Niagara Gazette

January 22, 2013

BRADBERRY: More to the art than meets the eye

By Bill Bradberry
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — When U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, D-NY, announced last Thursday that Danish artist Ferdinand Richardt's 1856 oil painting of Niagara Falls would hang on the wall of the U.S. Capitol room where President Barack Obama and invited guests would gather for the traditional inaugural luncheon, it did not ignite the art and history world the same way that the revelation of the First Lady’s choice of gown for the Inaugural Ball fired up the fashion world, but it should have.

The painting, not the only depiction of our awesome environs to hang in Washington, D.C. actually says as much about the historical relevance of Niagara Falls as it says about its beauty.

Prominently displayed behind the head table in National Statuary Hall, where the luncheon was held Monday, allowing guests including President and Mrs. Obama, Vice President Biden and Dr. Biden, Chairman and Mrs. Schumer, Senator and Mrs. Alexander, and Speaker of the House and Mrs. Boehner to get closer than they have probably been over the last four years, it was painted during the height of the Underground Railroad’s Western New York operations.

As Senator Schumer, a good friend of Niagara Falls and a powerful ally said in the announcement of his choice of the beautiful piece of art, “the painting embodies this year’s inaugural theme, “Faith in America’s Future”; it also reflects the Senator’s faith in Niagara’s future.

The Senator continued, “Showcasing Richardt’s oil painting of Niagara Falls during the inaugural luncheon shines a spotlight on one of New York’s most majestic attractions and will bring a wave of admiration for Western New York after the President’s historic swearing-in… President Obama, Vice President Biden, members of Congress, the Supreme Court, the cabinet and all VIPs attending the Inauguration will get a chance to marvel at Western New York’s beauty immediately after the President takes his second oath of office.”

Hopefully the painting will inspire them to marvel at our amazing history too, and help us preserve and develop it. Titled “Niagara Falls," Richardt’s painting, completed in 1856 during the peak years of the operation of the famous Underground Railroad which passed right through Niagara Falls and Western New York on the way to relative freedom in Canada, reflects a turbulent time in America’s and especially Niagara’s history before the Civil War, only six years after the adoption of the Fugitive Slave Act which was signed into law by Buffalonian, President Millard Fillmore in 1850.

Other fine paintings including Niagara Falls in Winter, 1848, oil on canvas by another renowned artist, Régis François Gignoux is prominently installed in the Senate Wing of the U.S. Capitol building.

Gignoux apparently made a career for himself painting American landscapes including Niagara Falls, which depicts Terrapin Tower and Horseshoe Falls from Goat Island.

According to the Questroyal Fine Art, LLC. “After immigrating to the United States from his native France in 1840, Régis François Gignoux became entranced by the grandeur of the American landscape and devoted his career to capturing its most powerful sites in paint. Niagara Falls exerted a particularly strong hold on the artist, and he attempted to capture its sublime scope in several paintings. His most famous rendition, Niagara Falls in Winter (1848), is prominently installed in the Senate Wing of the U.S. Capitol building.”

Another painting, based on a drawing Frederic Edwin Church made at Niagara in July 1856 on a sepia photograph touched with color, was commissioned by the New York art dealer Michael Knoedler in 1866.

One unnamed art critic boasts online, “It may originally have been destined for the Universal Exhibition in Paris, as Church was selected to represent America there. It was bought in 1887 by John S. Kennedy who presented it to his native Scotland. It is the only major example of Church’s work in a European public collection. The painting is currently on display at the National Gallery of Scotland.

The Art Institute of Chicago has another beautiful example in their vast collection of fine art including that inspired by our Niagara; Distant View of Niagara Falls 1830 By Thomas Cole who was, according to the Institute, one of many who captured the splendor of the Falls. “For Cole and other artists, Niagara Falls, the Adirondacks, the White Mountains, the Berkshires and the Hudson River Valley became the backdrop for communicating the reverence of pristine nature, untouched by man. Though never organized as a group, these American landscape artists were referred to as the Hudson River School and included painters Thomas Doughty (1793–1856) and Asher B. Durand (1796–1886). These artists established a tradition of landscape paintings later seen as patriotic in its celebration of the unique features of America.” But for some, the art says as much about American and Canadian Underground Railroad and other important history as it does about the beauty and the splendor of the landscape; perhaps current and future artists will see and capture more. History, like art lies in the eyes of the beholder ...

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