During the nineteenth century, Niagara Falls was the most famous natural wonder in North America, and it attracted tourists by the thousands. Artists had also always been drawn to the falls. Among those who attempted to capture the sublime spectacle of the site were Jasper Francis Cropsey [47.1238], John Frederick Kensett [48.439], Samuel F. B. Morse [48.456], Albert Bierstadt [64.418], and William Morris Hunt [2000.1215]. Inness became so inspired when he arrived at Niagara Falls in 1881 that he reportedly rushed to the studio of an old friend in Buffalo and demanded to borrow painting supplies in order to get his first impressions recorded immediately. Eventually Inness completed nine known paintings in oil and watercolor of Niagara Falls, of which this is the largest.
Inness’s Niagara sketches so impressed Roswell Smith, founder of the Century Magazine (and later father-in-law of Inness’s son), that he commissioned the artist to paint Blue Niagara, for which he paid $5,000. Inness probably began this large painting in his studio in New York City in 1882. He based it on a field study, Niagara (1881, Kalamazoo Valley Museum, Michigan), which he likely completed on the spot, and also on a compositional study, Niagara Falls (about 1881–82, Ellen Battell Stoeckel Trust, Yale University), in watercolor, gouache, and chalk. The view is from the U.S. side, as seen from Goat Island. The bridge to the viewing platform near the edge of the falls can be seen in the foreground, and the dramatic curve and broad expanse of Horseshoe Falls (also known as Canadian Falls) in the middle ground. In the distance, on the far shore, are the popular Canadian tourist hotels. Inness’s vantage point is similar to the one that had been used for two famous engravings in the 1830s, William James Bennett’s View of the British Fall Taken from Goat Island and William Henry Bartlett’s The Horse Shoe Fall, Niagara—with the Tower.
Inness may have painted Blue Niagara in response to Frederic Edwin Church’s famous picture Niagara (1857, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). Both are very large and capture panoramic views of the falls. Church took his view from the Canadian side, rendering the scene with precise, almost Ruskinian detail and emphasizing the terrifying power of the cataract. He dispensed with a solid foreground and suspended the viewer above the rushing torrent. Inness, on the other hand, painted his view from the American side, emphasizing the majesty of the falls and the colors of the water and mist in full sunlight and in shadow. Inness painted the falls thirty years after Church; by that time, he had visited Europe and absorbed the Barbizon style in France, which led him to create poetic landscapes with softened forms rather than specific details. Using lush brush strokes and an array of hues ranging from deep blue and emerald green to lavender, Inness rendered the beauty of the cascade and the sparkling atmosphere surrounding it.
Inness exhibited Blue Niagara in his studio on East Washington Square, New York, in January 1884, and it became the centerpiece of the retrospective of his work at the New York American Art Galleries in the spring of the same year. Most critics praised the painting, especially its color, and Earl W. Marble proclaimed that several critics “regard it as superior to Church’s view of the same scene.” Marble went on to commend the painting as “a work of wonderful power—broad and strong in treatment, full of the grandeur that is inseparable from Niagara, harmonious in its arrangement of water, mist and sky.”Elbridge Kingsley’s color wood engraving [M22630] after Blue Niagara, which was produced sometime after 1884, provides further evidence of the painting’s appeal.
1. Michael Quick, George Inness: A Catalogue Raisonné (New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 2007), passim.
2. “George Inness Paintings,” Boston Evening Transcript, April 14, 1884, 6.
Janet L. Comey