ARTIST: Thomas Cole
ARTWORK: Distant View of Niagra Falls, 18 7/8 x 23 7/8 in
MATERIALS: Oil on panel
LOCATION: In the collection of the Chicago Art Institute
Glancing at Thomas Cole's little painting of A Distant View of Niagra Falls, one might see it as a realistic and elegantly painted landscape. This intimate painting is, however, a powerful critique of a newly formed industrialized society that serves, on one hand, as an environmental Harbinger, and on the other hand, as an object of mourning.
Niagra Falls is an epic trio of falls that is coveted for its grandiose beauty and power -- a combination that has ensured surrounding development. From the early 19th century to present day, Niagra Falls has been encroached upon by mills, factories, hotels and tourists. Today its glory seems as if it was plopped right in the midst of an urban space, as though industry were there first.
Recently I stood on a bridge looking down over the area of the Falls and realized Thomas Cole likely had a similar view when he spent his days sketching Niagra Falls back in the early 1800's. However,
Cole's painting does not include the surrounding smoke stacks, buildings, fences and unwritten pollutants he and I witnessed. Instead, he chose to paint the Falls surrounded by pristine, lush, full-color foliage which he brushed on with a sense of poetic reverance.
Before visiting Niagra Falls for myself, I considered his elimination of the surrounding human-made structures as a Romanticist's rejection of an emerging reality. As I stood looking over the vista, I realized Cole did not merely reject the reality of the new urban American landscape, rather, he must have abhorred it.