Man tried everything imaginable to tame it: from painting it in words and pictures, to rolling over it in barrels and teetering across it on wires, to harnessing its seemingly ceaseless power for electricity. It was America's most admired, most visited -- and ultimately, most exploited -- natural wonder.
"Niagara: Two Centuries of Changing Attitudes, 1697-1901," an exalting and entertaining exhibition of 253 paintings, watercolors, prints, photographs and memorabilia organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, shows an awesome, unspoiled Niagara we'll never see again -- the falls before the Fall, rendered with romance and near-religious reverence.
Nature in the New World was grander and wilder than in the Old, and painters and printmakers found a European audience hungry for a look at the fiercest of America's natural wonders. Emblematic of the new nation's limitless potential, Niagara was also seen as a supranatural phenomenon, a sublime manifestation of the Almighty. Encountering the falls was surely encountering God through his works.
Here is Charles Dickens' breathless if not deathless description of his first view of Niagara: "Then, when I felt how near to my Creator I was standing, the first effect, and the enduring one -- instant and lasting -- of the tremendous spectacle, was Peace. Peace of Mind: Tranquility: Calm Recollections of the Dead: Great Thoughts of Eternal Rest and Happiness: nothing of Gloom or Terror."
Of course, it wasn't easy for the falls to live up to such hype. And by the 1880s, with science on the rise and belief in a divinely ordained national destiny beginning to decline, their symbolic significance had largely evaporated. Now Niagara raised other, more secular thoughts -- about torrents of tourists and industry, and the awesome cash flow they could generate.
"Every American bride is taken there," quipped Oscar Wilde in 1882, "and the sight must be one of the earliest, if not the keenest, disappointments in American married life."
The Corcoran exhibit, assembled from 68 private and public collections, spans the era of the "Spirit of Niagara," ending with the Pan-American Exposition of 1901, when man plugged into the falls for hydroelectric power. By this time the man-made grace of the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty had replaced Niagara's foaming waters as the most potent symbol of America.
For the painter, Niagara presented the great challenge -- falling water is perhaps an artist's most defiant subject -- and this exhibition, by curator Jeremy Elwell Adamson of the National Gallery of Canada, shows how difficult a task it was.
The exhibition's centerpiece, of course, is the Corcoran's own "Niagara," by Frederick Edwin Church -- the subject of Adamson's doctoral thesis and the inspiration for this show. Church's painting, a familiar Washington sight, has never been seen like this, spectacularly lit and backed by a brilliant emerald green, surrounded by its ancestors and imitators.
When William Wilson Corcoran bought "Niagara" in 1867 for his new art gallery, he paid $12,500 -- the highest price ever paid for an American painting at that time. Completed in 1857, less than a year after Church settled on his imaginary over-the-edge viewpoint, it is, as Adamson says, "an encyclopedia of moving water." Thousands paid 25 cents to see it when it toured New York and England (you will pay slightly more -- $1.50 for adults, 50 cents for students and senior citizens -- because of the Corcoran's new exhibit admission policy), and thousands more purchased the popular chromolithograph reproduction.
Church dispensed with the accepted formulas and conventions of presenting the falls -- there are no framing trees, no people. His rainbow is so startlingly real it that reportedly caused critic John Ruskin to ask whether it was a prismatic trick of the light. In "Niagara," Church also describes the overwhelming vastness of the American continent -- we see the curve of the Earth beyond the falls.
Accompanying the painting are Church's small on-site oil sketches, which show how he arrived at his key view, and two other Church views of Niagara -- including a print of the lost painting "Under Niagara," in preparation for which Church chartered the Maid of the Mist ferryboat and came closer to the falls than any other artist had dared.
The exhibition's single-subject focus lets it follow the evolution of American landscape painting as well as the waxing and waning of Niagara as a symbol of America. Beginning with the first depiction of the falls -- a Dutch artist's 1697 engraving from the description of Father Louis Hennepin, the first European to see Niagara -- the show is arranged chronologically. We see the gradual transformations of color and viewpoint and composition as artists moved from geographic description through the picturesque tradition, adding framing trees, threatening thunderheads, scale-defining Noble Savages and the omnipresent rainbow. (The installation was done by Edward Nygren and the firm of Staples & Charles.)
The remarkable collection includes Revolution-era painter John Trumbull's two 14-by-2 1/2-foot paintings, studies for a proposed 360-degree panorama that was never produced; Quaker artist Edward Hicks' quaint allegory, framed by a poem; German painter Herman Hertzog's sensationally moody moonlit vision; and the delicate pastel series by Impressionist John Twachtman.
After photography was perfected, Niagara quickly became a popular natural subject. The camera and the stereograph virtually killed the market for paintings and prints of the falls, and engravings and lithographs vanished after the 1850s. "Niagara" includes the earliest remaining daguerreotypes, a photo of President McKinley visiting the falls hours before he was assassinated in Buffalo, a photo of the French acrobat Blondin's amazing tightrope walk across the gorge and a stereoscopic photocard of Annie Taylor, a schoolteacher who in 1901 became the first person to go over the falls in a barrel.
Also included are other signs of where art ended and commerce began: memorabilia, advertising images, amusing tourist guidebooks and Indian beadwork souvenirs.
The exhibition coincides with the 100th anniversary of the Niagara Reservation, the reclaimed area around the falls saved by a lobbying group formed as a response to the commercialization of Nature's Grandest Scene. By 1885, you couldn't find a spot to see the falls without a moccasin seller or factory smokestack intruding on your view.
But thanks to the efforts of the Reservation group, which counted Ruskin and Church among its members, the view of Niagara is better than it was a century ago.
You don't have to shuffle off to Buffalo, however; the view at the Corcoran is spectacular as well. All that's missing are the roar of rushing water and the honeymoon suite.
"Niagara" is on view at the Corcoran through Nov. 24, when it moves in abridged form to the New York Historical Society.