Distant View of Niagara Falls


Thomas Cole

American, born England, 1801–1848
Painted 1830

In mid-nineteenth-century America, a love of the sublime landscape, which inspired in viewers an awe of nature and a sense of the nation's special status, was felt nowhere more powerfully than at Niagara Falls, New York, by far the most frequently depicted and visited natural attraction in the United States. Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painting, visited Niagara Falls for the first time in May 1829. He sketched the falls, writing of his experience there, “I anticipated much—but the grandeur of the falls far exceeds anything I had been told of them—I am astonished that there have been no good pictures of them—I think the subject a sublime one.”

The Art Institute’s canvas expresses the untamed spirit of the waterfall that so impressed Cole. As was typical, he did not execute the painting directly from nature; his letters indicate that he finished it in London the following year. The completed image bears little resemblance to the actual site in the 1830s, which included factories, scenic overlooks, and hotels to accommodate a growing number of tourists. In his romanticized depiction of the pristine landscape—definitively identified as American by the Native American figures—Cole created a wistful look back at the vanishing wilderness of the United States.