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Amos Sangster's Niagara at Meibohm Fine Arts

Original Study For "Winter View Goat Island Side Of Horseshoe Falls."
Original Study For "The Road To Terrapin Point Goat Island."

Waterfront romantic

Late-19th-century Buffalo artist Amos Sangster’s great work was a portfolio of etchings of landscapes and waterscapes along the Niagara River, from Buffalo Harbor to Lake Ontario. The full run, lake to lake, and in many cases initial drawings/paintings for the studio production prints, are currently on display at the Meibohm Fine Arts gallery in East Aurora. The work was produced during the years 1886 to 1889.

The Niagara Falls views are of course focal in the series, and we relish the chance to look back at a more pristine falls of an earlier era, minus the present-day artifacts of commercialization. This we get, by dint of a thoroughly romanticizing vision of how this world natural wonder should properly appear to observers, which edited out all evidence of the grimy industrialization and extreme commercialization that had defaced the natural wonder for decades, and was just then being eliminated through the designation of the area around Prospect Point as the first New York State park. The legislation to create the parkland was passed and signed in 1885.

Whereas, romanticizing vision didn’t seem to apply in the case of Buffalo Harbor. One view of the harbor features the silhouette of an elevator or elevator-related structure looming in the mid-ground, against a background of dark satanic mills spewing thick smoke from tall stacks, fairly blotting out the daylight. The sky reminiscent of skies in panorama photo views of Lackawanna during steel industry boom times.

Or maybe thick smoke was considered a romanticizing effect in the age of transition on the waters from sail power to steam. Both forms were in use. One etching and mate initial study drawing show a line of sail ships being towed into harbor by a steam tug emitting such a dense cloud of engine exhaust as to obscure most of the view of the sail ships.

A scene of rushing waters off the Sisters islands above the Horseshoe Falls shows the wreck of a barge hung up on the rocks, a signature feature of that portion of the rapids apparently even back then. And the nearly full natural volume and force of the rushing waters, which hasn’t been seen since, and won’t be again. By the 1880s, the Schoellkopf company was channeling a relatively small amount of water from the upper river to its site just below the falls, to dump over the cliffside to produce mechanical power mainly and eventually a small amount of direct current electricity. Major water diversion from the river for power production—now alternating current electricity—didn’t occur until the mid-1890s, with the startup of the Niagara Falls Power Company, the Westinghouse/Tesla enterprise.

Sometimes there is little to choose between an etching and the study for it. Often the paintings/drawings are superior as to clarity of detail, sometimes the etchings superior in dramatic effects. If human figures appear in the study, they are usually deleted from the etching, which becomes more of a pure nature meditation.

A match pair of ink wash study and etching looking up the lower Niagara River from a position on the Canadian shore below Brock’s Monument, the vista framed by tall trees on the shoreline, is dramatically improved in the etching by opening up the vista slightly, then slightly highlighting the foreground torrent of swirling, eddying waters, and lowlighting the opposite shoreline and cliffline and fortress-like tower and main edifice of Stella Niagara.

The exhibit includes an original Sangster etched copper plate and recent print from it of a small version of a view along the Canadian shore near French Creek—a larger, painted version of which view, I was told, is in the Buffalo Club. Prints of the small version were given as a separate work lagniappe to subscribers of the full portfolio.

And back to aesthetic romanticism. The portfolio includes two views of ruins, of Fort Erie before restoration. Prototype pastoral romantic scenes, complete with goats grazing amid the fallen stones and fragmentary walls, and goatherd resting on a wall, no doubt composing elegiacs to an absent beloved. Poussin could hardly have done better.

The Amos Sangster display continues through November 30.

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