in this country.”1New York Evening Post, February 18, 1857, 3.
In 1859, Ferdinand Richardt’s Gallery of Paintings of American Scenery and Collection of Danish Paintings was mounted at the National Academy of Design, where this painting is assumed to be number 52: “General View of the Falls of Niagara, taken from the Clifton House on the Canada side. In the foreground the landing-place for row-boats that carry visitors across the river.”2Quoted in Twenty-Five American Masterpieces, sales catalogue, Hirschl & Adler, New York, 1971, no. 13. It need only be added that the Maid of the Mist is steaming prominently on the river.
To avoid the turmoil of the Civil War, Richardt moved temporarily to London, where, in 1863, he exhibited paintings of “scenery of whatsoever kind—mountain, rock, forest, waterfall, lake, river, simple landscape, with edifices of every class and in every style, and all such groups of figures as may be consistent with each of his subjects” in his studio.3The Art-Journal (London), December 1, 1863, 2: 241. “But,” continued the anonymous critic of The Art Journal, “the artist’s greatest works are his American pictures: and in the front of these very properly stands his noble group of pictures of that wonder of the world, as well as of America, Niagara.”4Ibid. One close-up view of the falls was even judged more dramatic than the famous painting by Frederic E. Church, Niagara Falls, 1857, (Corcoran Gallery of Art), which had already been acclaimed in London.
The Collection’s painting, in contrast, is markedly conservative. Despite its immense size, the falls are seen from a great distance and from a high viewpoint. In fact, it is a very late example of the 18th-century concept of the “picturesque,” which has been described as “an aesthetic of accommodation” by means of which “sublime,” tumultuous, cataclysmic natural phenomena are tamed by composing them “according to recognizable aesthetic conventions.” This “is meant to reassure the viewer that man is in control.”5Cooper 1982, 208–9.
Richardt’s chosen view is remarkably close to that in John Vanderlyn’s 1801 painting, A Distant View of the Falls of Niagara (Senate House Museum, Kingston, New York). As Vanderlyn intended, the painting was engraved at least once in Europe, by J. Merigot (1805).6Ibid., reproduced 228, fig. 93. Merigot, whose dates are unknown, worked in London and Paris. This is a very large steel engraving (20 ¾ by 29 ½ inches). If Richardt owned the engraving, a distinct possibility given his established interest in the falls, it may have led him to seek out the same viewpoint when he visited Niagara, and together with his own sketches may have served as a model for the large painting produced in his Brooklyn studio.
Returning to the United States, Richardt was in San Francisco by 1873 and died in Oakland, California, in 1895.
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.