In the late eighteenth century, Robert Barker, an Irish portrait and landscape painter living in Edinburgh, had a brilliant idea. He would paint a 360° view of London (making sure to get the perspective right), enclose it in a circular room, and charge an admission fee. Amazingly, the idea worked. Barker had invented (and eventually secured a patent upon) the panorama. The panorama proved to be wildly successful, and variations were created. The moving panorama had rollers, allowing the scene to slowly move past a stationary audience and create the illusion of motion; the diorama, the main source of income for its inventor, Louis Daguerre, early in his career, used tricks of light to dissolve from scene to scene. There was money to be made in the panorama business, and a man named John Banvard was determined to cash in. The story of Banvard, an actor, stage set painter, and Mississippi river rat, makes up a chapter of Paul Collins’ Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck. I’ve been longing for this book ever since I read Collins’ essay on the Symmes’ hollow earth theory, back when its working title was Loser. Collins calls the moving panorama "the birth of motion pictures":
The public was enthralled, and so was Banvard: he had the heady rush of an artist working at the dawn of a new media. Emboldened by his early successes, the twenty-seven-year-old painter began preparations for a painting so enormous and so absurdly ambitious that it would dwarf any attempted before or since: a portrait of the Mississippi River.
Banvard’s panorama — purportedly three miles long, featuring not just the river and scenery, but houses, horses, people — was a huge success in Boston, making Banvard one of the richest artists in America, if not the world. When he attempted to start a museum in New York, however, he was out-spent, out-spectacled, out-drawn, and run into the ground by that genius of promotion, Phineas Taylor Barnum.
Banvard’s legacy is scant. He was briefly famous enough to feature in popular literature. Like Revolutionary War officer Lambert Cadwalader and "I think that I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree" poet Joyce Kilmer, Banvard had a Liberty Ship named after him during World War II. (Unlike Kilmer, Banvard was not mocked in Daniel Pinkwater‘s The Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror.) Science fiction madman R. A. Lafferty wrote a story suggesting that the Mississippi canvas was not actually painted, but instead a photographic record from another time. And Banvard himself wrote that one of his canvases was the first subject of a chromolithograph in the United States.
The chromolithograph was a method of printmaking that came close to replicating the color and texture of a painting. But wasn’t the panorama’s immersion — and, in the case of the diorama, the illusion of motion — part of the draw? The first panorama I ever heard of was the Panorama Mesdag, which makes a brief appearance Bruce Sterling’s marvelous essay, "My Rihla"; Sterling reports that the trompe l’oeil is still effective. A lauded marine artist, Mesdag was commissioned by a group of Belgian entrepreneurs, a risky business venture designed to capitalize on the newest advances in media technology. Throughout the nineteenth century, artists created a vast range of panoramas — from the Panorama of a South Sea Whaling Voyage to arctic scenes to a panoramic interpretation of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. It was a mass medium, frequently used to depict recent spectacular events and views from foreign climes. (Julian Barnes‘ suggestion of "Messrs Marshall’s Marine Peristrephic Panorma of the Wreck of the Medusa French Frigate and the Fatal Raft" in The History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters appears to be fictitious, but it’s in keeping with the tenor of the times.) Perhaps it was just a desire to have a souvenir of something famous that created the demand for the chromos of Banvard’s work. Banvard’s museum didn’t last six months when he went head-to-head with Barnum; it, like the painter himself, was bankrupted. Banvard was buried in a pauper’s grave in South Dakota. The panorama disappeared entirely from public view (and the public imagination) after the invention of the magic lantern in the 1890s; the true moving picture rendered it obsolete. One has a pick of stories about the fate of Banvard’s canvas; perhaps it was completely destroyed, shredded to make insulation for houses, or perhaps it was broken up, used anonymously as stage backdrops for two-bit theater companies throughout the Midwest. Once it had thrilled thousands.