Niagara Gazette — Commemorating the War of 1812 and its impact on the Niagara Frontier offers a unique opportunity to learn even more about that era and the role of the fledgling United States as a major travel destination.
On the military front, Queenston, Ont., along the Niagara border set the stage for the first major U.S. invasion into the British North American colonies destined to become Canada. Two other invasions were planned from Detroit into the Windsor, Ont., area and from upstate New York across the St. Lawrence River into lower Canada, now the Province of Quebec.
Besides the colorful re-enactments, however, another way to appreciate that often misunderstood chapter in local history is through the visual arts, according to Robert M. Giannetti of Lewiston, author and antiquarian bookseller, the guest curator of an exhibit at the Castellani Art Museum at Niagara University.
"After the cannons are silent from the celebration, after the commemoration of the burning of Lewiston, there will still be this river with its marvelous falls, and all its history, art and literature for understanding the falls and its early tourism," said Giannetti, who helped organize "The Picturesque and War: Visual and Literary Aspects of 19th Century Niagara Tourism," an exhibit that will run through Feb. 24 at Niagara University’s Castellani Art Museum.
"Our committee spent about a year in the planning and I really enjoyed looking through hundreds of pieces from the Charles Rand Penney Collection to select the works for display," Giannetti added.
As the curator, Giannetti was fully prepared last week to provide a brief but informative overview of the classic paintings and visual arts that were prime factors in marketing Niagara as a world tourist destination in the early 1800s.
"It was that reverence for the landscape that developed during the Romantic era and fostered an appreciation for the scenery of the natural world," Giannetti explained, pointing to Father Louis Hennepin's iconic sketch of Niagara Falls (1659), or at least how the engraver interpreted the missionary's concept. Hennepin, as it is obvious from the sketch, thought the American Falls (180-feet high) was actually about twice that height. "That early description by Hennepin was, by the way, the only image people had of the falls for more than 100 years," the curator said.
Tourists were bound to grasp a better sense of Niagara's natural attraction from Thomas Cole's breathtaking "A Distant View of the Falls of Niagara (1834)," also featured at the Castellani exhibit.
An eye-catching work is Alexander Wilson's "The Foresters: A Poem Descriptive of a Pedestrian Journey to the Falls of Niagara in 1804, 1838." A number of William Henry Bartlett's hand colored etchings (e.g. "View Below Table Rock") enhance the poet's contributions.
One sketch you shouldn't miss: "Save Niagara from This ...," a lithograph from Puck (1906), featuring a humorous British slant on the carnival along the gorge, some 20 years after the newly-established Niagara Falls State Park was to eliminate the honky-tonk atmosphere. It's ironic that it features a tightrope artist walking across the top of the falls, a stunt that Nik Wallenda would perform 106 years later. There's also a "Suicide Leap" from what is now Prospect Point and a number of tourists riding barrels over the 180-foot American Falls with the smoke-belching factories in the background.
As part of the free programs during the exhibit, Giannetti will present a reading and interpretation of the 19 Century comic masterpiece: The Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque," from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at the gallery.
Kate Koperski, director of the Castellani museum, said earlier that "richly illustrated books, maps and travel guides and skillfully rendered prints all helped to attract visitors to the Niagara region." It was after the War of 1812, she noted, when former battlefields and war monuments were added to the list of area attractions.
In addition to Giannetti, the exhibit organizers included Ms. Koperski; Michael Beam, curator of collections and exhibitions at Castellani, and Dr. Thomas Chambers, chair of the Niagara University Department of History.
Funding for the programs was made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts, the state Legislature, the Niagara 1812 Bicentennial Legacy Council, the Canadian Consulate General and Old Glory Flag & Banner, a division of Cooper Sign Co.
The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays, 1 to 5 p.m. Additional information is available by calling 286-8200.