"But works of nature, the landmarks erected by the eternal elements; can these be obliterated? Have they any past which the artist can preserve for coming generations? Let this picture decide. Here are the Falls of St. Anthony, as they roared to an untenanted solitude in the year 1835, when George Catlin visited and sketched them. Who would recognize their identity between that fair wild scene and the Falls of St Anthony today."
Painted only a few years before Matthews' lecture, Bierstadt's elegiac image of The Falls of St. Anthony reflects the same sense of lost wilderness and time. It is an imagined scene, of "fair wild" nature as Claudian arcadia, with its hazy golden light, conventional framing trees and pensive figures at the left. Unlike Catlin, Bierstadt saw the Falls long after the "untenanted" landscape had become memory. By the time he visited Minnesota in the 1880s, they were surrounded by the burgeoning city of Minneapolis. Their exaggerated scale here probably reflects the ambition of Bierstadt's instincts as well as memories of Niagara Falls which he first saw in 1869.
It has been suggested that the solitary man in black standing on the rocky outcropping in the lower centre represents Father Hennepin, the Franciscan missionary who discovered the Falls and named them after St. Anthony of Padua while a captive of the Sioux in 1680. Bierstadt turned to the theme of discovery throughout his career, including his 1875 mural for the U.S. Capitol. Whether as interloper or as contemplative spectator, the presence of the figure in this painting is unresolved. As Novak observed: nature was "contemplated by the small meditating figures in these landscapes without much recognition either of nature's negative aspects or of the destructive potential of the 'culture' symbolised by [...] the figure of man himself."
Elizabeth Garrity Ellis