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The Falls of Niagara
Wolverhampton Arts & Heritage, Wolverhampton Art Gallery Collection.
Richard Wilson (1713/14-1782)
The Falls of Niagara
Early 1770s
Oil on canvas
152.7 x 182.8 cm
60 x 72 in.
OP96
P178
The painting shows the Niagara river and its great waterfalls that form the American and Canadian border. It was executed at a time when Britain was the dominant power in North America, having gained Canada from France as a result of the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) and before the American War of Independence (1775-1783). Tiny figures are seen viewing the falls from the edge of the cliffs and to the right, beneath the pine trees, is a viewing platform.
RA 1774 (315); Booth Notes Doc. 5, p. 1; Society of British Artists, Suffolk Street, 1832 (149), lent by John Landseer; BI 1855 (120), lent by Landseer family; London, Cardiff and New Haven, 1982-83 (137)
Almost certainly commissioned by William Byrne (1743-1805); his pupil, John Landseer; Landseer family by 1855; T.M. Whitehouse; presented to Wolverhampton Art Gallery by T.M. Whitehouse, February 1884
Unsigned; no inscription
The Niagara River and its great waterfalls form part of the Canadian and American border. The first European to see the falls was Father Hennepin, a French priest, whose description in 1678 made them one of the natural wonders of the world.
E26 Byrne after Pierie after Wilson, View of the Cataract of Niagara, with the Country adjacent, The British Museum
E26A Byrne after Wilson, View of the Cataract of Niagara, The British Museum
See 'Links' tab
[1] 'Captain Hamilton of the 15th Regiment', The Falls of Niagara, a drawing, RA 1769 (132)
[2] John Vanderlyn (1775-1852), View of Niagara Falls, aquatint, published London 1804 by James Merigot, with that of its pendant of the western branch by Frederick Christian Lewis, sometimes stated to be the first and prototype oils of the falls
The work is unique in Wilson's oeuvre, lacking any distinct foreground or closing screens at the sides. It is a rare example of unmitigated Sublimity, enhanced by the tiny figures and trees silhouetted on the edge of the cliffs and beyond the water. However, the background to the left and right has a look of English enclosed fields.
371; 96
Booth Notes Doc. 5, p. 3; WGC, pp. 95, 130, 230-1, pl. 126a; Solkin 1982, pp. 242-43
Wilson never saw the falls in person, but was able to work from a drawing made on the spot in 1768 by Lieutenant William Pierie, a military draughtsman of the Royal Artillery. The painting was almost certainly commissioned by the engraver William Byrne, who was probably intending from the start to make a print after it. Constable noted that Benjamin Booth incorrectly said 'this Picture was painted from a drawing taken on the Spot by Cole Hamilton'. However, in 1769 'Capt. Hamilton, of the 15th Regiment' exhibited The Falls of Niagara, a drawing at the Royal Acad emy (132) which may thus relate to P178.
Described by Constable as in poor condition and very much in need of cleaning. The picture was reported, in the early 1970s, to have been used as a divider in the museum coal store. Conserved in the 1970s by Jesse Bruton. The horizon is drawn down in the usual way and a pinkish underlayer is visible in the u.c. of the sky. The pine trees to the right are very unconvincing. Relined but stretcher may be original. There is a repaired horizontal tear in the sky c.l.

Kate Lowry has noted:
Oil on twill canvas, relined onto another canvas with wax resin adhesive by Jes Bruton in 1972 to repair an extensive old tear at the left and at the same time, surface dirt and varnish were removed. Stretcher follows the 18th century pattern of corner braces and cross member but is probably more recent as timbers are quite wide: 110mm outer members and 80mm corner braces. It is recorded that the work was stored in the coal cellar at the gallery for some decades and may have been removed from its stretcher at that time. Pale pink ground shows through in highlights of sky left of centre; this may be intentional or the result of overcleaning. There are extensive drying cracks in the areas where dark paint underlies white or light colours, in the water and in a large area down the right hand edge and in lower left hand sky. These latter areas might indicate the presence of another composition beneath, perhaps with a large tree at the right side of the painting and dark trees along a horizon at the left.