Honolulu Academy of Arts

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Following is an essay written by John K. Howat for the publication Honolulu Academy of Arts Journal, Vol. 1, 1974: A Selection of American Paintings in the Collection.


A Picturesque Site in the Catskills: The Kaaterskill Falls as Painted by William Guy Wall

by John K. Howat


On May 11, 1827, the fledgling National Academy of Design in New York City opened its second annual exhibition in galleries situated on the third floor of the recently completed Arcade Baths Building on Chambers Street.[1] The exhibition met with considerable public abuse fomented by the older competing American Academy of Fine Arts and its leader Colonel John Trumbull. Despite the contretemps, a warm reception was given a painting executed by William Guy Wall depicting Cauterskill Falls on the Catskill Mountains, taken from under the Cavern; [2] the picture also received unusual accolades in the press. Although the painting subsequently disappeared, to reappear only in recent years on the New York art market, it enjoyed, as one of Wall's finest productions, an important place in the art history of the time. Both the subject and treatment of the picture struck a responsive chord in the American art world at that moment when landscape painting was being established as the dominant national art form.

The Kaaterskill Falls are located in Greene County, New York, on Kaaterskill Creek about twelve miles west of the village of Catskill on the Hudson River, The Falls, included in the Catskill State Park, are today a relatively uncelebrated landmark, but during the last three-quarters of the nineteenth century in their tourist heyday they were one of the United States' best known and most sought-out natural sights, one of those places artists felt obliged to see and record. Visitors came in droves to see the superb landscape features of the neighborhood -- the famous sixty-mile view over the Hudson Valley from the Pine Orchard, North and South Lakes nestled on the high plateau near North Mountain, the Kaaterskill Falls themselves, and Haines Falls at the head of the Kaaterskill Clove. Elegant hotels were erected and miles of trails, walkways, roads, and railways were developed to accommodate the visitors. Today the hotels are gone and only roads and trails survive, but a visit to this extraordinary area makes immediately clear why it became such a touchstone of romantic and artistic sensibility.[3]

The United States Geological Survey contour map for Kaaterskill[4] shows that the Catskill Mountains, an eroded plateau of sedimentary beds, have been sharply eaten away on their higher edge, the eastern escarpment, leaving an upland surmounted by isolated peaks and skirted by precipitous hillsides and deep ravines, particularly the Kaaterskill Clove. At the Kaaterskill Falls a hard upper layer of gray sandstone has withstood the action of nature, providing the ledge over which the Kaaterskill throws itself. Softer red shale beneath has crumbled away to form a deep amphitheater. After the first cascade of one hundred eighty feet the water goes over another ledge, falling another eighty feet perpendicularly before flowing down the steep ravine to join the other branch of the Kaaterskill flowing from Haines Falls. The imposing presence of the Kaaterskill Falls in full flood has best been captured at close view in Henry Fenn's theatrical rendition.

The name Kaaterskill (the preferred form on the survey maps, although they offer "Cauterskill" as a variant) is uncertain in origin (Indian or Dutch ?), varied in spelling, providing a rich source for linguistic speculation. The most commonly accepted explanation first reached print in the early nineteenth century:

The Dutch called our catamount, or Panther, HET CAT, emphatically the Cat; it is also their name for the domestic cat, except when to distinguish the mole, and when [sic] is then called KATER; and hence, probably, from the fact of its taking its rise among the mountains and leaping wildly and furiously down their cataracts, one branch of the Catskill (Kill is the Dutch of Creek) is called the KATER'S KILL -- which, being interpreted in round-faced English, means Ram Cat Creek.[5]

Shortly thereafter, because of recurrent anglicization of the name, one writer complained that "there are people who object to this Dutch way of writing these Dutch names, preferring rather to murder their own mother tongue. Instead of Kaaterskill, they write Cattskill, Cautskill, and Cauterskill."[6]

During the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the Kaaterskill Falls and locality, lightly inhabited aside from the valleys or "cloves" that probed the mountains from the east, were described only occasionally in print by such naturalists and authors of travelogues as the famous John Bartram, Samuel Mitchell, and Timothy Dwight. Such observers were impressed by the primeval and romantic wildness of the area, often comparing Kaaterskill Falls as a natural wonder to Niagara, but the local populace was concerned mainly with felling lumber and harvesting bark for the burgeoning tanning industry. Washington Irving, who helped make the neighborhood famous in his tale of Rip Van Winkle [1819-20] did not visit the location until years later during the 1830's.

Timothy Dwight's relative, Henry E. Dwight writing in 1819, provided one of the last profiles of the area before it was commercially developed for tourism, noting "the scenery is in the highest degree beautiful and sublime, and well deserves the best efforts of the muse and of the pencil...little or nothing is known of the existence of such scenery, excepting in the immediate vicinity. Few even of those who live within a few hours ride, have curiosity enough to visit it."[7]

Such obscurity rapidly vanished with the growth of enthusiasm for picturesque landscape vistas, Also the development of steam shipping on the Hudson River, with the impending opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, made the construction of the Catskill Mountain House at the Pine Orchard in 1823 an attractive business proposition. In 1824 William L. Stone touted the hotel and environs in a series of articles titled "Ten Days in the Country." He lauded the precarious site of the Mountain House on its cliff-edge and was wryly amused that the stream feeding the Kaaterskill Falls had been dammed for a sawmill: "This saw-mill, we shrewdly suspect, had been erected for a purpose different from that of cutting boards. The owner has dammed up the water so as to nearly destroy the beauty of the cascade at pleasure, and when visitors come, he lets off the waters as a matter of favor, and before they leave the spot, duns everyone to pay for it. This is selling water to good advantage." Stone, however, waxed enthusiastic over this: "...one of nature's mightiest efforts. ...Nothing can equal the sparkling brilliancy of the scene [viewed from the amphitheater behind the Falls], as the torrent rains down its exhaustless store of diamonds."[8]

Subsequently in the flood of travel books that appeared concerning the United States during the nineteenth century the Mountain House and Kaaterskill Falls almost always received mention. One of the earliest of these mentions appeared in the famous book, written by the Englishman Captain Basil Hall, Travels in North America in the Years 1827 and 1828. In June 1827 Hall and his wife visited the Mountain House and Hall wrote a good thumbnail outline of the area's history:

Pine Orchard had long been the resort of picnic parties from New York and Albany, even when the worthy citizens had to find their way up or down the river in sailing boats. But upon the introduction of steam, the number of visitors increased so rapidly, that the slender accommodation afforded to the clouds of tourists by a few miserable sheds was quite inadequate. One of the enterprising companies, however, which abound in that country, soon found, in a money speculation, a remedy for this matter. Straightway there rose up, like an exhalation, a splendid hotel, on the very brink of the precipice, some five-and-twenty hundred feet above the river.[9]

Captain Hall's wife, a lady of strong tastes and opinions, who found the United States somewhat uncongenial, was pleased with the view but was more delighted to find an obliging Englishman named Webb as manager of the Mountain House where

Everything is so neat and nice and comfortable, plenty of silver forks, a luxury not to be met with at the best inns in this country, a dinner cooked by Mrs. Webb herself who has fortunately no cook at present, consequently we are spared the extraordinary rivers of butter and oceans of grease which belong to American Cookery. Everything in short partaking in some degree of that refinement that becomes a second nature to English persons.[10]

Webb also provided a circulating library for the benefit of those clients who escaped the heat and pestilence of the city at his hostelry.[11] Painters were lured to the vicinity by such attractions as well as by the natural spectacle.

Thomas Cole, one of America's foremost landscape painters and a founder of the Hudson River School, in 1843 provided an evocative description of the Kaaterskill Falls. This is only appropriate, since the painting which guaranteed Cole's success was his view of the Falls seen from within the cavern.

There is a deep gorge in the midst of the loftiest Catskills, which is terminated at its upper end by a mighty wall of rock. As the spectator approaches from below, he sees its craggy and impending.front rising to the height of three hundred feet. This huge rampart is semicircular. From the centre of the more distant or middle part of the semicircle, like a gush of living light from heaven, the cataract leaps, and foaming into feathery spray, descends into a rocky basin one hundred and eighty feet below. Thence the water flows through a wild rocky pass of several rods, and falls over another rock ninety feet high; and then, struggling and foaming through the shattered fragments of the mountains, and shadowed by fantastic trees, it plunges into the gloomy depths of the valley below. The stream is small, except when swollen by summer freshets, or by the rains and melted snows of spring and autumn; yet a thing of life and motion, it is sufficient, at all times to give expression to the scene, which is one of savage and silent grandeur. But its semicircular cavern, or gallery, is perhaps the most remarkable feature of the scene. This has been formed in the wall of rock by the gradual crumbling away of a narrow stratum of soft shell that lies beneath gray rocks of the hardest texture. The upper rock projects some eighty feet, and forms a stupendous canopy, over which the cataract shoots. Underneath it, if the ground was level, thousands of men might stand. A narrow path, about twenty feet above the basin of the waterfall, leads through the depth of this arched gallery, which is about five hundred feet long.
It is a singular, a wonderful scene, whether viewed from above, where the stream leaps into the tremendous gulf scooped into the very heart of the huge mountain, or as seen from below the second fall; the impending crags, the shadowy depth of the caverns, across which darts the cataract, broken into fleecy forms and tossed and swayed hither and thither by the wayward wind; the sound of the water, now falling upon the ear in a loud roar, and now in fitful lower tones; the lovely voice, the solitary song of the valley.[12]

The Kaaterskill Falls were first seen by the twenty-four year old Cole in the summer of 1825 during his first trip to the Catskills. Cole was discovered as a result of exhibiting his painting of the scene, an event famous in American art history which was described shortly afterwards by William Dunlap, painter, writer, dramatist, and earliest of America's art historians:

About a month ago, Mr. Cole, a young man from the interior of Pennsylvania placed three landscapes in the hands of Mr. Colman a picture dealer in the city, for sale, hoping to obtain twenty dollars apiece for them. There they remained unnoticed...and there they might have remained, if an artist, who had himself placed some of his own productions in the hands of Mr. Colman, had not gone to inquire for the proceeds.[13]

Dunlap further relates how Colonel Trumbull, the discovering artist, bought a landscape for $25 saying, "I am delighted and at the same time mortified. This youth has done at once, and without instruction, what I cannot do after 50 years practice." Trumbull told Dunlap of his find, Dunlap bought one of the pictures, as did Asher B. Durand, all within the same day. In 1834 Dunlap continued the tale:

P. Hone, Esq., [Philip Hone, wealthy merchant, art collector, and mayor of New York during the year 1825] soon offered me $50 for my purchase, which I accepted, and my necessities prevented me from giving the profit, as I ought to have done, to the painter. One thing I did, which was my duty. I published in the journals of the day, an account of the young artist and his pictures; it was no puff, but an honest declaration of my opinion, and I believe it served merit by attracting attention to it. From that time forward, Mr. Cole received commissions to paint landscapes from all quarters ...[14]

Shortly thereafter in December 1825, Colonel Trumbull lent Catterskill Upper Fall, CatskilI Mountains to the exhibition at the American Academy of Fine Arts (where it was shown again in 1826 but subsequently has vanished). The picture was a success, giving it and Cole's name further currency in New York, and in 1826 Cole painted a replica for Daniel Wadsworth of Hartford, Connecticut, a collector and Trumbull's nephew-in-law.[15] Cole, as is well-known, became the painter of the Catskill landscape, eventually settling in the village of Catskill. What Cole achieved with his pictures of the Catskills done in 1825 and 1826, besides establishing his own reputation, was to bring in graphic form before the public eye the wild beauty and romantic appeal of the imposing landscape vistas that were available so near to civilization. Cole's example both helped set for a generation the "iconography" of the fledgling school of American landscape painting and contributed to the development of the hitherto remote Catskills as a resort for the traveler questing after romantic scenery.

In America previous to Cole, accomplished paintings of scenery had been confined primarily to the work of topographers and draughtsmen (mostly trained in Great Britain], who executed lucid views of familiar sights to be reproduced in book or print form. Largely thanks to the success of Cole (and it should be added, his fellow-artist Thomas Doughty) the easel painter in oils at that juncture took the lead in American landscape painting.[16]

At the time Cole was discovered by Trumbull, William Guy Wall (1792-after 1864) was a familiar figure in the American art world as a result of his contribution of watercolor views to the popular edition of prints, The Hudson River Portfolio. Wall completed this series of watercolors on a summer trip up the river from New York to the foothills of the Adirondacks in 1820, and the first group of aquatint plates was issued in 1821. The entire first issue was complete by 1825, and later editions followed in response to lively demand.[17] Wall was a leader among the many topographical watercolorists who emigrated to the United States from Great Britain in the early years of the United States, the best of whom included William and Thomas Birch, Archibald and Alexander Robertson, John Rubens Smith, John Hill, William Bennett, Joshua Shaw, and Robert Havell. Wall, who was born, raised and trained in Dublin, came to New York in 1818, starting his first residence in the United States, which lasted from 1818 until at least 1836 when he returned to Ireland. There he was active as a landscapist and painter of backgrounds for silhouette portraits done by the popular and youthful Master Hubard. Wall returned in 1856 to live in Newburgh, New York, where he remained until 1882. Then he returned to Dublin, where he died sometime after 1864. If we judge by Dunlap's and other printed comments, Wall reached a pinnacle of success in New York in 1827 when he displayed his Cauterskill Falls on the Catskill Mountains, taken from under the Cavern. According to Dunlap:

The first views he made for publishing were scenery of the Hudson, and he has continued a successful application of his talents to landscapes in oil and watercolors ever since. His pictures were a great attraction at the early exhibitions of the National Academy of Design in 1826-7 and 8....This gentleman has been indefatigable in studying American landscape, and his reputation stands deservedly high. A short time before the death of Thomas Jefferson [July 4, 1826], he wrote to Mr. Wall, offering him in the most friendly manner the situation of teacher of drawing and pointing at his college of Charlotteville [the University of Virginia]; but as it was not made a professorship Mr. Wall declined.[18]

If, as Dunlap said, Wall painted his landscapes "from nature on the spot," he probably painted the Cauterskill Falls canvas, or at least a sketch for it, during the autumn of 1826, since he exhibited the finished picture the following spring. New-York Commercial Advertiser published Dunlap's comment as part of a general review of the 1827 exhibition, possibly written by the editor, William L. Stone, who had expatiated so glowingly on the Kaaterskill Falls three years earlier:

No. 45 -- Landscape, CauterskiII Falls, on the Catskill Mountains, taken from under the cavern -- W. Wall, N.A. This brilliant picture shows that Mr. Wall has attained the same facility in oil, for which he has long been distinguished in watercolors. This grand scene is here displayed with a power and skill which is rarely seen in any country. We cannot but be proud of the natural scenery of our country. Artists, such as Doughty, Wall, and Cole, teach us to appreciate its beauty.[19]

Six days later this special notice appeared in the Commercial Advertiser's columns:

Wall's painting of the Falls in the Catskill Mountains -- This splendid specimen of landscape painting which we have already noticed in our sketches of the exhibition of the American Academy [sic] attracts great attention. An English gentleman the other day offered three hundred dollars for it; but that is not enough for such a picture. Indeed, Mr. Webb, the enterprising occupant of the Mountain Hotel, says he will give more than that. Mr. Wall should not take less than five hundred dollars for this finished performance.[20]

Whether Mr. Webb succeeded in purchasing the picture, presumably to further embellish the Mountain House, is not known, nor is it known whether Wall profited to the extent of five hundred dollars from Stone's public advice. Dunlap in 1834 wrote that Wall "had sold many of his late pictures at from three to four hundred dollars each." Wall's two pictures in the exhibition received an extended notice later that summer in the United States Review and Literary Gazette noting :

We have not forgotten the splendid corner in last year's exhibition ...[21] but we did hope that a pencil so prolific, and at the same time so interesting would in the course of the year, have furnished more than two of its delightful creations, to charm our eyes; but when a rich feast is before us, in a single dish, we will not quarrel with the want of variety.[22]
...This is a grand picture; it is finely composed, and richly colored. The sky and distance bright and glowing in the sun, and the various tints of our autumnal scenery, the crimson red and brilliant orange of the maple; the sere brown of the oak; the pale green of the willow, the glazed green of the mountain laurel, and the deep dark green of the fir; scattered in profusion over the mountain forests, all present a richness unknown to European eyes, and a splendour amounting almost to gaudiness, which would scarcely be appreciated but by those who have visited our shores. This is one of the best of Mr. Wall's productions. We have one remark to make on the rivulet, which flows from the fall into the chasm below; the water certainly appears to run up hill. Fortunately this is easily remedied; it is the fault of the perspective; not of lines, but of light, and shadow, and color. If some of the objects in the foreground were still darker, and others lighter, and some colors as powerful as possible, the defect would disappear.[23]

The Cole and Wall views are strikingly similar, having been painted from the almost identical place within the cavern, and at the same season. This, and the proximity of date, leads to the strong suspicion that Wall, impressed by the success of the rising star, Cole, and the power of his picture, hastened in 1826 to emulate or rival Cole with his own version of the Kaaterskill Falls. The similarities of the pictures are naturally intriguing, but the differences are important to notice. Cole's view, a dark, tempestuous, somewhat indistinct scene, expresses the artist's heightened sensitivity and poetic feelings toward the forces of nature in action. The picture is the work of an artist in awe of his subject. Wall, an accomplished topographer, took a more straightforward, less emotional look at the dramatic scene. He carefully delineated the variations in color and form of foliage, rocks, water, clouds, and the elegantly costumed visitors. His rendition is spritely and specific, providing an attractive record of an inspiring place of resort. In Cole's romantic vision, which includes a wholly imaginary Indian brave on the precipice, one senses none of the paraphernalia of civilization, only the "savage and silent grandeur" of the scene. It is worth noting that Philip Hone, writing in 1833, thought Cole's landscapes "too solid, massy, and umbrageous," but that "every American is bound to prove his love of country by admiring Cole."[34]

Wall, perhaps more to Hone's taste, presents a bright perception of nature, including the dandified tourists, one of whom could well be signaling to the refreshment stand at the top of the Falls, asking that a picnic basket and champagne be lowered into the gulf. And one can imagine the happy tinkling of silver and glass not far away at Mr. Webb's Mountain House. Cole and Wall chose to portray different aspects of the same scene, but both succeeded in presenting to the art-conscious portion of the American public a proud glimpse of "the natural scenery of our country."

Subsequently throughout the nineteenth century artists in large numbers painted both the grand and the more intimate aspects of the Kaaterskill Falls. Among those whose Kaaterskill Falls views were published or exhibited were William H. Bartlett, William Bennett, Jasper Cropsey, Currier and Ives, Thomas Doughty, Asher B. Durand, Harry Fenn, Sanford Gifford, Robert Havell, Winslow Homer, John Kensett, Thomas Nast, Thomas Addison Richards, James Smillie, and John Rubens Smith. The attraction of the Kaaterskill Falls as a monument for artists was strong and widespread. We are fortunate that William Guy Wall's Cauterskill Falls on the Catskill Mountains, taken from under the Cavern has survived in a state of excellent preservation as a rarity and as a pioneer testimony to the dramatic beauty of the site.

Endnotes pending.

Essay reprinted with permission of Honolulu Academy of Arts, Honolulu, HI.


About the author...

John K. Howat retired in 2001 from his position as the Lawrence A. Fleischman Chairman of the Departments of American Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Mr. Howat served in curatorial positions at the Metropolitan for more than 33 years, during which time he led the major effort to expand the Museum's American Wing. Mr. Howat supervised the installation of the new American Wing in 1980, and the Luce Center in 1988. Housing one of the finest and most comprehensive collections of American art in existence, the department holds more than 15,000 paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts, dating from the 17th to the 20th century, most which are accessible to the public on four floors of gallery and study areas. The American Wing also features 25 furnished period rooms that offer an unparalleled view of American domestic architecture. It also offers visitors one of the Museum's most beloved spaces, the Charles Engelhard Court.


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