Detail of Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley by John J. Egan (circa 1850) (Saint Louis Art Museum official site) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Panoramas were a typically nineteenth-century form of commercial popular entertainment in which an artist or team of artists painted massive, panoramic depictions of cities, battles, or historic or religious scenes and then displayed them to a paying public. They developed from their late eighteenth-century origins in Britain to take a number of forms both in Europe and in the early American republic. The largest and most elaborate panoramas were enormous cylindrical paintings that used special tricks of perspective and that were displayed in purpose-built round exhibition buildings in order to immerse viewers in the scene they portrayed. But panoramas took many forms, especially in the United States, including flat and semicircular presentations as well as mechanized scrolling paintings that move past a seated audience to simulate the experience of travel. They were common features of the emerging landscape of urban commercial entertainment, and they also toured with itinerant promoters to smaller cities, towns, and summer resorts. Large numbers of Americans paid their pennies to feel like they had traveled to exotic landscapes and important historical events that they couldn’t otherwise expect to experience.
As its name suggests, The Panorama’s mission is to build an online presence for The Journal of the Early Republic by surrounding the scholarship in the JER with supplementary materials and related discussions, and by immersing readers in the process of researching, writing, and teaching the early American republic. We solicit and present the more informal work of historians and teachers of history who are interested in the periods, subjects, and historical questions addressed by the scholarship published in the print Journal.
The Panorama’s logo is inspired by an engraving of American artist John Banvard’s mechanism for displaying panoramas that appeared in Scientific American on December 16, 1848. Banvard was an American panorama painter who specialized in massive panoramas of the scenery of the Mississippi Valley. His paintings were of the scenery of the riverbank, as observed from the deck of a passing steamboat. His scrolling mechanism allowed his audience to have the virtual experience of such a steamboat passage, seated in chairs as if lounging on the deck. The largest of his panoramas was twelve feet high and half a mile long, although with the classic bravado of a nineteenth-century commercial amusement promoter, Banvard called it his “Three-Mile Canvas.” This panorama toured the nation and the world in the late 1840s, bringing the experience of riding a Mississippi River steamboat to thousands of people who would never walk down the levies of the wide American west.
John McCoy designed the logo, and the original image is courtesy of Cornell University Library, Making of America Digital Collection.