Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860)
Falls of Niagara, Viewed from the American Side, 1831
Oil on canvas, 18 1/4 x 24 1/8 in.
Provenance: collection of Allen Gerdau, until 1956; gifted to Lyman Allyn Museum, New London, Connecticut, 1956; Andrew Crispo Gallery, New York, c. 1980; Christie’s, New York, May 29, 1987, lot 12; collection of Mr. and Mrs. Charles O. Smith, Jr., c. 1992; private collection, Atlanta, Georgia, c. 1996-2009
Exhibited: Union College, Schenectady, New York (and traveling), Survey of American Art, 1960; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, Three Centuries of Niagara Falls: Oils, Watercolors, Drawings and Prints, May-September 1964, no. 44; Detroit Institute of Arts (and traveling), The Peale Family: Three Generations of American Artists, January-May 1967, no. 168 (illustrated in catalogue, 115); Lyman Allyn Museum, New London, Connecticut (and traveling), 250 Years of American Art from Three Connecticut Museums, 1700-1950, January-April 1969, no. 16; Philadelphia Museum of Art (and traveling), The Peale Family: Creation of a Legacy 1770-1870, November 1996-July 1997, no. 108 (catalogue 83, 86, 307, illustrated in color, pl. 50).
Literature: Complete List of American and European Drawings, Paintings, and Watercolors in the Collection of the Lyman Allyn Museum (New London, Connecticut: Lyman Allyn Museum, 1960), 36; John A. Mahey, “The Studio of Rembrandt Peale,” American Art Journal 1, no. 2 (Autumn 1969), 30; Jeremy Elwell Adamson, “Frederic Edwin Church’s ‘Niagara’: The Sublime as Transcendence” (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1981), 151-52; Jeremy Elwell Adamson, Niagara: Two Centuries of Changing Attitudes, 1697-1901, exh. cat. (Washington, D. C.: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1985), 46; Carol Eaton Hevner, Rembrandt Peale 1778-1860: A Life in the Arts, exh. cat. (Philadelphia: Historical Society of Philadelphia, 1985), 105n4; Carrie H. Scheflow, “Rembrandt Peale: A Chronology,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 110, no. 1 (January 1986), 162; Lillian B. Miller, In Pursuit of Fame: Rembrandt Peale, 1778-1860, exh. cat. (Washington, D. C.: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, in association with the University of Washington Press, 1992), 211, 213-14, 302, fig. 97 (illustrated); Jordi Vigué, Great Masters of American Art, trans. Bi-Cultural (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2004), 78 (illustrated).
Related works: General View of Niagara Falls, c. 1831, oil on linen, 18 1/4 x 24 in. (Lowe Art Museum, University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida); The Canadian Side of Niagara Falls, Platform Rock, 1831, oil on canvas, 18 1/4 x 24 1/4 in. (private collection, Florida); Falls of Niagara from Goat Island, 1832, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 in. (formerly collection of Lee B. Anderson, New York).
Rembrandt Peale, the son of the painter Charles Willson Peale, was primarily a portraitist best known for his likenesses of George Washington. Yet he was also familiar with the budding American landscape tradition, and had seen the many paintings and prints made of Niagara Falls, that most American of sights. It may have been an 1830 meeting with Thomas Cole, who had visited the Falls the year before and was producing a painting, a print, and poetry on the subject, that convinced Peale to see the Falls for himself in October of 1831.
Like printmakers who had recently treated the Falls, Peale produced multiple views of the same sight—from different points of view and at different times of day—to bring out the picturesque variety of the Falls and to convey their magnitude. He painted at least five views of the Falls, first in watercolor on the spot, and then in oil in the studio. Three of these oils are known today, including Falls of Niagara, View from the American Side.
The painting presents a close-up view from the base of the American Falls, with the Horseshoe Falls in the distance. In order to evoke the awesome scale, power, and roar of the Falls, Peale employed many of the devices he had encountered while copying the wild, moody landscapes of Salvator Rosa in Europe the year before. A tiny figure in the foreground strains to reach the security of a frail, almost leafless tree silhouetted against the mist, which seems to bend sympathetically in the wind. In addition, a dark thundercloud appears in an otherwise bright sky to empty its contents on the already moist scene. The towering Falls cascade from the very top of the composition, where light from the sky makes them translucent, down to the murky depths below the bottom of the image. Among Peale’s several views, this one powerfully demonstrates the sublime aspects of the Falls.