Artistic concern about the environment back in 1830

I saw this beautiful painting titled “Distant View of Niagara Falls,” 1830, by Thomas Cole, and learned something surprising. From the perspective of late 2020, I would have just assumed that Thomas Cole was simply painting what he saw in front of himself at Niagara Falls in 1830, but that is in fact not the case. Scroll down for more …

Thomas Cole painting of Niagara Falls, 1830
Distant View of Niagara Falls, 1830, 18 7/8 × 23 7/8 inch oil on panel painting

According to the catalog entry at The Art Institute of Chicago, this was a romanticized version of Niagara Falls, and Cole omitted the factories, scenic overlooks, and hotels that populated the area in the early 19th century. It’s a little hard to imagine, so I found this postcard which shows almost the same viewpoint but pulled back a little bit, and includes a bridge, train, buildings, and some sort of man-made structure that runs down from the side of the cliff (date of this image is unknown).

Niagara Falls with train and industrialization
A vintage train travel poster, featuring Niagara Falls in the background.

There’s an interesting photo and story here about how in the early 1800s, since the falls were considered cheap and plentiful waterpower, all one had to do was build a channel to divert a small portion of the mighty Niagara Falls past your mill, and you were all set. Granted, I don’t know the location of the photo in that article in relation to the falls in Cole’s painting, but it’s still a eye opener as to how this majestic wonder of the world was utilized for industrial purposes.

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