Top of Utah Voices: Landscape painting in the round

Jan 3 2014 - 2:29pm

In 1848, while painting sites along the Mississippi River, artist Henry Lewis stopped near Nauvoo, Illinois. He sketched the detail of the exterior of the Mormon Nauvoo Temple with its baptismal font at the side.  Later, his finished paintings became part of a panorama he exhibited in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Washington, D.C. and other areas where his "newsreel," as some called the panorama, entertained and instructed its viewers.

This art form can be traced back to the 1400s when a painter duting the reign of Xuande Emperor, while traveling on horseback with a large escort, depicted the countryside in a very wide panorama painting. A Scottish painter named Robert Barker is said to have coined the  word panorama from the Greek "pan" or "all" and "horama" meanaing "view" in the late 17th century. Barker wanted to capture the magnificence of Edinburgh from every angle to immerse the spectator completely as if viewing the city from a hill top above it.  He patented his invention and toured with his large paintings, making a fortune for himself.

As early as 1830, a St. Louis newspaper advertised a benefit showing of "a very exact panoramic view of New Orleans." For the next 15 years depictions of scenes along the river by other panoramic artists were popular in several cities in the nation, while other artists used the art form to bring to the public scenes from the prairies, native American life, and impressive physical aspects of the land. In 1844, an artist painted "The Liberty Line," a fictitious railroad which in reality was a network of sympathetic northerners who helped escaped slaves flee to Canada.

Painters who utilized the art form and traveled with their depictions faced a daunting task of transporting these large works of sometimes dozens of paintings attached to each other and unrolled scene by scene. Some were advertised as being three miles long and taking over an hour to view. Usually 12 feet in height and rolled up on poles which, when unrolled by an assistant, gave the viewers a tour of the chosen scenes the painter portrayed while the artist (standing on a platform) described them.

Some say Mark Twain satirized the medium in his writing. In 1866, he wrote a satirical piece called "The Scriptural Panoramist" in which he told of a painter who needed a piano player to provide lively music at certain points in his presentation; and in a chapter of "Life On the Mississippi," a passenger boarded his ship and gave a long dissertation of the area. The writer interrupts him, asking if he has ever traveled with a panorama. The man nods in the affirmative. "Do you still travel with it ?" asks the writer. "No, she is laid up till the fall season opens," the man answers.

In America, panoramas were first called cycloramas which were large themed stationary paintings displayed in circular rooms. A good example of this can be seen at the Gettysburg  exhibit which is painted on the walls. American architect John Lloyd Stephens built a rotunda on Broadway where he showed his work. He advertised, "painting of the largest class, 10,000 square feet. ... Brilliantly illuminated every evening by upwards of 200 gas lights -- admission 25 cents."

But the popularity of the traveling shows depicting the Mississippi River provided a new audience in small as well a large towns. The changing ladscaped rolled scene by scene produced a sense of movement through time and place.

After the 1850s, interest in moving  panoramas dwindled, but early Utah artists continued to use the medium to record their trek across middle America and the environment of their new home in the west.

With this introduction to panoramas, next month's column will focus on the work of Utah panorama painters.

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