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Below (Trenton) High Falls

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Below (Trenton) High Falls

Artist: Ferdinand Richardt (Danish, 1819-1895; active United States, 1855-1859)

Date: 1858
Medium: Oil on canvas
Framed: 69 1/4 x 42 3/4in. (175.9 x 108.6cm)
Credit Line: Institute Collection
Object number: 72.53
Text Entries

Trenton High Falls was the grandest of the series of six different cataracts and cascades over which, in the course of two miles, West Canada Creek once descended on its way from the Adirondacks to the Mohawk River. Located about a dozen miles north of Utica, New York, Trenton Falls became a tourist attraction with the opening of the Erie Canal to that city in the mid-1820s. Accessible first by carriage and then by rail, it remained for more than half a century a high point of the standard scenic tour that followed the Canal across upstate New York and culminated at Niagara Falls.(1) The construction of a dam early in the twentieth century flooded three of the six falls and stopped the free flow of water over the others, including High Falls.

The complex configuration of High Falls, which Richardt has depicted with reasonable accuracy, made it a popular subject for artists. At the upper level, water falls from vertical ledges whose main faces, set at opposed angles, reflect light differently. At the lower level, yet on a different axis, the creek cascades majestically down colossal limestone steps to a mist—clouded pool. The surrounding forest presses in to the edges of the gorge, reinforcing the sense of unfettered nature inherent in the fast-moving stream. A group of fashionably dressed tourists, who survey the spectacle from a ledge left of center, and a more simply garbed man and children, who fish in the quieter water of the foreground, “civilize” this wilderness. Richardt widened the gorge and reduced the scale of the figures in relation to their setting to heighten the grandeur of the scene, a common enough practice among landscape painters of his generation. Following their conventions, Richardt used dark, irregularly shaped forms—trees and shadowed rocks to frame a bright center of interest, in this case the dazzlingly brilliant light reflecting from the sheet of water that cascades into the pool.

The figures perched on the ledge may represent guests from the Trenton Falls Hotel, a high-toned summer hostelry whose property included all of the falls and the nearby forest. The proprietors of the hotel encouraged artists to record the area’s scenery.(2) Between the 1820s and the 1870s many did so, including Albert Bierstadt, DeWitt Clinton Boutelle, Thomas Doughty, Asher B. Durand, Thomas Hicks, and George Inness, occasionally from the top of the falls but more often from the general vantage point of Richardt’s painting. Other artists might also have been moved to paint the scene had they seen High Falls as Richardt shows it, resplendently flowing, but in most summers West Canada Creek was for long periods reduced to a mere trickle except in heavy rains.

Richardt’s painting seems to express the excited sense of awe and admiration with which most American artists of his generation approached the natural wonders of a land where, as Thomas Cole observed in his Essay on American Scenery (1836), “all nature is new to art.” To Richardt, who had come to the United States only three years before painting High Falls, American nature was new indeed. Like many of his fellow artists, he treats this scene worshipfully, as if wild nature were a sacred thing; but the distant party of tourists, who have ambled down from the hotel, are a premonition of the great shift in American thinking about the natural world that by the 1850s was already underway, a shift in which a pantheistic concept of Nature as God would give way to the more prosaic idea of Nature as playground.


1. David Tatham, “Thomas Hicks at Trenton Falls,” American Art Journal, vol. 15, no. 4 (1983), pp. 4-20.

2. Ibid. See also N. Parker Willis, ed., Trenton Falls, Picturesque and Descriptive (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1851).



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