Last month's column on panorama paintings and painters set the stage for today's column on Mormon panoramas done by two local artists.
C.C.A. Christensen chose this unique method to document the history of the church he converted to in Denmark. Now in America, he painted large panels of scenes from his trip across the American plains with other Mormon pioneers. One scene, "The Miracle of the Quails" depicted an early incident in the migration of the Mormons. After crossing the Mississippi in the cold of winter, the group became snowbound and short of food. Suddenly a flock of quail descended on the camp and seemed unable to fly away which allowed the hungry people to "harvest" them for food. He also painted a scene of handcart pioneers pulling their carts across a stream; and he portrayed the end of the journey with "Entering the Salt Lake Valley."
Reuben Kirkham, who settled in Logan, painted a massive work entitled "Across America." He followed this with a religious themed panorama of scenes from his faith's Book of Mormon scriptures.
These two men and several others who did such work had been scene painters for the theater. Thus, they were used to painting large works, some of which were as large as 7 1/2 feet by 15 1/2 feet. The painters attached them to a long pole, rolled them up and attached another pole at the end. When displayed the artist narrated the presentation from a platform while his assistant unrolled the scenes.
Traveling with Kirkham as he went from town to town was Martin Harris who played the violin while Kirkham narrated Book of Mormon stories. After each performance Kirkham donated a portion of his earnings to the local Sunday School. But Kirkham worried that the silliness of the olio acts detracted from the message of the presentation. In fact, it worried him enough that he arranged for a showing to church leaders in Salt Lake City. On March 5, 1884, with some trepidation, he began the performance. At the end, the comments were mostly positive and the panorama was praised as a good medium of instruction. However, the leaders did think that the showing was sufficiently long enough that some of the inappropriate music and sudden transitions from sublime to ridiculous could be eliminated.
None of the panels have survived, although there is one photo of a Book of Mormon scene from the show.
The genesis of Christensen's panorama came from the scenes mentioned above, and also copies of murals commissioned for several Mormon temples. In 1882, when his son, John, was called on a mission, Christensen asked and received permission from church president Joseph F. Smith to exhibit the paintings in panorama form to raise money for the son's mission. Later, after completing his mission, John took over the tours. His travel journal tells us what a tour was like, and what equipment and supplies were needed to transport and set up the paintings.
For instance, his tour began in October of 1886. During that first week he bought rope, fiddle string, hay and grain. He paid for a toll gate, house rent, horse feed, store purchases, and fees to have his laundry done.
In Idaho he visited St. Charles, Mt. Peliar (Montpelier), Soda Springs and Gentile Valley. He went to Louis ton (Lewiston), Hides Park (Hyde Park), Western (Weston), and other small towns in Utah and Idaho. Traveling south of Salt Lake City he presented his show in Mt. Pleasant and Fairview.
He also listed many individuals he either owed 50 cents to or they owed him. If you think about carrying a massive roll of paintings wrapped in canvas in a wagon, bumping along the dirt roads, finding housing for himself and his assistant, and forage and shelter for his horse, he had to enjoy the opportunity to show his paintings to keep up that kind of life.
Panorama artists like Kirkham and Christensen brought culture and entertainment to small western towns, bringing beauty to their lives. They exposed the people to the geography of the west and scenes from the world's and Mormon history.
What became of the paintings? Many of artists, such as the two discussed, finally tired of life on the road and the strain of the work and gave their panoramas to other individuals interested in showing them, or they stored their work in outbuildings where they deteriorated. However, several of Christensen's panels are on display in The Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints Museum of Art in Salt Lake City; and Donna Poulton recently published a book on Reuben Kirkham with pictures of some of his paintings.