“…it becomes apparent that this artist [Emil Carlsen] is fundamentally a poet. Lyricism is his outstanding quality. He is not so much the painter of…waves and cliffs and clouds as he is of the moods these natural objects inspire in his soul.”1
A recently discovered major painting of Niagara Falls by Emil Carlsen invites an examination of this theme within the artist’s oeuvre. Many artists have been attracted by the natural spectacle of the falls, especially those preoccupied with landscape themes, such as Frederick E. Church; Albert Bierstadt; George Inness; Jasper F. Cropsey; and John F. Kensett, among others.2 Though Carlsen was more widely recognized for still-life painting, this has been a persistent misconception, since he was a skilled and noted painter of landscapes, particularly marine scenes that garnered numerous awards and prizes in his lifetime.3
Danish-born, Carlsen’s Nordic seafaring origins may have instilled in him a love of nature, especially marine subjects, and by 1909, he was prolifically executing seascapes that focus principally on the rolling surf, sky, and atmosphere. Interest in marine scenes may have led him to explore Niagara Falls, which resulted in a discrete body of work, comprised of at least five other canvases depicting various views of the falls (though possibly more remain unidentified). The specific derivation of this group of works is unknown, though two of the works are major compositions.4 The full visual splendor of the falls is most evident in these two compositions, Niagara Falls (Norton Gallery of Art, West Palm Beach, 35 x 30 in.), and the even more monumental Niagara Falls with Rainbow (Owen Gallery, 39 x 45 in.).5
A fine representation of the falls and one of the artist’s most exceptional compositions, Niagara Falls with Rainbow is the largest of Carlsen’s Niagara subjects. It presents an unusual direct head-on view of the falls from below, in which the dramatic impact is at its pinnacle as the falls seem to rise up from clouds of spray and are capped by a rainbow. Few other artists portrayed the falls from this vantage point with the exception of Church.6
The work exhibits many of the defining features of Carlsen’s technique and composition: the muted but opalescent palette, diffused radiant light, and refined surface largely devoid of visible brushstrokes. Carlsen was particularly noted for the velvety surface effect he was able to achieve, which was accomplished by repeated scraping, as noted by F. Newlin Price:
Gradually he developed a quality of surface that is an outstanding characteristic…the surface which he built and painted so carefully only to cut it down and paint again, and scrap and paint to make the canvas fine and still finer.7
Carlsen’s Niagara paintings are a singular group of works of a highly recognizable place that inexplicably were little seen by the public as they were surprisingly never entered into any of the notable annuals or artist exhibitions. The date of these works can be ascribed to 1912, as one of the studies is dated.8 It can be postulated that Carlsen executed these paintings at around the same time and were derived from numerous onsite sketches taken from different vantage points.
Difficult to categorize, Carlsen’s approach to landscape painting places him between the Tonalist and Impressionist traditions. Though his earlier work is oriented more toward Tonalism, in interest in light effects advanced in his mature years as his palette brightened and his expression became freer, bringing him closer to an impressionist aesthetic, as seen in this mature effort, Niagara Falls with Rainbow. So little of Carlsen’s correspondence and artist’s records survive, though we can discern much from a description he wrote of the work of his close friend and colleague, J. Alden Weir; he could in fact have been outlining his own artistic approach:
A Weir landscape…is simplicity itself, but painted with consummate knowledge, with a…solid technique, power and delicacy combined, the plainest of method, still full of mystery…but of a mysterious quality entirely its own, a subtle individuality of an exceedingly fine temperament.9
Beyond mystery, Carlsen actively sought to invoke spirituality through his art and this could not be more evident than in Niagara Falls with Rainbow, a representation of nature at its most sublime.
1 John Steele, “The Lyricism of Emil Carlsen,” International Studio 88 (October 1927), p. 57.
2 For example, see Jeremy Elwell Adamson, Niagara: Two Centuries of Changing Attitudes, 1697-1901. Exh. cat. (Washington, D.C.: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1985).
3 Though he may have produced more still-life compositions, it was his landscapes were most often submitted for major shows and annual exhibitions and the subjects that garnered awards.
4 This point may have been clarified in Carlsen’s papers, which were inadvertently destroyed.
5 Other works whose current locations are unknown are: Moonlight on Niagara (14 ½ x 14 ½ in.); and Niagara Falls From Terrapin Point (25 x 30 in.; formerly Estate of George Pratt); Niagara River and Goat Island (15 x 18 ¼ in.; Scripps College, Claremont, California), and Above Niagara, (1912; 15 x 18 in., 6 Christie’s American Painting Sale, December 1986. These last two works do not include views of the falls, but views of the Niagara river.
6 See Adamson, Niagara, pp. 60, 67. Niagara Falls in the Norton Museum of Art is a view of the falls from Goat Island.
7 F. Newlin Price, “Emil Carlsen—Painter, Teacher,” International Studio, 75 (July 1922), p. 308.
8 The painting, Above Niagara, (1912; 15 x 18 in.), Christie’s American Painting Sale, December 1986, is the only known work of the group to be dated.
9 Emil Carlsen, “Weir the Painter,” in Julian Alden Weir: An Appreciation of His Life and Works (New York: The Century Club, 1921), pp. 50-51.