THE FIRST KNOWN VIEW OF THE FALLS TAKEN ON THE SPOT.
First described by Champlain in 1604, from descriptions he had from Indian guides, the Falls are mentioned in French missionaries’ letters in the 17th century, but the first eyewitness description to be published is from the traveller Louis Hennepin in his Description of Louisiana (1683) following his visit to the area of the Falls with the La Salle expedition in 1678-89 and 1681. His descriptions, elaborated in his A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America (1697-98), are the basis for the first image of the Falls, by an anonymous Dutch artist, which was included as a plate in Hennepin’s New Discovery. This little engraving became the basis for all images of the subject which followed through the first half of the 18th century. This first eye-witness view of the Falls is the present sheet by the young soldier artist Thomas Davies, an artillery officer then fresh out of Amherst’s campaign to take Montreal in 1760, where he had been the first to raise the British flag. Davies surveyed the Saint Lawrence River and south side of Lake Ontario, reaching the Niagara River in 1762. Davies’s view, radically correcting the earlier fanciful descriptions, is the very first view of the Niagara Falls taken on the spot and the first accurate view, the artist carefully noting in his title ‘The Perpendicular height of the Fall 162 feet Breadth about a Mile & Quarter / The Variety of Colours in the Woods shews the true Nature of the Country’, so becoming also the first image to describe the fall colours of the Ontario forests. The image of such natural grandeur extends beyond Davies’s prosaic topographical concern to include the poetry and symbolism that this natural phenomenon would evoke over the following centuries, as Niagara became, through its representation in art, one of the defining icons of the vast American continent and of what became known as the American Sublime.
‘With the conquest of New France in 1760, officers in the victorious British military forces began to travel to Niagara Falls in ever-increasing numbers. …The first artist to have sketched the scene was Lieutenant Thomas Davies … During an exploratory tour of the Lake Ontario shoreline in 1760-61, Davies made drawings, from which he later produced finished watercolor compositions of the Falls from the Canadian side. These remarkable works by an amateur artist are both topographically accurate depictions of the waterfalls and surprisingly successful attempts to suggest their grandeur. One of the watercolors served as the basis for the ca. 1768 engraving An East View of the Great Cataract of Niagara, which was the first correct rendering of the local geography and also the earliest to include Niagara’s ever-present rainbow. … Davies … [selected] the most comprehensive and impressive of viewpoints – the western or Canadian verge of the Horsesoe Fall. From this commanding position, the mile-long stretch of rapids upstream, the individual cataracts, Goat Island, and the eroded edge length of the gorge immediately below the Falls could be represented in an all-inclusive yet provocative fashion. … The exalting response to Niagara’s vastness so often described by later visitors is evoked by the poetic associations attached to the majestic rainbow and the figures of two Indians in the right foreground. Unlike the Europeans in the 1697 engraving, Davies’s aboriginals gaze at the spectacle before them with complete equanimity. In the mid-eighteenth century, a rainbow signified the divinely instituted covenant established between man and God after the Flood. The poetic meanings infused into An East View were not only unprecedented but rarely matched by succeeding generations of artists.’ (J. E. Adamson, Niagara Two Centuries of Changing Attitudes, 1697-1901, Washington, DC, 1985, p.19-20)
‘Thomas Davies was a graduate of the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, where the development of some skill in draughtsmanship was part of the curriculum. Military officials had long been aware of the importance of ensuring that their graduates be able to render plans, and sketch maps and some descriptive views. … At the request of his superiors, Davies produced views of fortifications, plans and elevations of vessels, schematic figures of artillery formations, and records of battles. He also painted to please himself and to record both the landscape and wildlife of the New World. Waterfalls were a particular passion, as they had been with many North American travellers. So much transport was by river, and rapids and cascades were objects to be named and remembered both for the danger or discomfort often involved in their passage, and for their punctuation of an often tedious voyage. For Davies and other painters of his time they were also one of the key elements in the picturesque landscape. … between 1760 after the capture of Montreal, and 1766, Davies travelled extensively through Canada and the northeastern United States, painting the six waterfalls he later had engraved in England between 1763 and 1768. He made the sketch of Niagara that served as the model for the engraving of 1762, and, about four years later, he painted two additional watercolours of the great falls.
‘All of Davies’s views are remarkable, providing for the first time an accurate representation of the falls. The 1762 view is entitled An East View of the Great Cataract of Niagara, and includes the information ‘The Perpendicular height of the Fall 162 feet / Done on the spot by Thomas Davies Capt Royal Artillery / The Variety of Colours in the Woods shew the true Nature of the Country.’ Dismissed by Hubbard as ‘too perfunctory to be of much artistic interest,’ this view is nevertheless of great interest from the perspective of the understanding of the illustration as information. Not only are the falls depicted in their correct horseshoe configuration, but their height is given with reasonable accuracy, and the woods are shown in their autumn colours. Hubbard suggests this may be the first appearance in art of the colours of the Canadian mixed forest in the fall, and Davies feels obliged to add a note, perhaps in case his viewers feel the colour is imaginary, that ‘The variety of Colours in the Woods shew the true Nature of the Country.’ The engraving by Isaac Fougeron (fl. ca 1760-1768) is surprisingly faithful to the original watercolour sketch … Two Native people in elaborate dress stand to the right, on the edge of the river, gesturing perhaps at the geometrically precise rainbow that arches over the river. The ‘smoak’, which Kalm described, rises over the falls, and the trees come down close to the water’s edge and form a mixed forest with some conifers, typical of southern Ontario. The surface of the river shows strange flat rocks, rather like large lily pads,. Rocks are also visible at the base of the American falls. …
‘Views like those produced by Davies are not fanciful studio illustrations of idealized scenery, but renderings of nature observed, the landscape laid down in such a way at is both recognizable and informative.
‘This was in essence the goal of both scientific and military draughtsmanship – the use of image as a medium for information. … Topographic artists, like natural-history painters, were not working in the tradition of landscape advocated by Sir Joshua Reynolds, painting an idealized scene; rather they were engaged in producing accurate and recognizable landmarks, for other observers whose interest in ‘truth’ outweighed their desire for beauty. … Davies paints Niagara from three very different perspectives, both in an attempt to come to terms with the immensity of the phenomenon, but also in the manner of the illustrator of the specimen, who presents a number of views for the reader, so that no information is lost. … Davies’s landscape is not a drawing of a cascade with its fugitive light, bewildering movement, and overpowering noise; it is a drawing of a specimen, a waterfall catalogued and described in an inventory of the falls of Canada.’
(V. Dickenson, Drawn from Life Science and Art in the Portrayal of the New World, Toronto, 1998, pp.194-201.)