By Ken Zurski
Godfrey Nicolas Frankenstein, despite the name, was no mad scientist. Quite the contrary, he was a painter. But like the fictional Dr. Victor Frankenstein, he also had a vision that consumed his thoughts, his passions, his ambitions for nearly two decades of his professional life. It all started in 1844 when he visited Niagara Falls.
This was not unusual at the time. Plenty of artisans found the vastness of the Falls a great challenge. They would sit for hours and attempt to recreate its beauty either on canvas, paper or wood engravings. Many realized a single rectangle was too confining. They tried long strip paintings, panoramas, curved cycloramas and three dimensional dioramas, anything to replicate what it was like to see the Falls in person. The paintings were big, bold and very popular.
Frankenstein was a natural artist. He came from a family of painters who migrated from Germany to New York City when Godfrey was just 11. Already a prodigy, Godfrey began designing signs for money which turned into his own full-fledged sign-making business at the age of 13. At nineteen, he opened a portrait studio in Cincinnati. Two years later he was the first president of that city’s Academy of Fine Arts.
In 1844, at age 24, he went to the Falls.
The trip changed him. Now he had a purpose as an artist to create a lasting legacy. This was his plan: He would paint murals, perhaps hundreds, then show them to audiences one at a time, like a moving picture, telling a story in the process. So he began to draw.
Year after year, for nearly nine years, he went back to the Falls. He went during the changing of the seasons making small sketches of one angle the first year followed by another angle the next. He bravely stood in all kinds of weather from the heat of the summer to the sub-zero chills of the winter. He drew the Falls in contrasting and opposite ways: by moonlight and in bright sunshine; before and after a rainstorm; and during a snowfall followed by a thaw. Each time, Frankenstein would set up his easel and produce scene after glorious scene. He sketched the Falls and it’s surroundings from the top and from the bottom, close up and far away, from one side to the other, nearly 200 subjects in all.
Frankenstein then began a five year process to transfer the sketches to canvas. He picked 80 to 100 good drawings and copied each one to single panels that stood at least eight foot high. The end product was a roll of canvas that unfurled was nearly 1000 feet long. When it was displayed, one panel would be viewed followed by the next, creating a seamless spectacle of broad landscapes and augmented perspectives. In addition, the audience would get a geology lesson. Frankenstein cleverly juxtaposed scenes from different years to show the changes, including the rock slide that dropped the overhang known as Table Rock into the churning waters below.
“Frankenstein’s Panorama” as it was called, was a huge hit. In 1853, thousands flocked to the Broadway Amusement Center in New York to sit in the dark and watch the scenery unfold . Live music played and commentary by Frankenstein himself completed the entertainment. And all this for only 50 cents.
Reviewers were just as enthralled: “We see Niagara above the Falls and far below…We have sideways and lengthways; we look down upon it; we are before it, behind it, in it….into its spray on the deck of the Maid of the Mist; tempting its rapids among the eddies; skimming its whirlpool below…”
Frankenstein would never match the success or accolades he received from the Niagara Falls panorama. How could he? And as an artist named Frankenstein (a name his family adopted when they came to America) there must have been more than a passing comparison to Mary Shelley’s famous fictional character, introduced in 1818, of a man who turned a passion into an obsession.
In Shelley’s story, Dr. Frankenstein creates a monster that ultimately destroys him.
Godfrey Frankenstein had better results.
The name, however, seems to fit perfectly.
(Sources: Niagara: A History of the Falls by Pierre Berton)