Largely celebrated as a painter of the expansive California wilderness, during his earlier career Thomas Hill painted with the leading landscape artists of the nineteenth century, including Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church. Niagara Falls is a consummate example of Hudson River School painting, as it combines many elements that are characteristic of the style, such as a landmark location, a classic, well-balanced composition, and a sense of the great expansiveness of American space.
In the late 1860s Hill visited Niagara Falls and made sketches of the impressive site. And in November 1868, he exhibited sketches of Niagara at the Studio Building in Boston, Massachusetts, where he kept his studio. The artist would use these smaller sketches which he had executed at the site to complete his full-scale composition of the colossal falls.
The size and scale of Niagara Falls, as well as its landmark subject matter, indicate that Hill conceived the painting as an important pictorial statement--Niagara Falls is among the largest of the artist's canvases. He was familiar with Frederic Edwin Church's great composition of the same subject which had astounded the American art world when it was exhibited in 1857. The scale of other major works by Church and Bierstadt of the 1860s may also have provided inspiration for Hill's Niagara Falls.
Hill most likely took the canvas with him to California in 1871, where he exhibited it in San Francisco the following year. When the artist arrived on the West Coast, San Francisco was booming as a major port and enjoyed the wealth generated from railroads and Comstock silver. Among the city's leading art patrons was Leland Stanford, who assembled a sizable collection of Hill's landscapes, including Niagara Falls.