The Weight of a Perpetual Creation: George Cook's Tallulah Falls and American Tourist Representations of Waterfalls

by Paul A. Manoguerra




Located in the mountains of northeast Georgia, Tallulah Falls emerged as a resort area in the mid- to late nineteenth century. Early in the twentieth century, the Georgia Power Company dammed the falls and constructed a large hydroelectric facility at the site. Today, the state of Georgia operates the Tallulah Gorge State Park, and thousands of tourists once again visit the area annually. Tallulah Falls is actually a series of four main cataracts and several smaller rapids that drop approximately 350 feet over the course of a mile. After gathering speed through the Indian Arrow Rapids at the head of the falls, the Tallulah River races down L'Eau d'Or, a forty-six-foot-tall cataract. Tempesta, estimated at eighty-one feet, is the second falls, followed by the largest cataract, Hurricane, which drops ninety-six feet. Oceana, approximately a forty-two-foot drop, is the final major falls. The gorge through which the river cuts includes steep cliffs and rock outcroppings that provide excellent observation points and add to the scenic beauty of the falls. While the Cherokee regarded the falls with trepidation and largely avoided the area, white settlers and travelers commented on the awe-inspiring beauty of the falls and gorge in newspapers and travel books. Some visitors compared Tallulah Falls to other legendary cataracts, and Tallulah soon was dubbed the "Niagara of the South." As word of Tallulah Falls' beauty spread in the mid-nineteenth century, more visitors made the trek to the north Georgia mountains. Local as well as national writers extolled this scenic wonder to broad readerships, which increased its allure to tourists, who had to travel for days over mountain trails to see it. The area reached its height as a tourist attraction, with nearly twenty hotels and boarding houses in operation, after an extension of the railroad in 1882.[1]

George Cooke first visited Georgia in the late spring of 1840, when he painted portraits in Augusta and then spent the late summer and fall sojourning in the north Georgia mountains. Born in eastern Maryland in 1793, Cooke began his artistic career as a self-taught itinerant painter in northern Virginia.[2] By the early 1820s, he was executing portraits in Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia. His first formal training was with Charles Bird King, a respected portraitist and a painter of Native Americans. In 1826, Cooke and his wife, Maria Heath, left America and spent six years in Italy, England, and France. There he studied classical sculpture, prints after Greek and Roman art, and Renaissance, Baroque, Neo-classical, and Romantic paintings. On his return to the United States, Cooke made his living depicting local people, mainly in Virginia, Georgia, and Alabama. He also developed a unique friendship and relationship with the manufacturer Daniel Pratt, with Pratt creating an entire gallery dedicated to Cooke's work. Cooke traveled from place to place, often staying with friends while visiting nearby communities to execute his portraits. He attained great success with these portraits and, by the time of his death in 1849, was one of the South's best-known painters.[3]

In Tallulah Falls, Cooke offers three -- L'Eau d'Or, Tempesta, and Hurricane -- of the four main falls at Tallulah. His composition stresses verticality, with emphasis on the numerous trees, steep cliffs, and cascades of water. On a rocky outcropping, overlooking the gorge and the falls, seven tourists, four women and three men, and a small dog have made their way to view the scenery (fig. 2). At the far left, one man helps a bonneted woman down rocky steps and out onto the overlook. Three young women, one seated with her bonnet at her side, one standing and pointing at the scene, and one looking backward and gesturing at the dog, enjoy the spectacle from a rocky outcropping named Devil's Pulpit, referencing both the religious spirit and the dangerous character of the view. Cooke tweaks the viewer's sense of comfort with some high anxiety: another man strides and leans, with both hands, on a tree that has grown miraculously and perilously out of the rock. In a black hat and coat, an artist (perhaps Cooke himself) holds a sketchbook and drawing instrument, and records the natural landscape. To re-emphasize the tourist encounter of the natural phenomenon, Cooke paints, in black or brown silhouettes, three other figures, shown very small, admiring the site in the distant middle ground.

In November 1840, Cooke published an essay about the north Georgia region in the Southern Literary Messenger: "I have at length reached this utmost bourn of Georgia -- a terra incognita to the people of the United States-where the great Alleghany range of mountains terminates in a thousand isolated peaks and picturesque valleys, through which dividing waters take their course." Cooke's own language, "terra incognita," "isolated," and "dividing," promotes the ancient remoteness of the region and the falls. Although tourists and artists could reach Tallulah Falls, the site was a place for experiencing the sublimity of Nature, unspoiled by major incursions of civilization.[4]


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