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

by Paul A. Manoguerra




Margaret Fuller, writing from Niagara in 1843, noted the sublime power of the falls: "Yet I, like others, have little to say, where the spectacle is, for once, great enough to fill the whole life, and supersede thought, giving us only its own presence." Viewing the spectacle of Niagara as a reflection of boundless divinity, Fuller remarks: "[T]here is no escape from the weight of a perpetual creation; all other forms and motions come and go, the tide rises and recedes, the wind, at its mightiest, moves in gales and gusts, but here is really an incessant, an indefatigable motion. . . . It is in this way I have most felt the grandeur, -- somewhat eternal, if not infinite." For Cole, as for Fuller, water in motion over cataracts or waterfalls, whether at Kaaterskill, Trenton, or Tallulah, became the sublime "voice of the landscape" and the "silent energy of nature." Cole asserted that Niagara Falls was "that wonder of the world! -- where the sublime and the beautiful are bound together in an indissoluble chain."[15]

Frederic Church's Niagara Falls became one of the iconic mid-nineteenth-century images of "that wonder of the world." An "epiphanic, apocalyptic landscape of Romanticism," Church's Niagara Falls (fig. 5), painted in 1857, presents the famous tourist attraction as a symbol of the power and energy of the New World. As a grand-scale painting, over ninety inches in width, the panoramic Niagara Falls overemphasizes the breadth of the waterfall. Church brings the water all the way to the bottom edge of the canvas, eliminating any ground for the viewer to "stand on," tending to cause uneasiness in the viewer through a sense of vertigo, the same feeling more playfully suggested by Cooke's Tallulah Falls. Church's Niagara Falls functions as a picture about power, the relentless kinetic energy of the blue-green water flowing toward the brink of the precipice and then plunging to the depths below. He leaves out any suggestion of a foreground upon which a person could stand, forcing the viewer to be confronted by God's creation. In commenting on Church's painting, one viewer stated: "[I]t is grand and sublime; it is natural to the nation, since nature herself has given the type; it is wild and ungovernable, mad at times, but all power is terrible at times. It is the effect of various causes; it is a true development of the American mind; the result of democracy, of individuality, of the expansion of each, of the liberty allowed to all; of ineradicable and lofty qualities in human nature."[16] Church provides the viewer every sense of the "wild and ungovernable" falls through the power of the flowing, dark emerald water, the sense of mistiness provided by the spray, and the precipitous drop. The critic quoted above links the American wilderness, symbolized by Niagara and Tallulah, with an "American mind" and an ideology of democracy, individuality, and liberty. Historian Gordon Wood has argued that equality, in a certain sense, and democracy, were the unintended consequences of the "forces unleashed" by the American Revolution. The "reconstitution of American society," the overthrow of the "bonds holding together the older monarchical society -- kinship, patriarchy, and patronage" -- made the United States, to create a simile, as wild and powerful as natural places like Tallulah Falls and Niagara Falls. Waterfalls in the New World were viewed as a sign from God of the millennial promise of America. In Niagara Falls, Church painted the rainbow, a biblical symbol of God's covenant with Noah and of rejuvenation and redemption. But the sublimity and awe created by Niagara Falls and, by extension, Church's iconic image, also provoke fear, not calmed by the broken rainbow in the painting's left half The falls were an American icon representing the strength and potential of the New World, and the United States in particular. Niagara's association with the Deluge -- and the rejuvenating and purifying floods of the Bible -- resonates within the democratic, providential promise of America. However, Church's Niagara Falls suggests the millenial promise not yet fulfilled by the American experiment in republican government.[17]

David P. Hillhouse, in 1854, makes explicit both the comparison between Tallulah and Niagara, and the sublime nature of Tallulah: "The river passes through a range or ridge of mountains, for somewhat more than a mile, forming for its bed an awful gulf, and for its banks stupendous fronts of solid rock, like those of Niagara, just below its great cataract."[18] Cooke's presentation of the young tourists on Devil's Pulpit at Tallulah Falls evokes the feelings of many Americans toward Nature and the landscape. Tourists in the American "wilderness" expected to experience the Picturesque and the Sublime, and, because it confirmed deeply held convictions, the encounter with those aspects of nature, as a desired part of the trip, strengthened the authenticity of the tour. Here, in Cooke's interaction between the tourists and the gorge, the contrast between civilization and wilderness becomes most explicit. The tourists enact a ritual movement in stepping out onto Devil's Pulpit, gathering knowledge and experience as they do so. Here, Cooke's tourists, like the painting's viewers, as vicarious tourists, penetrate out into the midst of Nature, and God's Creation, in the New World. His image captures the sublimity of Tallulah Falls and the gorge, allowing the tourists and the painting's viewers to experience Nature at a moment when it is most sublime. The emotions of Cooke's tourists, especially the gesture of aid from the man at the far left and the precarious leaning of the man at the edge of the outcropping, express a heightened, liminal state. The tourists and the painting's contemporary viewers have removed themselves from their "ordinary" to discover, in a multi-layered experience, nature's "extraordinary." Touring the wilderness of the New World offers a "pedagogy of identity in which middle- and upper-class tourists learn to use vision both to encounter and to control difference and, therefore, to reconfirm their function as bearers and shapers of the American social vision." The viewers of Cooke's painting encounter a tourist event, a traveling group daringly enjoying the gorge, charged with meaning.[19]

W. J. T. Mitchell imparts that "landscape is a natural scene mediated by culture. It is both a represented and presented space, both a signifier and a signified, both a frame and what a frame contains, both a real place and its simulacrum, both a package and the commodity inside the package."[20] Artists like Cooke, Church, Cole, and other mid-nineteenth-century landscape painters were conscious of the basic illusion of reality inherent in their process. That illusion of reality becomes obvious in the whimsy of paintings by John Frederick Peto, John Haberle, and others. With a hint of nostalgia, Haberle's Torn in Transit's (Brandywine River Museum) "wrapping" reveals part of a landscape painting, featuring a waterfall. Painted in the early 1890s, Torn in Transit confronts viewers with a Romantic-era landscape painting, packaged in paper and twine, and shipped from the artist "John Haberle." The waterfall, the landscape, and the landscape painting, have been exposed by Haberle as commodity, as an object of value for exchange. But he also exposes landscape painting as a fiction, as a product of discourse, and as a simple re-creation of the idea of the outdoors, meant to adorn the parlor walls of a home.

Both Cooke's painting of Tallulah Falls and a companion painting, no longer extant, of nearby Toccoa Falls, were owned by R. L. Moss, the operator of a resort hotel at Tallulah Falls. As artist, Cooke captured, reported, and enframed the sublime falls, with all of its religious, national, and spiritual connotations. As patron, one who was making a livelihood from tourism at the falls, Moss displayed the painting to decorate his walls, to celebrate the region in which he resided, and, by extension and intent, to reconfirm his role as a bearer and shaper of the American landscape, of the American social vision and millennial promise in the mid-nineteenth century. American artists, writers, and tourists to Tallulah Falls made aesthetic, national, and religious use of its nature and its sublime associations. American tourists and painters delineated the falls at Tallulah, and at Kaaterskill and Niagara and other American sites, in specific contrast with the picturesque character and historical associations of Old World waterfalls. Waterfalls in North America, like Tallulah, functioned as emblems of unsullied and commanding wilderness. The landscape of Europe was about the Past; the masculine power and majesty of the New World landscape, hung as works of art indoors, were about the Present and the Future.


Go to page 1 / 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6

This is page 5


Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

© Copyright 2006 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.