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

by Paul A. Manoguerra



American artists like Cooke anticipated that depictions of the waterfalls and the natural landscape of the New World would satisfy art patrons' desires for images of the American Sublime. Thomas Cole is arguably the most famous example of an artist who provided images for American collectors looking for the historical associations provided by the landscape of the Old World and for the sublimity imparted by Nature in the New World. The Cascatelli, Tivoli, Looking Towards Rome (Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, c. 1932) includes an Italian peasant family and sylvan goats amid primeval vegetation in the right foreground. Across the valley, the waterfalls flow from a hillside topped by ancient and medieval vestiges of human civilization. The painting's viewers followed the flow of the waterfalls and the river into the distant plain and "towards Rome." European scenes, like Cole's painting of the falls at Tivoli, stood for history and the past. But Cole's images of American waterfalls, including The Falls of Kaaterskill (Westervelt-Warner Museum, 1826), were about the present and the future, as Cole stated:

The painter of American scenery has indeed privileges superior to any other; all nature here is new to Art. No Tivoli's[,] Terni's[,] Mount Blanc's ... hackneyed & worn by the daily pencils of hundreds, but virgin forests, lakes & waterfalls feast his eye with new delights, fill his portfolio with their features of beauty & magnificence and hallowed to his soul because they had been preserved untouched from the time of creation for his heaven-favoured pencil.

Unlike the "hackneyed" and well-worn tourist paths of European sites like Tivoli, Cole believed that American scenery remained relatively "untouched" by human civilization and its historical associations. In The Falls of Kaaterskill, he shows the scenic and tumultuous beauty of the American locale long before it was visited by European and American settlers and tourists. His lone Native American figure, dwarfed by nature at the center of the composition, defines this American landscape as a savage and powerful wilderness yet to be touched by civilization.[10]

Many American landscape painters of the mid-nineteenth century believed that the ideas of religion, nature, and art were intertwined in the landscape category of the Sublime. Years earlier, in his famous "Essay on American Scenery," Cole expressed the belief that nature was both sublime and sanctified. Revelation could be experienced through the Sublime. American artist Asher B. Durand, Cole's friend, published nine "Letters" on landscape painting in The Crayon from January to July 1855. In these letters, Durand argues that the first principle of landscape painting was the individual study of nature, rather than the study of art. A close study of an individual natural object, as Cooke's surrogate artist does here at Tallulah Falls, would influence the heart and the mind, as well as the painter's eye and hand. Durand declared that landscape art should embody a religious integrity through the sensing of transcendent beauty and significance. He stressed that an artist should limit artistic license to the variety found in nature itself: "One should modify nature only in the degree which Nature herself includes variety." For Durand, as for Cooke and other American painters of the era, an accurate depiction of a natural site operated as a metaphor for the divinity of God's creation.[11]

The Home Book of the Picturesque, a presentation book published by George P. Putnam and Son in the early 1850s, embodied the link between God and Nature for American intellectuals. Featuring steel engravings after American landscape paintings and numerous essays, the volume included two tracts that confronted the role of religion in relation to the individual and the landscape. The collector Reverend Elias Magoon, in "Scenery and Mind," writes that man's perception of beauty and his ability to feel the Sublime serve as proofs of mankind's inherent immortality. A confrontation with magnificent scenery fed the capacity to experience sublimity and to experience God's presence in the viewer's life. In attempting to convince the reader of the deep psychological and philosophical effects of scenery on the human mind, Magoon argues that the great thinkers of history were close observers and admirers of nature. [12]

James Fenimore Cooper's essay "American and European Scenery," in The Home Book of the Picturesque, divulges his attitudes about the relative moral and philosophical values of different types of landscapes and locales. Cooper argues that American scenery lacked evidence of man's manipulation or construction as evidence of civilization and past heroic deeds. These civilized elements -- castles, fortresses, medieval towers, ancient ruins, fields tilled for generations -- made the scenery meaningful and picturesque. Unlike European towns, American towns could claim only a few "ill-shaped and yet pretending cupolas, and other ambitious objects, half of them in painted wood...while the most aspiring roof is almost invariably that of the tavern." Like Cooke's caricature of the artist in Tallulah Falls, American painters, in Cooper's strong opinion, needed to dwell on the scenic magnificence of the North American landscape. [13]

Artists often celebrated the splendor of the American landscape through representations of New World waterfalls -- Trenton, Kaaterskill, Tallulah, and others. Yet, nothing in nineteenth-century America had been painted and described more often than Niagara Falls. Artists, including John Vanderlyn, John Trumbell, Edward Hicks, and Thomas Cole, painted at Niagara during the early nineteenth century. In popular art, from inexpensive prints, to miniatures, the sublime Niagara Falls had become the most widely-circulated and best-known image of American nature (fig. 4). In the new American tradition of landscape painting in the nineteenth century, the primitive New World wilderness, with its grandeur and immensity, and its untamed and savage elements, inspired the Sublime. Tourism performed a potent role in America's creation of itself as a culture. It granted a way of illuminating America as a place and of taking pride in the unique features of the New World landscape. American intellectuals sought to meet European standards of culture while developing a distinct national image. Nineteenth-century American tourists departed from their everyday lives as they set out on their sojourn to places like Tallulah Falls and, of course, Niagara Falls. Niagara served as the major stop on any American "Grand Tour" and "visiting the Falls became one of the primary rituals of democratic life in nineteenth-century America." [14] Niagara suggested the transcendent meanings proposed by American intellectuals like Cooper and Cole, and functioned as a sacred place in a nation where God's plan would be fulfilled.


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