When Oscar Wilde declared, "It is amongst the earliest, though surely not the keenest, disappointments of American marriage," his hosts were unamused. In 19th-century America, scoffing at Niagara Falls was tantamount to dissing America itself.

Frederic Edwin Church's "Niagara," at the Corcoran Gallery, depicts the mighty cataract -- that wonder of our blessed land, that honeymooner's grail -- with the proper sense of awe. The rainbow signifies God's presence; we gaze upon the waters from an angel's point of view. Europe has its cathedrals, but nothing quite like this.

It's a cineramic picture: The eye is irresistibly swept into the scene much the way that driftwood is being driven toward the brink.

Church, then 31, took just two months to paint "Niagara." In 1857, when he displayed the 7 1/2-foot-wide canvas in Manhattan, viewers trooped to see it, and paid 25 cents apiece.

Few commented on its piety, or its patriotism, which they seemed to take for granted. What amazed them was its realism, and its utterly convincing depiction of water on the move. Here, wrote one, is "Niagara with the roar left out."

-- Paul Richard

"Niagara" made Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) one of the best-known painters in America. The canvas is in the permanent collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 17th Street and New York Avenue NW, where it hangs in Gallery 30.