The Invasion of Arcadia

In writing of the state of landscape photography, post-Ansel Adams, the catalog of the 1990 Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition of “The New American Pastoral. Landscape Photography in the Age of Questioning” stated, “Nearing the end of this century it has become increasingly apparent that the human conquest of nature may not be the cause for celebration it once was; nor can we with any complacency view wilderness as isolated from the effects of our culture. Our expanding presence in and impact on the land, it is argued, has become so pervasive that the boundaries between nature and culture have been all but eradicated. For more than 150 years, American photographers have had a special relationship with the land. The American scenic terrain has been portrayed by them with a passion often approaching the spiritual or the ecstatic. At the same time, however, the significance of these images has also been informed, whether consciously or not, by the changing cultural and moral values of their makers.” In his series, Arcadia Revisited: Niagara River and Falls from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, photographer John Pfahl (1939-) redefined Arcadia, not in terms of nature but in terms of industry. The insistence upon showing the fate of Arcadia rather than the dream and the promise of Arcadia marked a point of no return for the photographer. As he wandered the landscape of Niagara Falls, Pfahl could have turned his camera on the rushing river or on the cascading falls or even towards the ever-present mist generated by the impact of falling water upon churning water. But instead, he examined the human use of the River and the Falls themselves, a use which use to be a pilgrimage to a sublime site has become industrialization for the sole purpose of producing power for the east coast.

John Dower. Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia (1841)

In his original proposal to make a photographic map of the journey of the Niagra River from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, Pfahl stated, “What I find most interesting about the Niagara River is the way in which the Nineteenth Century is palpably evident under the veneer of present-day reality. Almost every site and viewpoint along its varied thirty-six-mile course is laden with history. Painters, sketchers and photographers by the hundreds have discovered, rediscovered and consecrated the most picturesque aspects of the rapids, falls, gorge and shoreline. Thoughts and feelings of the Beautiful, the Awesome and the Sublime are still provoked today, even amidst the proliferation of hydroelectric installations, chemical plants, and tourist facilities.” However, another question still needs to be answered–why that particular route? Inspired by Edmund Burke’s approach to the interpretation of nature and its division between the beautiful and the sublime, Pfahl often followed the formal models of nineteenth-century art. For this project, which required a particular route, he took an artist as a model, saying that “In the Niagara River project, I propose to use the working methods of Amos W. Sangster (as evidenced in his monumental portfolio of etchings The Niagara River from Lake Ere to Lake Ontario) as my model. I, too, will try to spend my days hiking along the river, exploring with passion its nooks and crannies. I will use his drawings as points of departure for my own art. I will find the places where he stood and discover which aspects of the scene have changed and which have persevered. I will try to recapture his affection for the river and to understand and reinterpret his tender and expressive responses to the scene. And, it seems to me, it will be of utmost importance to be true to the specifics of the river and its shoreline as it exists today.”

The Burchfield Penny Art Center presented an exhibition of the art of Amos W. Sangster (1833-1904) in 2013 and noted that although he was known as “the painter of the Niagara Frontier” and that he had only two formal art lessons in his life. George Inness described him as “the American Turner.” Born in Ontario, Sangster moved to Buffalo where he began working for the famous Courier Company, making wood engravings. As the gallery noted, “In his off hours, he began spending more and more time outdoors sketching and painting watercolors of well-known landmarks in Erie and Niagara counties.” Although he was working on the “frontier,” a cultural and artistic backwater, the artist seemed to be aware of the atmospheric work of James Whistler and the possibilities of etching. “In 1879, Sangster began working on a collection of original drawings and watercolors on which he would base his monumental series of 153 etchings entitled Niagara River and Falls from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. Following the entire 36-mile course of the river from one lake to the other, he first sketched his scenes on location and later completed his etchings in his studio.” Niagara Falls was a natural wonder made famous by those who had come before him, from Frederic Edwin Church to hoards of photographers.

Frederic Edwin Church. Niagara (1857)

Platt Babbitt. A Party of Three Tourists Visiting Niagara Falls (1855)

Sangster was working twenty years later, coming after Church and his photographic counterpart, Platt Babbitt, and what had been a relatively pristine wilderness was being transformed. Sangster not only made over one hundred etchings on copper but he also wrote a book, Niagara River and Falls From Lake Erie to Lake Ontario (1889),  about his observations that included one hundred fifty-three original drawings. In writing of the torrents of waters falling off the sharp edge of the cliff, Sangster said, The gorgeous Cataract of Niagara, a thing of beauty forever, equally lavish of its inspirations and its charms upon all comers, is always stupendous, and always glorious, and its beauties and splendors are as sublime and overwhelming to one really sympathetic admirer as to another. All its praises must be sung in the same key. Monopoly of expression before such a majestic spectacle is no more admissible than monopoly of emotion.” Although Pfhal noted that as Sangster was drawing the environs of the River, “He wasn’t afraid to show industry. He included a smokestack set within an idyllic landscape. The 19th century had a very ambivalent attitude about industrialization. They were proud of it, and only later did they realize the problems that came with it,” the artist himself did not write about industrialization. 

Amos Sangster. Niagara River Portfolio (1887)

When Sangster was sketching the path of the Niagara River, the area around the Falls had long been despoiled by tourism and all of the accouterments from what Ginger Strand listed as “Chinese pagodas, dancing pavilions, camera obscuras, Indian bazaars, and sideshows featuring counting pigs and a man named Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy.” Guidebooks would direct the traveler in search of the sublime along paths less worn by souvenirs. In her 2008 book Inventing Niagara: Beauty, Power, and Lies, Strand wrote, “Niagara Falls as a natural wonder does not exist anymore. Manicured, repaired, landscaped and artificially lit, dangerous overhangs dynamited off and water flow managed to suit the tourist schedule, the Falls are more a monument to man’s meddling than to nature’s strength. In fact, they are a study in self-delusion..we consider them a symbol of American manifest destiny, yet we share them politely with Canada. We hold them up as an example of unconquerable nature even as we applaud the daredevils and power-brokers who conquer them. And we congratulate ourselves for preserving nature’s beauty in an ecosystem that, beneath its shimmering emerald surface, reflects our ugly ability to destroy.”

Sadly, it seems that the destruction of the natural beauty of the Niagara region began as soon as it was discovered by those hungry for a taste of Arcadia, a return to that fabled time of pastoral life. However, the Niagara Falls themselves were closely connected to the current notions of the Romantic sublime, specifically feelings of awe inspired by the sight and sounds of the thundering waters. Writing in 2009, Arne Neset’s book, Arcadian Waters and Wanton Seas. The Iconology of Waterscapes in Nineteenth-Century Transatlantic Culture links Arcadia to landscape painting in Western culture. “The perception of place and its depiction in art are determined by some very ancient patterns or icons that reflect man’s ideas about ‘place.’ The ‘good place’ in Western art is the mythological ‘Arcadia’ and the biblical ‘Eden.’ The good place is sheltered, temperate, calm and pleasing to the eye…That kind of landscape is..referred to as the Claudian (Claude Lorrain, 1600-1682) Italianate landscape tradition of the Renaissance depicting the classical Arcadia. The ‘bad place’ on the other hand, barren and dry, hostile, stormy, volcanic, and either too hot or too cold and is associated with mountains and deserts and with subterranean, Hades or Hell as it is described in Dante’s Inferno.” Previous posts have discussed sacrifice zones in America, areas considered undesirable in the terms described by Neset, which were simply given to the United States Military to do with what they needed. These bad places were bombed and poisoned, all because they did not fit into the preconditions of “Arcadia.” The classical Arcadia of Virgil was borrowed by  Christianity and became a particular kind of garden, a “cultivated landscape..or hortus conclussus, or a pastoral Arcadia.” Neset continued, “The icon of Arcadia as a pleasant landscape where inhabitants lived simply as shepherds and herdsmen in small tribal societies away from the social life of villages and towns..The middle landscape of Arcadia occupied a place somewhere between the garden and the wilderness…Arcadia was reinvented in literature in the Renaissance by Jacopo Sannazzaro, an Italian poet whose Arcadia, a work written in verse and prose, was the first pastoral romance and, until the rise of the Romantic movement…In England, the genre was taken up by Sir Philip Sidney, whose Arcadia was published in 1590.”

Mythological Map of Ancient Greece

Beyond the origins of Arcadia’s return as a topic in modern literature, the other main characteristic of Arcadia is that on one hand, it is lost, while on the other hand, this is a real site, with an actual history. Although it is shrouded in myth and supposedly inhabited by Greek Gods and Goddesses, there was an actual Arcadia in Greece, and by the Augustan era in the Roman Empire, the region was already the subject of nostalgic searches. Julie Baleriaux’s article, “Pausanias’ Arcadia Between Conservatism and Innovation,” recounted that “Arcadia was so old that it had witnessed the birth of Zeus and Poseidon, Cronus’ feast on his children, and was the place where the first human, Pelasgus, was born. One of his first descendants, the Arcadian king Lycaon, established the first city on earth–Lycosura–at the foot of Mount Lycaeus. he founded the cult of Lycaean Zeus at the top of the same mountain and instituted here the oldest games in the Greek world, the Lycaean games.” Pausanias was a Roman traveler, fascinated with ancient Greece. He explored the ruins of Arcadia, which had been recently conquered and brutally by Rome. Arcadia was ancient, its religious roots stretched back to prehistoric times. “The early settlement pattern or Arcadia was largely scattered: people living off pastoralism in the mountains of western and central Arcadia were organized in fluid groups which gathered at shared sanctuaries. Nucleated settlements–poleis–appeared in the classical period.” Over time, the region drifted towards urban areas, leaving behind empty villages when the rural settlements were abandoned during the 4th century. “Despite the ruined and empty appearance of rural Arcadia, Pausanias records a number of lively traditional cults all over the countryside.” The gods of the countryside migrated to the urban areas where the traditional cults continued over the centuries and were still active and practicing religions even upon the arrival of the Romans. The rural sanctuaries remained, often because the God was connected to a site which could not be moved. Arcadia, then, was not a dream or a utopia but was historically a real place, whose mythology is part of Greek mythology, its inhabitants and those who participated in the events of the ancient history of the Bronze Age were well known in oral histories passed on as tales of the Gods. As the region passed from its storied past, it evolved from small towns to large cities, from small tribes to ruling monarchs, until the area was taken over by Sparta and then the Romans. The very soil, the groves, the rocks, the mountains remained imbued with the spirits of the primordial gods and goddesses who haunted the region.

The significance of Arcadia is that it can be equated with the Garden of Eden in that it was the place where the first man, Pelasgos was born from the earth. It was his name that gave the designation for the region, the Peloponnesus. In 1913, Hebrew literature. Greek mythology, Life and Art was published by Delphian Society presented a very clear discussion of Arcadia in the “Story of Greece” Chapter. “The Peloponnesus, or the peninsula of Pelops, has been called the citadel of Hellas. It consists of a high ridge of hills, some of which reach out to the very sea, forming rocky promontories. Well-watered plains nestle between the hills, and in the center of the peninsula is Arcadia–land of pastoral life, beloved of poets of all ages. Arcadia has been likened to Switzerland, her people to the peasants of the Alps. Both have possessed a sense of freedom inborn, and both have been eager for gain. Pan and his pipers originated on the eastern slopes of Arcadia, where brooks sparkle along and the air is fresh and cool.” The book noted that Arcadia was bordered by Mycenae to the East and to the West, the holy land of Elis where the Olympic games were celebrated. “Elis was a land of peace; wars were not allowed to desecrate its soil. Armies marching through its precincts laid down their weapons upon entering its borders, receiving them only when they left them. On the banks of the Alpheus stood the grove sacred to the Mighty Ones. Altars and shrines, beautiful statues and temples made splendid its entire area.” 

Collaborative Painting with Frans Francken II and seven other artists. Arcadia: a Pastoral Landscape with Shepherds and Shepherdesses Picnicking (1626 and 1632)

Like Arcadia itself, the pristine scenery of Niagara Falls and the Niagara River would evolve. Although the upstate New York region that Pfahl revisited did not have the sacred significance of Arcadia, the photographer was like a modern-day  Pausanias, an inhabitant of a sophisticated empire, seeking the source of a national mythology. The actual history of the Niagara River traversed by Pfahl will be discussed in the next post.



If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
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