Havell was an English engraver whose greatest achievement in the field was the folio by John James Audubon, The Birds of America, commenced in 1827 and completed in 1838.1For a concise summary of the history of Audubon’s great achievement, see Owens 1984, n. p. William H. Lizars, the engraver of the first ten plates, was dismissed and replaced by Robert Havell, Sr., and his son. Their partnership was dissolved in 1828, although the senior Havell collaborated on some plates. After his father’s death in 1832, the younger Havell no longer used “Jr.” after his name (Owens, in “A Note on the Engravings”). The success of that series, when exhibited in its entirety, was immediate and immense. Philip Hone, the diarist and art enthusiast, was invited by Audubon to view the prints and drawings at the Lyceum in New York in October, 1839. He wrote, “This is beyond doubt the most magnificent collection on this subject in the world, and ought to be purchased by our government to form the nucleus of a great national museum.”2Nevins 1927, 426.
Robert Havell, who shared in this triumph both financially and in reputation, arrived in New York around the same time as Audubon. Apparently, “Audubon had fired his enthusiasm with glowing accounts of the primitive grandeur and pictorial possibilities of American scenery. . . . He and his wife and their daughter sailed for America in September, 1839.”3Williams 1916, 252. Havell made landscape sketches of the Hudson River Valley, New York City, and other places of interest, that served him as models for his many subsequent engravings.
Havell never returned to England and lived for most of his life on the Hudson, first at Ossining, then at Tarrytown. His homes commanded fine views of the river valley and provided the stimulus for his landscape paintings, many of them panoramas done for his own enjoyment and rarely offered for sale. Some were exhibited at the National Academy of Design and the American Art-Union and some were engraved in aquatint.4Gardner and Feld, 1: 198. Of the two shown at the National Academy, only Falls of Niagara (exhibited 1845, no. 320) might be View of Niagara Falls from the American Shore. The other is called Niagara Falls from the Canada Side (exhibited 1849, number 291) and, although the spectator’s viewpoint in the Department of State’s picture is somewhat equivocal, it does seem to be from the American side.5National Academy of Design Exhibition Record, 217. This is an unusual view of the falls from downriver and from a great height. The American Fall, Goat Island, Terrapin Tower, and the Horseshoe Fall are all seen but at a long distance. The awesome power of the falls is not forced upon the viewer, who is instead made aware of the topography of an entire area, including the vast cataract.6The painting has been singled out as “among the relatively few imaginative visions of the scene produced by a topographical landscapist” in the second quarter of the century. Adamson, 46.
The painting came to the Collection as being a work by Havell. In the absence of documentation, such as identification requires stylistic comparison with his few signed or accepted works. Two paintings may be cited: View of the Bay and City of New York from Mountain House, Weehawken at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, signed and dated 1840, and West Point from Fort Putnam (location unknown), of which Havell published an engraving in 1848.7The former is reproduced in Gardner and Feld, 199; the latter in Howat, pl. 49. As in View of Niagara Falls, both paintings are panoramic and both have foreground figures who are carefully differentiated by sex, age, costume, and gesture, but only adequately drawn. In all three paintings, the handling of the forested shores may be characterized as somewhat monotonous, with tight little curls of brown and green now further darkened by pigment deterioration.
Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.