Event Category: Exhibits
Exhibit: February 18, 2018 – September 9, 2018
It is believed that more prints were made of Niagara Falls before the twentieth century than of any other specific place, and The Charles Rand Penney Collection of Historical Niagara Falls Prints is the largest collection of this genre. Viewing so many images of one subject together, we can gain new insights not only about the location itself, but also about the manner in which the scene has been depicted, emerging with a deeper understanding of the history of Niagara Falls.
Imagine coming upon Niagara Falls for the very first time in 1678, as the explorer Father Louis Hennepin (Belgian, 1626–1705) did. There were no paved paths, fences, bridges, or observation towers to separate Hennepin from the experience of what he described as “a thundering cataract which has no equal.” With the help of Native American guides, Hennepin was the first European known to have seen the Falls. His vivid written descriptions were later translated by an unknown artist into the first visual image of Niagara Falls—a print that was included in Hennepin’s 1697 book A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America.
Widely circulated throughout Europe, this image inspired other artists to create their own representations of the Falls. Prior to the 1800s, people visited Niagara Falls mainly through printed images and their imaginations, as the Niagara Region was sparsely populated, and travel was difficult. As the nineteenth century progressed, images of the Falls increasingly enticed people to see them in person. Wealthy travelers participated in what became known as the “American Grand Tour”—a trip by horse-drawn coach from New York, up the Hudson River Valley to Saratoga Springs, and then westward to Niagara Falls. Following the War of 1812, a variety of businesses were established in Niagara Falls. The population grew, roads improved, and travel became less expensive. By the late 1820s, many people were earning a living by providing lodging and other amenities for the 12,000 to 15,000 tourists who visited annually.