Volume XXV · Autumn-Winter 1969-70 · Numbers 1 & 2
Prints of The Genesee Falls
--HOWARD S. MERRITT
The two prints here illustrated are among the finest and rarest of early lithographed views of Rochester and the Falls of the Genesee River. Given in 1938 by Bertram L. Search to the late Donald B. Gilchrist, then Director of University Libraries, these views hung for thirty years in the office of the Director before being formally given to the University of Rochester Library by Mrs. Gilchrist in 1968. Naturally of great interest to local historians, the hand-colored medium folio prints also provide attractive evidence of the high level of technical competence early reached by some of this country's burgeoning lithographic establishments. They are two of the three views published in 1836 by C. and M. Morse, Rochester booksellers, who commissioned John T. Young to make the sketches and John H. Bufford to lithograph them. The third, a view of The Upper Falls of the Genesee, from the east bank looking northwest, is not as yet in the library's collection.
In their selection of John T. Young, the Morses unquestionably availed themselves of the best budding landscape talent in a city not at the time disposed to favor artists working outside the field of portraiture. Young, from the island of Guernsey, had settled in Rochester probably in 1835 and quickly gained a sound reputation for the ability and accuracy of his draftsmanship. It was he who was chosen by Henry O'Reilly to provide the drawings for the forty-two wood engravings of scenes and buildings that illustrate his Sketches of Rochester, published in 1838—illustrations that helped considerably in making this one of the best of early nineteenth-century city histories. It is the lithographs, however, that better show the artistic promise of the youthful landscapist—whose career was cut tragically short by his death from consumption in 1842, at the age of twenty-eight. Not for some years thereafter would a draftsman of equal ability make his home in Rochester.
The Morses were wise, too, in turning to John H. Bufford for the lithographing of Young's views. Bufford, like many another of our best lithographers—including Nathaniel Currier—was trained under William S. Pendleton in Boston. He moved to New York in 1835, a year later than Currier. Until his removal to Boston in 1841, he worked for both Currier and George Endicott, as well as producing independent work of high quality. A number of the finest early prints from Currier's press we owe to Bufford. After 1841 his became one of the major lithographic firms in the nation. As Harry Peters wrote, "His work is almost invariably good, his sense of the essential in the general field seems to have been second only to that of Currier & Ives…and his contribution to Americana is in the very first rank." To those readers who have never concerned themselves with the popular prints of the nineteenth century, Bufford's name may yet be familiar in a somewhat different context; between 1855 and 1857 the young Winslow Homer served him as an apprentice.
In this writer's opinion, the views commissioned by the Morses have not only intrinsic worth but are also of considerable interest in demonstrating the friendly collaboration of business patron, young artist, and skilled professional printer. Given their year of publication it is tempting to view them as but slightly premature visual celebrations of a quarter-century's phenomenal growth of the then boomtown, Rochester. As O'Reilly wrote in 1838, they "form appropriate ornaments for the parlours of our citizens." Indeed they did, and still do. But time has dealt harshly with popular prints—they are easily damaged, destroyed, lost, discarded—and though many of these views must have been sold, at perhaps $1.50 each, they are now scarce and definitely collectors' items.