Art of the Month Club: Peter Low
The Art of the Month Club is a regular feature of the WCMA blog. Each month we invite someone special to write about a work from our collection. Find your own favorite WCMA artwork by searching our collection database. You never know, we may invite you to be the next Art of the Month Club member. Today, please welcome Peter Low, Williams College Professor of Art.
I love William Morris Hunt’s 1878 Niagara Falls. This is partly because, as a transplanted Canadian, the painting calls me back – across a border of time as well as place (in fact, one of my sisters once made a documentary, for public television in Ontario, about the Falls). But my fascination with this picture also has to do with its huge size. Like a movie screen in a darkened theater, it grabs your attention. Even more, this enormous composition is itself a captivating puzzle: simultaneously slow, stable, majestic – all those strong, solid horizontals, all that rock – and roiling with an evanescent energy. The key here is the flowing and spraying water, rendered in those rough, passionate, vibrant brushstrokes. But the aliveness of the work is also hinted at through the diagonal tilt of the tree-line and the dynamic half-ellipse of the luminescent precipice, curving enticingly toward our feet. This is a landscape forever changing, every instant, but, in so being, it never changes. Nothing is still, and yet it is a vision of permanence, a vision of nature (and art), eternally powerful, triumphing over the moment and over the fleeting presence of humankind, including me, the viewer. Most of all, though, what I love about this cathedral of a painting is how it draws me in: there is such excitement, I find, in watching those ever-moving waters course over the edge and then disappear into the unseen vortex of the Falls. My body, my heart and mind want to follow those waters. As such, this painting – like a cathedral, like all works of art, each in their own way, and even like the museum, like WCMA itself – is a site of transcendence, a portal into a world of the impossible, of the hitherto unimaginable. This is the miracle of art, the reason I’m an art historian.
Above image: William Morris Hunt (American, 1824-1879), Niagara Falls, 1878, oil on canvas. Gift of the estate of J. Malcolm Forbes.