About This Artwork

Thomas Cole
American, born England, 1801–1848

Distant View of Niagara Falls, 1830

Oil on panel
47.9 × 60.6 cm (18 7/8 × 23 7/8 in.)
Signed, lower right: "Thomas Cole / 1830"

Friends of American Art Collection, 1946.396

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.

Exhibition, Publication and Ownership Histories

Exhibition History

Milwaukee Art Institute, Nineteenth Century American Masters, Feb. 20-Mar. 28, 1948, cat. 12.

Hartford, Conn., Wadsworth Atheneum, Thomas Cole 1801-1848: One Hundred Years Later, Nov. 12, 1948-Jan. 2, 1949, cat. 155 ,as Niagara Falls; traveled to New York City, Whitney Museum of American Art, Jan. 8-30, 1949.

Arts Club of Chicago, The American Landscape, Nov. 14-Dec. 29, 1973, cat. 4.

Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery of Art, Niagara: Two Centuries of Changing Attitudes, 1697-1901, Sept. 21-Nov. 24, 1985; traveled to Buffalo, Knox Art Gallery, July 13-Sept. 1, 1985; Corcoran Gallery of Art, New-York Historical Society, Jan. 22-Apr. 27, 1986.

Art Institute of Chicago, "Window on the West: Chicago and the Art of the New Frontier, 1890-1940," June 28-October 13, 2003.

Publication History

Julia D. Sophronia Snow, “Delineators of the Adams-Jackson American Views,” Antiques (Nov. 1936), pp. 214-19.

Louis Legrand Noble, The Life and Works of Thomas Cole (Belknap Press, 1964).

Howard S. Merritt, “A Wild Scene, Genesis of a Painting: Appendix I: Correspondence between Thomas Cole and Robert Gilmor, Jr.” Baltimore Museum of Art Annual 2 (1967), pp. 41-81.

Henry H. Glassie, “Thomas Cole and Niagara Falls,” New-York Historical Quarterly, 58, 2 (Apr. 1974), pp. 89-111.

“Reevaluation of a Thomas Cole Painting,” Museum Studies 8 (1973), pp. 96-108.

Matthew Baigell, Thomas Cole (Watson-Guptill Publications, 1981).

J. Bard McNulty, ed., The Correspondence of Thomas Cole and Daniel Wadsworth (Connecticut Historical Society, 1983).

Elizabeth McKinsey, Niagara Falls: Icon of the American Sublime (Cambridge University Press, 1985).

Ellwood Parry III, The Art of Thomas Cole: Ambition and Imagination (University of Delaware Press, 1988).

Earl A. Powell, Thomas Cole (Harry N. Abrams Publishers, 1990).

Angela Miller, The Empire of the Eye (Cornell University Press, 1993).

Thomas Cole: Drawn to Nature, exh. cat., (Albany Institute of History and Art, 1993).

William H. Truettner and Alan Wallach, eds., Thomas Cole: Landscape into History (National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1994), ill.

Judith A. Barter et al., American Arts at The Art Institute of Chicago: From Colonial Times to World War I (Art Institute of Chicago, 1998).

Stephanie Pratt et al., "George Catlin: American Indian Portraits," exh. cat. (National Portrait Gallery/ National Portrait Gallery Company, 2013).

Rachel Bohan, "Jacob Kassay: No Goal," (The Power Station/Dallas, 2014), (ill.).

"Paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago, Highlights of the Collection," (Art Institute of Chicago/Yale University Press, 2017) p. 50.

Ownership History

Frank Sabin, London, by 1936; M. Knoedler, London, 1937; Mrs. Edith Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, London, by 1946; The Art Institute of Chicago, 1946.

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