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“Niagara” by Frederic Edwin Church

"Niagara Falls" by Frederic Edwin Church

“Niagara” by Frederic Edwin Church

“Niagara” by Frederic Edwin Church depicts Horseshoe Falls, the largest and most iconic of Niagara’s three waterfalls. This panoramic view from the Niagara Falls’ Canadian side is dramatic and unique and immerses the viewer into the scene.

The canvas’s unusual proportions with a width of 2.3 meters (7 ft 7 in), makes it more than twice as wide as it is high and delivers a composition that leads the eye laterally. 

“Niagara” is highly naturalistic and brings the viewer to the falls’ lip, highlighting the cascading waters by painting in streams of water and cloudy mists.

The only foreground object is a floating tree trunk with tree roots that provide a sense of scale. The white foam near the trunk has a thicket paint dimension on an otherwise smooth canvas. 

 The light creates a partial rainbow beyond the precipice, where the mist is thick. On the horizon are several buildings that provide scale and distance to this a highly realistic rendering.

Church studied the falls extensively before capturing the effects of mist and turbulent water, and he made dozens of pencil and oil studies. The painting itself took about six weeks to complete.

Church used two similar canvases simultaneously. He used a “draft” upon which he tested his ideas and techniques and the final canvas.

Painted in 1857, this massive painting had accumulated some damage over time, requiring Church to repaint some of it in 1886. By that time, there were many copies of this popular painting that existed in engraving and chromolithography.

“Niagara” was Church’s most important work to date and cemented his reputation as an American landscape painter.

"Niagara Falls" by Frederic Edwin Church

A study for the painting. Horseshoe Falls, Niagara, 1856–57, 29.2 × 90.5 cm

Niagara Falls in Art

Niagara Falls is a group of three waterfalls at the southern end of Niagara Gorge, spanning the border between Canada and the United States. The largest of the three is Horseshoe Falls, also known as Canadian Falls, which straddles the two countries’ border.

The smaller American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls lie within the United States. The Falls are located on the Niagara River, which drains Lake Erie into Lake Ontario.

Horseshoe Falls is the most powerful waterfall in North America and was formed when glaciers receded at the end of the last ice age. Water from the Great Lakes carved a path over and through the Niagara Escarpment en route to the Atlantic Ocean.

Niagara Falls is famous for its beauty and was regularly painted, attracting landscape artists. In the 1850s, Niagara was the subject of millions of stereographs, and its image could be found on wallpaper, china, and lampshades, among many other items.

At that time for Americans, the Falls symbolized the grandeur and expansionism of the United States. In an era of spiritual optimism and manifest destiny, Americans perceived such a vivid Niagara painting as symbolic of their density and righteousness.

In 1857, tens of thousands paid 25 cents to view the painting in a darkened Manhattan gallery in which only the painting was illuminated. Some would spend an hour in front of the painting.

Over a thousand subscriptions to a planned chromolithograph were sold. Harper’s magazine called Niagara:

“more widely known and admired in this country than any other picture ever painted in America.”

“Niagara” was exhibited at the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris, where it won a silver medal and improved the European view of American art.

Frederic Edwin Church

Frederic Edwin Church (1826 – 1900) was an American landscape painter who was a central figure in the Hudson River School of American landscape painters.

He is best known for painting vast landscapes, often depicting mountains, waterfalls, and sunsets. Church’s paintings emphasized realistic detail, dramatic light, and panoramic views.

During his time, he was one of the most famous painters in the United States.


  • Title:                  Niagara
  • Artist:                 Frederic Edwin Church
  • Year:                  1857
  • Medium:            Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:      Height: 101.6 cm (40 in); Width: 229.9 cm (90.5 in)
  • Museum:           National Gallery of Art, DC

Frederic Edwin Church

  • Artist:                      Frederic Edwin Church
  • Born:                      1826 – Hartford, Connecticut, United States
  • Died:                      April 7, 1900 (aged 73) – New York City, New York, United States
  • Nationality:            American
  • Movement:            Hudson River School
  • Notable Works:

Frederic Church

A Virtual Tour of the National Gallery of Art

Frederic Church

Niagara, Frederic Edwin Church


“Nature has been very lavish here in the gift of her beauty – I am sure you would enjoy the noble scenes which our windows command.”
– Frederic Edwin Church


Photo Credit: 1)Frederic Edwin Church [Public domain]

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