William Morris Hunt (American, 1824-1879), Niagara Falls, 1878, oil on canvas, Williams College Museum of Art; Gift of the Estate of J. Malcolm Forbes 61.7.

An American Impressionist's Career-Long Fix on Niagara as a Subject

Williams College
Museum of Art
15 Lawrence Hall Drive
A Strong Impression: William Morris Hunt’s Niagara
October 17, 2009-January 31, 2010

A Strong Impression: William Morris Hunt’s Niagara examines both the artistic and cultural context in which Hunt’s painting, Niagara Falls (1878), was produced through oil sketches, drawings, photographs, films, rare books, and souvenirs. This exhibition, and three others, including, Alec Soth: NIAGARA, William Morris Hunt and the French Tradition, and Media Field: Niagara, contrast historical and contemporary views of Niagara Falls and put the Falls into a broader context.
A Strong Impression: William Morris Hunt’s Niagara features Hunt’s monumental painting, Niagara Falls (1878), which was one of the largest easel paintings that Hunt ever produced. The painting has been in WCMA’s collection since 1961. Although Hunt was best known for his portrait painting in Boston, he saw this commission to paint the Falls for the New York State Capitol Assembly Chamber as a way to establish himself in the practice of landscape, and particularly, in the tradition of Frederic Edwin Church. Church was a well-known American landscape painter and Hunt was so taken with Church’s famous 1857 depiction of Niagara Falls, that he chose the same vantage point for his own painting.


A Strong Impression reunites nine of Hunt’s studies in oil, pastel, and charcoal that show Niagara Falls from various perspectives while closely examining the Falls within Hunt’s body of work. Using Frederic Edwin Church’s oil sketch of the Falls from the Olana State Historic Site, additional artwork, rare books, maps, photographs, and souvenirs, this exhibition traces the evolution of Niagara Falls as an inspirational icon to an emblem of environmental activism. The museum recently acquired a pastel by Hunt depicting the rapids near the Falls, which will go on view for the first time in this exhibition.
“It is exciting to put WCMA’s painting of Hunt’s Niagara Falls into a more detailed context. This exhibition has even more significance because it is the first time Hunt’s monumental painting has been shown with other studies Hunt did for Niagara Falls outside the artist’s studio,” explains exhibition curator Kathryn Price.
Additionally, this is the first time in 50 years that Hunt’s Niagara Falls will be reunited with its outer frame. Originally, this painting traveled with two frames — a large outer frame and a liner frame — as was customary in the 19th-century. Both frames have recently been treated at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center and are now displayed at WCMA together, allowing the painting to be viewed in its entirety.

William Morris Hunt (American, 1824-1879), Niagara, 1879, Casein on canvas, 158.11 x 253.36 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Partial gift of William Morris Hunt II, 2000.1215, © 2009 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.