In 1853, Frederic Edwin Church spent six months traveling in South America. He sought out tropical subjects on the advice of Alexander von Humboldt, the great explorer and natural scientist, whose books were widely read. Von Humboldt believed that South America’s biological and geological diversity provided the ultimate intellectual and emotional stimulation. Church followed von Humboldt’s dictum that objective scientific study of nature could not be separated from sensory responses to it, and he embraced the naturalist’s theory of the unity of the cosmos.
Following von Humboldt's route, Church visited the Falls of the Tequendama in New Granada, now Colombia. He wrote his mother of his amazement, explaining that the river “suddenly breaks through a gap in the mountains and falls in one unbroken sheet into a terrific chasm 670 feet and then descends in a series of waterfalls and cascades.”
The viewer gazes up at the great cascade, bathed in light, while in the foreground the torrent rushes below. Ironically, to achieve the low vantage point Church envisioned for this landscape, he found it necessary to cut down a number of trees. The painting beautifully illustrates the multifaceted nature of water—its destructive force as it crashes over the rocks as well as the generative power that nourishes plant and animal life.