Waterfalls are one of nature’s great spectacles, from ribbon falls which drop so far that almost all their water turns to spray before it lands, to vast thundering rivers plunging down a cliff, often accompanied by a standing rainbow. This weekend I show a selection of landscape paintings in which substantial waterfalls are a major feature, painted around the globe. This article takes them up to the middle of the nineteenth century, and tomorrow’s sequel moves on into the twentieth century.
Waterfalls are most common in rugged and isolated terrain, but some of the most frequently painted are those of Tivoli in Lazio, to the east of Rome.
In Claude-Joseph Vernet’s series The Four Times of Day, afternoon storms clear by Evening, when the weather is again fine. It’s warm enough for a small group of women to bathe in the river, in a pool below a waterfall. This scene is strongly reminiscent of the falls of the Aniene River at Tivoli, with the ruins of the Temple of Vesta at the top right.
Alexander Cozens was a pioneer painter in watercolour, developing specialist techniques such as keeping ‘reserved space’ to let his white paper ground show through, wet on wet as well as wet on dry application of paint, and scratching out. He appears to have used a combination of those in his undated watercolour of a Mountainous Landscape with a Castle and Waterfall, which is something of a landmark in the development of these techniques.
In Europe, many of the most awe-inspiring waterfalls are those in the Alps.
One of Caspar Wolf’s most popular paintings was this view of the Devil’s Bridge in the Saint Gothard Pass, from 1777. The pass connects northern and southern Switzerland, and this section has been of great strategic importance. This bridge across the Schöllenen Gorge was first built in wood in around 1220, and was a key section of the route. It probably wasn’t replaced by a stone bridge until the seventeenth century, and by 1775 it had developed into that shown here, which was wide enough to allow passage of the first carriage.
Less than thirty years later, JMW Turner exercised his imagination and exaggerated vertical scale in his famous view from the bridge. Here, the waterfall is shown by allusion, in the clouds of spray, which leave the mind to imagine the awesomeness of the falls themselves.
Wolf painted this study of The Geltenbach Falls in the Lauenen Valley with an Ice Bridge in oil on cardboard, almost certainly in front of the motif. This is now in the Clark Art Institute, and I apologise for the small size of this image.
He turned that into this finished painting of The Geltenbach Falls in the Lauenen Valley with an Ice Bridge that same year, presumably in his studio. Although 1778 isn’t particularly early for a plein air oil sketch, given the logistic problems associated with working outdoors in oils in this remote rural location, it’s quite an achievement.
These falls were little-known at this time, but when nearby Gstaad became an internationally-known spa town in the nineteenth century, they went onto many tourist itineraries.
Wolf didn’t rely on oil sketches alone. This undated study in brown ink of The “Chute de la Tritt” Weir at Mühletal East of Innentkirchen also appears to have been made in preparation for a larger, finished work, which I have been unable to trace. Although fashioned by man into a weir, I believe this was originally a natural waterfall.
Britain south of Scotland isn’t particularly mountainous, and its waterfalls are more modest in size. Some are still rugged enough to inspire a bit of awe.
Samuel Palmer found some on his first visit to Pistil Mawddach, North Wales (1835-36), seen here in his initial watercolor painting. This waterfall, known now as Rhaeadr Mawddach, is on the upper reaches of the River Mawddach near Snowdonia. At the time it was far less known than the nearby vertiginous mountains of the Snowdon range.
Palmer seems to have visited the falls a second time in 1836, and then to have painted a finished version in oils, The Waterfalls, Pistil Mawddach, North Wales (1835–36).
By this time, Nordic landscape artists like Hans Gude were starting to paint some of the more accessible waterfalls in their mountains. His studio work showing Tessefossen in Vågå at Midday from 1848 must have been based on sketches made in front of the motif.
A waterfall in even a plain landscape starts to acquire a feeling of something else. In Arnold Böcklin’s Mountain Landscape with Waterfall from about 1849, the foreground is in shadow, and the distant peaks are well-lit. Visible at the right of the waterfall is a wild animal, and there’s a shadowy figure perhaps in the lower right corner. Or maybe it’s just the light playing tricks.
The Falls of the Kalama, Albania (1851) is one of many paintings which the travelling artist and poet Edward Lear made of the dramatic scenery in Albania, which was almost unknown through much of the rest of Europe at that time. This river is the Kalamas, and runs in part along the border between Albania and Greece.