New Jersey Remembered: A Seventy-fifth Anniversary; Philadelphia Collection 75; October 2005
William Constable
(English, 1783–1861, active in the United States 1806–1808)
Falls of Passaic at Paterson
Pencil on laid paper, 11 1/4 × 17 1/4 inches
Signed and dated in ink at lower right, “No.2. Falls of Passaic at/Patterson.[sic] July 29.1806/WmC”
Watermark : “J. Clark/1804”

A man of many talents, William Constable was born in Hurley, Surrey, England, the son of a mill owner who operated a general goods store. He had little formal education and spent his early youth working for his father. Constable went to Lewes, Sussex, around 1797 to work as an assistant in a drapery business whose owner encouraged his artistic and scientific interests. He moved to Brighton in 1802 and joined his older brother Daniel, who had recently opened a draper’s shop. The brothers sold the store in 1806 to finance a grand tour of the United States and arrived in New York on June 29, accompanied by their bull-mastiff terrier Frank, who was named after Benjamin Franklin. The three embarked on a two-year tour of the country, traveling thousands of miles by horseback and riverboat. During the voyage Constable, who had a special admiration for waterfalls, made detailed pencil sketches of the landscape and natural wonders such as Niagara Falls.

After returning to England in 1808, Constable used these sketches as the basis for watercolors that he painted over the next thirty to forty years; the Brighton Herald reported that his “striking features of the New World” represented “many places now seats of a numerous and thriving population, having been a beautiful wilderness when visited by the two brothers.”1 He worked as a surveyor and civil engineer in Surrey and visited the United States on business twice again during the late 1830s. He settled in Brighton, became interested in the daguerreotype process, and opened the city’s first photographic portrait studio in 1841. The business was extremely successful, and Constable maintained it until his death, enjoying the patronage of the royal family and the aristocracy.

During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, before Niagara Falls became more accessible, the Great Falls of the Passaic at Paterson, in northeastern New Jersey, was regarded as one of America’s premiere natural wonders and attracted numerous visitors. The Great Falls was an early source of hydropower that enabled the area to become one of the first significant industrial centers in the United States. This was largely due to the efforts of Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury of the United States under President George Washington from 1789 to 1795, who advocated of the importance of domestic manufacturing. He was the chief adviser and most active volunteer of “The Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures” that founded Paterson in 1791, naming the town after the governor of New Jersey and signer of the U.S. Constitution William Paterson. The society hired the French architect, engineer, and city planner Pierre L’Enfant as the first general superintendent for the project, but replaced him with Peter Colt after determining that his plans were too complex and expensive.

This was one of the earliest sites that Constable visited after he left Manhattan and set out for Niagara Falls. He recorded arriving at Paterson in his journal on July 26:

Spent the afternoon in exploring the water-falls and the extraordinary scenery around them. The whole subject belongs to the Sublime; the Rocks are rifted in a very singular manner, and into a deep rift formed by the meeting together at a very acute angle, of two ragged perpendicular cliffs, the principal part of the stream falls to a depth of 70 or 80 feet. The nature of the force that has produced this rifting of the rocks is perhaps not easy to explain, but I think it is certain that these effects cannot have resulted from the action of any abrading power of the stream, however long continued; all the phenomena bespeak violent action; the whole effect is as beautiful as it is sublime and grand.2

That same day Daniel Constable wrote a detailed and lengthy description of the Great Falls in his journal, concluding that “Nature has wrought here in her boldest manner and bid defiance to human language to portray with justice the sublime works she has here produced, not an object is here to be found which has not received the impression of ‘the bold and beautiful the great and fine.’”3

The Constables were so impressed with the falls that they remained in Paterson for a week. William Constable wrote in his journal on July 29 that he had “finished the sketch of the Falls I had begun yesterday. Afternoon made another drawing from the top of the Rocks on the opposite, or left shore of the river: this employed me till deep into the evening twilight.”4 This second drawing may be the one discussed in this entry. Constable is known to have made at least three watercolors of the Great Falls after returning to England.

An art historian has observed that Constable’s watercolors display “in their linearity a certain naïveté,” but that his “charming sketches and crystalline colors provide an important early record of America’s rapidly growing waterways at the same time that they reveal a fresh response to the country’s varied landscape.”5 The artist was appalled when he revisited the Passaic Falls in 1838 and saw a turnpike road nearby. He denounced this “barbarous intrusion, within 20 yards a tollgate exhibiting all the usual sordid features of advertisements and so forth in front of the waterfall.”6 This topographical sketch is significant in that it documents the early appearance of one of New Jersey’s most famous landmarks.


1. Quoted in http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/DSconstable.htm

2. “Notes of a Travel in North America in the Years 1806, 7 and 8 by a Company of Three.” This and the following citation (see note 12) from the manuscript were kindly supplied by Claire Constable.

3. J. Brian Jenkins, Citizen Daniel (1775–1835) and the Call of America (Hartford, Conn.: Aardvark Editorial Services, 2000), p. 43.

4. “Notes of a Travel in North America.”

5. Edward J. Nygren and Bruce Robertson, Views and Visions: American Landscape before 1830 [exh. cat.] (Washington, D.C.: The Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1986), p. 247. For early discussions of Constable’s American sketches see Early Topographical Views of North America by William Constable (1783–1861) (New York: Wunderlich and Co., 1984), and “William Constable, 1783–1861,” Kennedy Quarterly, vol. 7 (December 1967). For the most recent commentary, see Jenkins, Citizen Daniel, pp. 420–21.

6. Claire Constable, The Constables of Horley Mill (Tunbridge Wells, UK : Surrey Mills Publishing, 2001), pp. 330–31.

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