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

by Paul A. Manoguerra



Many of Cooke's other landscape paintings reflect the intrusion of people, tourism, technology, and progress into the natural landscape of the New World. For example, in View of Red Sulphur Springs, Virginia (private collection, 1836-1837), Cooke presents the elegance and formality of a tourist resort in western Virginia. Again, as in Tallulah Falls, Cooke presents the artist as reporter in the center foreground. Humans have altered the natural landscape into the ordered forms of Greek revival architectural buildings and enclosed lawns. In his 1845 painting View of Athens from Carr's Hill (fig. 3), Cooke presents the terminus of the Georgia railroad and details of mid-nineteenth-century commerce and transportation. Meanwhile, the manmade city on a hill, in this case Athens, dominates the distant middle ground of the image. Yet, in order to stress the wildness and awe-inspiring character of the falls at Tallulah, Cooke avoids any reference to civilization except the tourists themselves. In his Historical Collections of Georgia (1854), the Reverend George White, quoting the notes of his acquaintance David P. Hillhouse, remarks that the "wild, uncultivated, and barren country" around Tallulah Falls had yet to be "deface [d]," as reported in Cooke's painting of 1841.[5]

Interested in the wild and uncultivated character of the New World landscape, American painters, in depicting the scenery of the United States, showed the influence of the eighteenth-century British landscape aesthetics associated with the Beautiful, the Picturesque, and the Sublime. Based in the writings of Sir Joshua Reynolds and others, the concept of the Beautiful drew upon the ideal qualities of nature and involved close observation and study. An orderly, balanced, and harmonious design, evoking a pastoral ideal, often characterized the Beautiful. The Picturesque customarily involved the use of irregularity and variety, of light and shadow, of a roughness in texture and, on a philosophical level, the capacity to affect the imagination. The mood of a picturesque landscape, in contrast to the more classical, beautiful landscape, becomes one of wild uncultivation instead of idyllic repose. Craggy trees, medieval towers, rustic peasants, animals, rolling hills, cottages, and farms fill picturesque landscapes. The Sublime, the third category of British aesthetic response to landscape, draws upon the spiritually and emotionally stimulating elements of nature. [6]

Cooke's own written description of Tallulah Falls, in the aforementioned 1840 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger, reveals his fascination with the Sublime and why the falls were called the "Niagara of the South:" "[A] yawning chasm... perhaps a thousand feet, and near as many wide, cleaving mountains for several miles. At one moment, [the viewer] stands upon a projecting rock and clings to a stunted pine, whilst he peeps into the abyss below, where rocky ledges sustain a stately growth of forest-trees, or perpendicular cliffs extend to the bottom of the ravine. There, the water is caught into a basin of its own carving in the solid granite, and is dashed down the precipice in the whitest foam."[7]

George Cooke's painting Tallulah Falls, of course, is not the only mid-nineteenth-century image of this north Georgia tourist attraction. T. Addison Richards, in Appleton's Illustrated Handbook of American Travel (1861), depicts a view of the site and mentions the tourist reality of Tallulah Falls: "There is a comfortable hotel near the edge of the gorges traversed by this wild mountain stream, and hard by its army of waterfalls." In a rush of sublime imagery that matches Cooke's own representation, Richards describes what a tourist would encounter at the site: "The ravine is 1,000 feet in depth, and of a similar width. Its walls are gigantic cliffs of dark granite." Richards poetically continues: "Now, the [stream] flows in sullen majesty, through a deep and romantic glen, embowered in the foliage of the trees, which here and there spring from the rocky ledges of the chasm walls. Anon, it rushes with accelerated motion, breaking fretfully over protruding rocks, and uttering harsh murmurs, as it verges a precipice."[8]

Richards then quotes from the poem by the Athens-born Henry Rootes Jackson, entitled "Tallulah"(1850): "Where, collected all,/ In one impetuous torrent, down the steep/ It thundering shoots, and shakes the coun-/ try round./ At first, an azure sheet, it rushes broad;/ Then whitening by degrees as prone it falls,/ And from the loud-resounding rocks below/ Dash'd in a cloud of foam, it sends aloft/ A hoary mist, and forms a ceaseless shower:" Richards concludes his comments on Tallulah Falls: "The wild grandeur of this mountain gorge, and the variety, number, and magnificence of its cataracts, give it rank with the most imposing waterfall scenery in the Union."[9]

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