Lower Falls, Rochester

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Lower Falls, Rochester

United States, 1849
Oil on canvas
19 3/4 x 29 3/8 in. (50.17 x 74.61 cm)
Gift of Charles C. and Elma Ralphs Shoemaker (AC1994.152.2)
Not currently on public view

Curator Notes

The falls of the Genesee River at Rochester, New York, possess an immense power and grandeur that attracted manufacturers and artists alike to the area throughout the nineteenth century....
The falls of the Genesee River at Rochester, New York, possess an immense power and grandeur that attracted manufacturers and artists alike to the area throughout the nineteenth century. Flowing rapidly north to Lake Ontario, the Genesee thunders down three major waterfalls in a deep gorge at Rochester: the ninety-six-foot High Falls downtown; the twenty-five-foot Middle Falls little more than a mile downriver; and, one-third of a mile further, the eighty-four-foot Lower Falls. Removed from the greatest concentration of the one hundred mills and factories that lined the river during Frederic Church’s 1848 visit, the Lower Falls presented the most impressive site to draw and paint that the young artist had yet encountered. American landscape painters customarily spent summer and fall traveling to find and sketch scenes for paintings that would be completed in the studio during the winter, usually for exhibition the following spring. Church was, and remained, especially interested in waterfalls and sought them out over the course of his 1848 travels, which took him to Connecticut and southern Vermont in July and August, then on to Rochester during September and October, where he worked out his ideas for a painting of the Lower Falls. He executed seven highly detailed and annotated drawings representing every feasible vantage point of the site, the most studies of any scene he had completed up to this point in his career. While Church was drawn to the Genesee River region by the legendary falls themselves, it is quite likely that the scenery around Rochester had been recommended by Church’s teacher and mentor, Thomas Cole (1801–1848). In 1844, Church had become the first pupil of Cole, whose reputation as the leading American landscape painter was firmly established. From 1844 until Cole’s death in 1848, Church maintained a close professional relationship with Cole and was influenced by his master’s ideas about landscape painting. That Cole had worked in the area in 1847, and produced the dramatic painting Genesee Scenery (Rochester Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, New York) for the American Art-Union exhibition and distribution of 1848, would have been important to Church. Cole’s rendering of the powerful cascade, which dominates the center of his painting, and of the lush surrounding landscape resonates with Church’s composition for Lower Falls, Rochester but also reveals how Church’s approach departed from Cole’s. Less allegorical and spectacular than Cole’s landscapes, Church’s early paintings were generally thoughtfully ordered, panoramic views of rural landscapes. Lower Falls, Rochester is an exception, and a careful study of this pivotal early work reveals how the ambitious Church developed views of landscapes that would suit not only his own aesthetics and interests but also those of his prospective patrons. The view of the Lower Falls is methodically composed with precise rendering and detail, but it is also unusually contained and focused. The eye is immediately drawn to the center of the canvas by the flash of white-painted water rushing out of the gorge and over the falls to the basin below, where the frothy rapids quickly dissolve into the serene surface of the Genesee River. This focal point—coinciding with the identified subject of the painting—forms part of the strong vertical axis that divides the picture into nearly symmetrical halves. This axis is completed by the mill nestled above the falls and the reflection of the white water in the river below. The rocky bluff bathed in rosy late-afternoon sun on the left counterbalances the cool, shadowy glade atop the cliff at right. The landscape opens up gently, as a book along its spine, enveloping the small boy in a white shirt fishing in the sun-splashed foreground, and the viewer as well. The first owner of Lower Falls, Rochester was Cyrus West Field (1819–1892), Church’s good friend and emerging patron, who purchased the painting in 1849 upon its completion. Field, whose fame rests now with his successful promotion of the first transatlantic telegraph cable, made his fortune in New York City as a dealer of fine papers and specialized in tinted papers manufactured by the best mills in western Massachusetts. One of these was owned by Church’s father and uncle in Lee, Mass., very close to Field’s summer home in nearby Stockbridge, Mass. Field traveled to the Berkshires frequently for business and pleasure, and he and Church likely became friends around 1844, when Church was a student of Cole’s. As Field’s fortune grew, so did his interest in the arts, and the two visited with each other during the art student’s sketching trips to Connecticut and Massachusetts. The interconnectedness of Field’s and Church’s professional and personal interests during the artist’s formative years played a significant role in the art that Church produced (and Field collected), including influencing Church’s interpretation of the Lower Falls at Rochester. Church’s topographically and geologically accurate rendering of the Lower Falls site corresponded not only to his artistic interests in impressive natural phenomena but also to the mid-nineteenth century’s general enthusiasm for nature and geology, an enthusiasm shared by Field. During this period, sentiments of national pride and progress were integrally tied to perceptions about the inherent marvels of the American wilderness and the wonder of its taming. Church turned his powers of observation to the flow and patterns of the water and the layering of the gray-green shale and red sandstone in the walls of the gorge, whose corresponding colors and locations he noted on his drawings of the site. A comparison of Lower Falls, Rochester with stratigraphic maps and photographs of the falls reveals the precision of Church’s geological observations. Church’s other major painting of 1849, West Rock, New Haven (New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Conn.) also depicts a geologically significant site—and it too was bought that year by Field. Clearly, Church was astutely aware of the types of paintings that would appeal to his new patron. For both Church and Field, waterfalls symbolized the perfect balance between untouched natural splendor and a growing industrial civilization, which harnessed their power for mills. Yet Church’s decision to stress the physical reality of the impressive Lower Falls required him to take liberties with man-made elements, primarily the numerous mills and other structures which existed around the falls, and which appear in several of Church’s drawings. In both the final preparatory drawing and the finished oil painting at least four buildings that should appear directly to the right of the mill have been omitted. Additionally, the vantage point selected for the painting of the gorge fully obscures any view of the Middle Falls with its cluster of buildings, enabling Church’s ideal composition. The result, however, is that the central mill portrayed in Lower Falls, Rochester is embraced by the surrounding landscape, nestled into the woods yet prominent. Though not identified definitively, this mill is believed to be a paper factory, of significance to both Church and Field. By removing the other structures, Church prevents the landscape from being overwhelmed by industrial architecture and instead naturalizes the presence of the mill. In keeping with an important aim of nineteenth-century landscape painting, Church’s painting encouraged the (male) viewer in particular to be transported, especially through the inclusion of the boy fishing, from the busy existence of an urban and professional world to a harmonious environment, one seemingly more rural, carefree, even idyllic and timeless. Field purchased this painting from Church at the most profitable and busiest moment to date of his career. By the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, Field and Co. had accumulated a tremendous fortune and Field’s business activities had reached an intensity level soon considered dangerous by his doctor. Rest and recuperation were ordered, and Field and his wife prepared for a five month vacation to Europe beginning in April 1849, exactly when the picture—a marriage of the restful and the industrial that perhaps expressed Field’s hopes for his own future—would have gone on display in the Twenty-Fourth Annual Exhibition at the National Academy of Design, which Church had joined the preceding year. Yet Lower Falls, Rochester was not exhibited there, or elsewhere. Instead Church, the youngest Academician in the organization’s history, submitted three different landscapes: A Mountain Tempest (no. 38), based on a poem by Childe Harrold and The Plague of Darkness (no. 82) representing Exodus 10:21, the texts of which were excerpted in the exhibition catalogue, and Field’s West Rock, New Haven (no. 131). West Rock, New Haven was a larger, more complex American landscape than Lower Falls, Rochester, and depicted a geological site more familiar and historically significant to the National Academy’s traditional New York City/New England audience. There is also evidence that another aspiring landscape painter, David Johnson, was with Church in Rochester in 1848 and painted the Lower Falls as well. It is Johnson’s painting, View at the Lower Falls, Genesee River (present location unknown), that was exhibited and for sale in the 1849 exhibition (no. 216). Perhaps wanting neither to compete with his colleague nor follow too closely in the steps of Cole, whose Genesee Scenery was exhibited only the previous year, Church must have decided that the sale of this particular picture to Field was personal and professional satisfaction enough. Church’s intellectual and artistic approaches to the Lower Falls site represent his earliest attempts both to interpret the splendor of a major waterfall within its surroundings, natural and man-made, and to create landscapes of particular meaning and significance. The enclosed, almost private view of the Lower Falls and the painting’s relatively small size and intimate feel differ markedly from the highly public, large-scale paintings he soon began to create. Once Church traveled to South America in 1853, with Field, his expression of the landscape changed. The balance between man and nature shifted, as wondrous natural phenomena came to fully dwarf any human presence. Immense paintings of such sublime marvels as Niagara Falls and the exotic mountainous landscapes of the South American Andes resonated not with one specific patron but with thousands who paid to be astounded by the professed "amazing" naturalistic details of these works. Lower Falls, Rochester was a crucial essay for the young Church, from the record number of preparatory drawings, to the subject matter, to the careful choices he made concerning the painting and its effects on his artistic and professional development and patronage. It was not exhibited publicly until 1966, when it hung in the first major retrospective of Church’s paintings held since the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s memorial exhibition of 1900. It remained in the Field family until the mid-1970s, a testimony to its appeal to Field and his descendants. Lower Falls, Rochester was one of seven paintings in the landmark 1994 Charles C. and Elma Ralphs Shoemaker bequest of nineteenth-century American paintings to the museum. It fills a major gap in the museum’s representation of Hudson River School paintings, being the first, and only, work by Church to enter the American art collection. Austen Barron Bailly (2005)

About The Era

The art of the early Federal period did not greatly differ from that of the late colonial era. Portraits dominated the small field of painting....
The art of the early Federal period did not greatly differ from that of the late colonial era. Portraits dominated the small field of painting. Victories on land and at sea in the War of 1812 brought the fledgling democracy greater confidence and new national pride. By 1829, when Andrew Jackson assumed the presidency, the foundations for an independent culture were securely laid. The philosopher-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed the mood of the country in 1837: “our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close.” The following decades would bring a swell of artistic creativity, focused on native themes that extolled the seemingly limitless bounty of the New World.
Portraiture, and to a lesser extent history painting, continued to occupy American artists, but increasing numbers turned to views of the local countryside and its inhabitants. Although the industrial revolution only began in the United States after the War of 1812, the following three decades witnessed economic changes, especially in the north, that significantly affected working conditions, family structure, and even religion. Paintings illustrated American virtues like ingenuity and industry as well as the pleasures of country life. The new taste for genre pictures—scenes of ordinary people involved in everyday activities—seemed ideally suited to the egalitarian attitude of the Jacksonian era.
This period also saw the rise of the country’s first truly national school of landscape painting, ultimately known as the Hudson River school. Its earliest, best-known exponent, Thomas Cole, sometimes painted romantic literary subjects in European settings, but his dramatic depictions of the American wilderness helped spur the popularity of American views. As the country developed, paintings of uninhabited wilderness were replaced by views of farms, towns, and factories, but American artists retained their sense of awe about the land.


  • About the Era.
  • LACMA: Obras Maestras 1750-1950: Pintura Estadounidense Del Museo De Arte Del Condado De Los Angeles. Mexico, D.F.: Museo Nacional de Arte, 2006.