The American papers Back East began twittering about it. The Governor-General of Canada, a landed aristocrat no less, was coming west from Ottawa to visit Her Majesty’s dominion. It would be the first time any Governor-General ever visited Manitoba. And in 1877, the easiest way to get to Manitoba was via America’s trains and steamboats.
The famous one was Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava. An English and Irish peer, he was a rising star in Queen Victoria’s diplomatic service. Notably, he achieved the ultimate honor and became the Viceroy of India. In 1877, he had been the Governor-General of Canada for five years.
His wife was his perfect helpmeet. Hariot Georgina Rowan-Hamilton was known as a kind and charming hostess, genuinely interested in people of every station. In India, her charity work would be the first instance of health care becoming a diplomatic concern.
As a couple, Lord and Lady Dufferin were very popular. They were known for her elaborate parties and home-grown theatricals, his sparkling wit and well-chosen speeches. And they were coming west, to Minnesota, on the train. It took just two long days from Ottawa before they arrived in St. Paul. The Chamber of Commerce determined to fête them, and the celebrity couple took this on with good-heartedness.
They and their “suite” were met at the depot by a dozen local gentlemen and escorted to the Metropolitan Hotel. The next day was August 2, 1877. After breakfast they attended a reception, where ex-Governor Davis–presumably the highest-status gentleman the Chamber of Commerce had handy–gave a welcome address. Dufferin gave a “bright and kindly little speech,” noting that “the people of Canada are animated by feelings of the greatest admiration of your energy and progress, and by the most perfect confidence in your friendship and goodwill.”
Content with this display of amity, the group bundled into six carriages to tour the countryside. From St. Paul, this meant a trip “through a flat country, sometimes bush, sometimes prairie, sometimes beautiful cornfields” to Minneapolis. Though she knew it was much the younger of the cities, Lady Dufferin thought Minneapolis looked more flourishing than St. Paul. She thought that the Nicollet Hotel, where they had lunch, was “a very fine one.”
They took the grand tour, visiting St. Anthony Falls, Fort Snelling, and between them, Minnehaha Falls. Lady Dufferin wrote: “From the waterfall, he called her ‘Minnehaha’ ‘Laughing Water.’ The season has been very dry, and there was very little water coming over the Fall; but I am very glad to have seen it, as Longfellow’s poem is one of my earliest recollections.”
And the story might end there, except for this painting of Minnehaha Falls.
This painting was given to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1880. The gift makes sense. It was Longfellow who made Minnesota’s Minnehaha Falls world-famous with his unbeatably popular epic poem The Song of Hiawatha. Because of it, and long before gaining statehood, Minnesota had a prominent place in the culture of American arts and letters. James Russell Lowell sent this watercolor to Longfellow. Lowell was a member of Longfellow’s literary and Harvard circles in Cambridge, but was also a diplomat stationed in England. Lowell seems to have been an intermediary between Longfellow and Lord Dufferin, whom he would have known as a fellow diplomat.
Longfellow acknowledged the gift in a letter to Lowell, saying, “The picture of the Falls of Minnehaha has come safely. Even the glass was not broken; which I consider a miracle.
“You say the painting is by Lord Dufferin: but I suspect it is by his Lady. My letter of thanks I enclose to you, not having his address. Please add it, and forward.”
This is a frankly excellent watercolor of the falls. It is a difficult medium, and is handled here with real skill. The lighting is wonderful. The falls are beautifully, realistically painted. There are fanciful additions to the scene in the “lake” above, the rocks on the left, and most notably the incorrect perspective of the viewing platform.
Watercolor is well-suited to working with outside, and this is known as painting en plein air. Also we know there was time on that day to paint outside. Some of the details of the day’s schedule were recorded in Lady Dufferin’s book, My Canadian journal, 1872-8 : extracts from my letters home written while Lord Dufferin was Governor-General. There was enough time to at least sketch the scene, even possibly to begin the painting.
Was this watercolor painted at the Falls? Unlikely. The painting is too far off in visual details in some ways, while in other details–like the broken branch on the butternut tree— it is minutely accurate.
There are only a few vantage points for viewing the falls. That was true in 1877 and it is true today. The watercolor painting shows what had become of the Middle Terrace in 1877, with its built-out platform and tall railings. But no photograph shows this exact perspective. The urbancreek.com archives contain thousands of pictures of Minnehaha Falls, and the most similar is this one.
Given the problems of perspective, and the fact that it seems probable that Their Excellencies would not have kept six carriages of people waiting around while painting, it is highly doubtful that this was painted at the falls. And, Lady Dufferin has told us the answer. The falls were nearly dry that August day. The Dufferin party did not see much water over the falls. The painting was done after the visit, worked from photographs and memory, and perhaps references some quick sketches possibly made on the day.
Longfellow suspected Lady Dufferin painted it. Did she?
Most unlikely. We have no information on why Longfellow thought that. We do know that Lady Dufferin’s book mentioned her husband (whom she called D.) sketching many times. “D. is so industrious about drawing; he has made a quantity of pretty sketches.” She does not mention him doing any painting, nor does she mention herself drawing or painting.
However, a non-exhaustive Internet search found reference to a letter held by the Smithsonian which explains that Andrew Carnagie once owned a watercolor by Dufferin, and that it had been misattributed, originally, to someone named Lord Elgin. The misattribution was corrected by Samuel Longfellow, who was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s younger brother. And that is a deeply strange coincidence.