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Minnehaha Falls has been attracting tourists to Minnesota for nearly 200 years, with a sharp uptick after 1855, when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned “The Song of Hiawatha,” his fanciful epic poem about the love of an Ojibwe warrior for a maid named Minnehaha.

The pretty waters were romanced in tourist brochures that lured such illustrious visitors as painters George Catlin and Albert Bierstadt and writer Henry David Thoreau.This summer every visitor to Minnesota’s most famous cascade can make art by using the handy picture frame on a stand poised at its base.

Looking through it, visitors discover an ideal view of the foaming water tumbling from a limestone ledge into the rocky basin below. With a bit of maneuvering, the frame fits family or friends into the picture, too.

The frame is one of 19 that have been strategically positioned along the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area from Fridley to Prescott, Wis.

The vistas they overlook have been dubbed “Masterpieces of Nature” by park officials and the Minneapolis Institute of Art, which is co-sponsoring the program. Both organizations encourage people to upload and tag their snapshots on Instagram (#seeingnature) and other social media. The stands will be available through Sept. 18.

“One of our missions is to take art outside the museum’s walls and into the community,” said Kim Huskinson, marketing manager at the institute. “Though there aren’t any paintings out there, people do see nature differently when framed through the lens of art.”

Part of the national park system, the Mississippi Recreation Area encompasses 54,000 acres and stretches 72 miles along the river from Anoka County south to Hastings. The only national park dedicated exclusively to the Mississippi, it incorporates urban and natural sites that are mostly owned and managed by city, state or private entities.

“People have been taking the Mississippi for granted for so long,” said Katie Nyberg, executive director of Mississippi Park Connection, a nonprofit organization that supports the National Park Service. “It’s the fourth longest river in the world and the largest in North America. It starts here in Minnesota, flows through 10 states, and is the migration highway for 40 percent of America’s birds.

“So this project is not about ideal views of the river. It’s about revealing the treasure that exists already in our backyard. The frames just get people to see the land and the river in a new way.”

Making connections

“It’s really beautiful!” exclaimed Kaitlin Davis of Hutchinson, Minn., upon seeing Minnehaha Falls for the first time. “I didn’t know Minnesota had such a beautiful waterfall.”

Flush and fast from abundant summer rains, the falls were picture perfect this month when Davis and a friend, Jessica Hermodson-Olsen from Brownton, Minn., stopped to admire them and pose for a snapshot.

With 850,000 visitors every year, the falls are one of Minnesota’s most photographed sites. Even on a steamy August afternoon, kids in camp T-shirts grouped and grinned, a young Japanese couple popped out their selfie stick, and moms corralled tots for a family memento.

The empty frames placed at key spots near the Mississippi range in scale from over-the-sofa-sized pictures (about 12 by 15 inches) to mini-mural (about 6 by 10 feet).

The Minneapolis museum had the frames built and provided labels linking the natural sights to paintings in “Seeing Nature,” a special exhibit on view through Sept. 18.

The show features 39 paintings spanning 500 years, all from the collection of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen of Seattle. They include lush pictures of Venice by J.M.W. Turner and Canaletto, views of London and his own waterlily pond by Claude Monet; vistas of the Grand Canyon by David Hockney, Thomas Moran and Arthur W. Dow; a birch forest interpreted by Gustav Klimt, and nature scenes by other marquee names.

The labels on the frame stands suggest visual or psychological affinities between paintings in the show and views that people encounter around the Twin Cities every day. Visitors to Minnehaha Falls, for example, often rest in the surrounding park, perhaps even playing chess as a couple do in a 1907 John Singer Sargent painting reproduced on the frame stand at the falls.

From the Guthrie Theater’s “endless bridge,” the Stone Arch Bridge looks like a twin to London’s Waterloo bridge as Monet painted it in 1904, a picture featured on that frame stand. The ruins of Minneapolis’ flour mills likewise carry distant echoes of Rome’s crumbling Colosseum as Giovanni Paolo Panini depicted it in 1750. And so on.

How spots were chosen

The sites were identified several years ago in a park survey in which visitors were asked what views should be protected from development.

“People get very upset when, for example, a cellphone tower goes up next to a wilderness area,” Nyberg said. “Likewise, it’s important to lots of people to protect these natural views of, say, the Grand Canyon, or man-made sites like the Stone Arch Bridge. Some of the ones they mentioned are really urban and others are purely natural, like Schaar’s Bluff in the Spring Lake Reserve [near Hastings], which is probably unchanged for hundreds of years.”

After peering through the white rectangle that framed a downriver view of the Mississippi at Mill Ruins Park, Theresa Fairley of Foster City, Calif., observed that it was a great idea for getting people to discern the art in nature. Then she grinned and suggested an improvement.

“I’ll bet if you put a Pokemon Go lure here, too, that would really draw all kinds of people to the river,” she said.

612-673-4431 • @maryabbe