In 1880, more than 25 artists traveled from New York City to Buffalo and Niagara Falls for a two-week trip to record their impressions, on canvas, of the Erie Canal.
Now, the works of three artists from that group, the Artists Aid Society, along with several from the Hudson River School, are back, part of "The Art of the Erie Canal" at the Buffalo & Erie County Historical Society.
Their artwork portrays life on a vital water link that promoted commerce and allowed people from the East to travel to the "Western wilderness." What shows up on the canvases are the artists' views as they sat along the banks, rode the packet boats or watched the passing parade from towns sprinkled along the shore. Or, in some cases, imaginative interpretations.
For one, in "Travel Along the River" Edward L. Henry depicts the unlikely scenario of a steamboat, a train and horse-drawn carriages in a print from the series "In the Days Before Mass Transit."
"A lot are very romanticized," said Lisa Hess, museum director of public relations, who grew up near the canal. "The way they'd like it to be remembered."
Some of the work is quite realistic. There is a Birds-Eye Map of Canajoharie, which shows the town in nearly photographic detail. And a painting that depicts Buffalo's Fort Porter, an active fort until 1926, on the Niagara River at the site of what is now the Peace Bridge Plaza. There's also a portrayal of Buffalo's old Fletcher Furnace, showing the canal on one side and the Niagara River on the other. And there are works by the Hudson school painters, considered the first American landscape painters.
In one amusing pairing, curators at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society have hung a sketch showing three tiers of bunks in hot, dirty, crowded quarters juxtaposed with a painting done in 1937 by Griffith Bailey Coale in cotton candy colors.
"He was a Manhattan commercial painter who may never have seen the area he painted," said Ms. Hess.
Some of the paintings are on loan from the Canajoharie Library and Gallery, but there is also one from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, along with memorabilia from the society's collection, including Staffordshire pottery that portrays canal scenes, a travel trunk made of deerskin and a commemorative medal contained in a case made of wood from the Seneca Chief, the first boat to travel the length of the canal.
With increased interest in the canal for pleasure boating and the excavation of the Inner Harbor, this seemed a good time for such an exhibit, said Ms. Hess. She also cited the upcoming 175th anniversary of the 1825 inaugural voyage that Governor DeWitt Clinton and other dignitaries made over the completed canal.
"Besides that, the community is an artsy mood with Monet in town," she said.
To set the scene, there is a state map from 1858, showing the route of the canal and its tributaries. It turns out that during planning there was a battle over whether Buffalo or Black Rock would be the terminus of the canal.
"Buffalo won, and that has a lot to do with the role of the city," Ms. Hess said.