NIAGARA FALLS. A trite, timeworn, honkytonk haven for honeymooners, fit for a Marilyn Monroe movie and for a Steve'n'Eydie song ("Let's take a trip to the Falls . . .").
But "Niagara" at the Corcoran Gallery is far from the madding crowd, and, with 253 paintings and memorabilia, it makes a big splash. The upstairs galleries overflow with images of the famous Falls. In the show, Falls art commences with a 1697 engraving from a travel book by Father Louis Hennepin -- who tripled the height of the Falls in his narrative, and whose anonymous illustrator made the chasm into a bottomless pit. It ends with a 1901 stereoscopic card on the first person to go over the Falls in a barrel (Annie Edson Taylor, a 17-minute ride). That same year, the Falls were tamed in the name of electricity.
Before that, only artists conquered the Falls. "Everything but the roar" was how Frederic Church's "Niagara" was described in 1857 when his monumental, breathtaking painting was revealed in a Broadway gallery. By then, Niagara already was losing its pristine nature to tourists and hawkers. For example, one "Abe Lincoln and family" signed a tollhouse register that year.
Visitors were mentally swept away by the power of the Falls. To fascinated travelers and Romantic painters in the early 1800s, they symbolized terrible, awesome majesty and divine wrath. The Falls' perpetual rainbow was likened to God's rainbow after The Flood.
According to the paintings, there were always tourists, whether Indian couples, redcoats, skinnydippers or the prophet Elijah. There were fireworks, highdivers, tightrope walkers and, as early as 1834, guides like Sam Hooker, who offered tours and sold local mineral samples, animals ("bald eagles, the best specimen in the country") and "Indian antiquities made by the aborigines."
In his "Niagara," even Church couldn't resist putting in the tiniest female tourist, scarcely visible. It was a question of showing scale.
As "Nature's Grandest Scene," the foaming, boiling cataract challenged artists to new heights. After "Niagara," Church returned to paint again, this time chartering the Maid of the Mist to look "Under Niagara." Western landscapist Thomas Moran came East to lure us into the "Cave of the Winds." Regis Gignoux makes us feel small in his other-worldly "Niagara, The Table Rock -- Winter," which, though painted in 1847, would suit the cover of a science-fiction paperback. And John Twachtman's "Niagara Falls" is an impressionistic, summer symphony. Artists painted the Falls at midnight and from bridges and outcroppings, and one just did the rainbow -- with tourists, of course.
Given that we are no longer Romantics, what's missing from this mammoth show, besides the roar, is more about Table Rock, a 160-foot outcropping that crashed into the gorge in 1850. More about preservationists, more about the wearings of time and why the Horseshoe (Canadian) Falls has fared more beautifully than the American Falls.
Instead, prepare to be simply overwhelmed by falls. The show's $1.50 admission charge makes "Niagara" a good bet for a low-budget honeymoon.
NIAGARA -- At the Corcoran Gallery of Art through November 24.