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Introduction: Wonder in the Eighteenth CenturyIntroduction : l’émerveillement au dix-huitième siècle

  • Christina Ionescu and
  • Christina Smylitopoulos

…more information

  • Christina Ionescu
    Mount Allison University

  • Christina Smylitopoulos
    University of Guelph

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Cover of Volume 39, 2020, pp. 1-280, Lumen

One of the most impressive natural wonders of the world and a staple of lifetime bucket lists, Niagara Falls is a site that occupies a significant place in eighteenth-century contemplations of natural wonder. The first known visual representation of the Niagara Falls is attributed to Franciscan Récollet priest and missionary Louis Hennepin, who encountered it at the turn of the seventeenth century during his journey through North America and vividly captured the awe it generated in his imagination to share it with, and no doubt impress, his European readers. In the eighteenth century, Robert Hancock, an artist who never visited Niagara Falls, would borrow from Hennepin’s verbal and iconographic accounts as well as Swedish botanist Pehr Kalm’s description of this natural wonder, published in The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1751 with an accompanying text-derived engraving (Figure 1), to produce a picturesque print that mesmerises as much as it delights. Hand-coloured copies and versions of this print exist in collections throughout the world, including the Bachinski/Chu Print Study Collection at the University of Guelph (Guelph, ON; Figure 3 in Sarah Tindal Kareem’s essay), the Wellcome Collection (London, U.K.; Figure 2), and the John Carter Brown Library (Providence, RI; Figure 3). It is fascinating to observe that in his composition Hancock is not content to showcase the natural curiosity in all its magnificence. He also poignantly iterates wonder through subjects who experience it, including a dog standing dangerously close to the edge of the viewing point, whose barking—an audible response to the roaring “Noise [that] may be heard 15 Leagues off” projected by the fall of the water—is visually inscribed in the image. The observant viewer cannot fail to notice also the traveller who has collapsed in awe, overwhelmed by the grandeur of the spectacle that befalls before him. The exaggerated gestures of the other onlookers, who are admiring nature’s spectacle in the panoramic vista displayed before their eyes, direct the viewer’s gaze to the falls and amplify the visual depiction of wonder. Today’s viewers will undoubtedly be left wondering by one generally overlooked section of this image: Hancock’s imaginative inclusion of a group of dark-skinned indigenous men (perhaps more visually reminiscent of bodies from the Indian subcontinent than those from the Niagara region) and burdened with heavy sacks as cargo, which may have satisfied beholders’ growing appetite for representations of sociocultural subjugation. Interestingly, in its 1794 reincarnation, Hancock’s print is customarily described by print dealers as an early perspective view, or vue d’optique—a wonder-producing object, specifically designed and brightly coloured to enhance the illusion of depth when apprehended through an optical diagonal machine. From the convenience of their own home, affluent armchair travellers could thus enjoy one of the wonders of the world, as could less fortunate viewers, who would be able to spend modestly at a fair for the privilege of peeping into a box that transported them into a mesmerising world far beyond their physical reach. A preoccupation with the wonder of nature can be tied during the eighteenth century to engagements with wonder more generally. The proliferation of titles featuring wonder and members of its lexical family, or their derivatives and cognates, emblematises this interest. It is not fortuitous that the original title of Rudolf Erich Raspe’s bestseller characterises the trials and tribulations of its main character, a fictional German nobleman, as “marvellous”: Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (1785); for the translation into German, Romantic poet Gottfried August Bürger uses the adjective “Wunderbare,” etymologically connected to the English “wonderful”: Wunderbare Reisen zu Wasser und Lande (1786). In the same vein, Robinson …

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