Early Panoramas. Invented in Edinburgh in 1787 by Robert Barker, panoramas—an early version of “motion pictures”—became a popular form of entertainment in nineteenth-century America. In the first panorama theaters viewers entered a darkened corridor, then climbed a flight of stairs to arrive at a raised platform in the center of a large exhibition space. Surrounding the viewer was a detailed, brightly lit, 360-degree landscape scene, perhaps of Naples, London, or Niagara Falls. The audience could read about the scene in an accompanying pamphlet that explained important details and figures. One patron, writing in the New York Mirror, found the illusion “so complete” that “the spectator might be justified in forgetting his locality, and imagining himself transposed to a scene of tangible realities!” The first American exhibition of a panorama, a view of Westminster and London painted by the English artist William Winstanley, was in New York in 1795. American artists such as Robert Fulton, John Trumbull, and John Vanderlyn all became interested in panoramas. Thomas Cole planned, though he never executed, a panoramic view of Naples. In 1819 Vanderlyn exhibited his Panorama of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles in New York City. The exhibition did not do as well as Vanderlyn hoped, and he believed American audiences wanted American subjects: “Had I bestowed my time and attention in painting a view of New York instead of Versailles,” he wrote, “I should I am now convinced have reaped more profits.”
The West. A technological innovation and the opening of the West provided just the right combination to lure Eastern audiences. British landscape painters had moved from stationary panoramas to moving panoramas: landscape scenes that, instead of enveloping the viewer, scrolled by on tremendous rollers. Moving panoramas had the advantage of unfolding over time; they could portray dramatic stories and changes in scenery. Soon American artists began to adopt this new stage device.
While audiences sat for two to three hours, scenes unfolded before their eyes. A lecturer would comment on particular details while a pianist played accompanying music. Popular subjects were the funeral of Napoleon in Paris, the burning of Moscow, Zachary Taylor’s campaigns in Mexico, whaling voyages, and journeys through New York City. In the 1840s one of the most famous panoramas was John Banvard’s Panorama of the Mississippi River, which he claimed—probably with a showman’s exaggeration—was “painted on Three Miles of Canvas.” Banvard’s panorama exhibited a view from the mouth of the Missouri down to New Orleans, treating amazed audiences “to every detail of life on these river banks.” In a show that lasted more than two hours, dramatic landscape scenes alternated with exotic views of Indian life. Banvard’s view of the West was a thoroughly romantic one. According to his pamphlet, “the scenery in these remote regions has an aspect of majestic grandeur rarely witnessed upon the globe.” The canvas was so large that it was impractical to rewind after each performance; instead Banvard encouraged audiences to stay for the next show and read their descriptive pamphlets in reverse order. Banvard’s panorama was such a hit in cities such as Louisville, Boston, and New York that, according to his estimates, more than four hundred thousand Americans saw it. Imitators followed, with at least five panoramas touring the country. Blanvard took his original to Europe, where he became an international celebrity and a wealthy man.
Gold Rush Panoramas. The gold rush provided a new stimulus to the artists who laboriously created the moving panoramas. As tales of “striking it rich” spread, Eastern audiences flocked to find out more about the West and life in the gold mines. In 1849 a panorama featuring a voyage around Cape Horn was exhibited in New York. Other panoramas at this time included Gold Mines of California, Voyage to California and Return, and Land Route to California.
Moving Mirror. Another well-known panorama was James Wilkins’s Moving Mirror of the Overland Trail. Wilkins was a British-born painter who had settled in St. Louis in 1844. In 1849 he traveled West to California; along the way he sketched “every remarkable object he met with, whether in scenery or the numberless caravans of emigrants, along the whole route.” He returned in 1850 and began working from his sketches to assemble the Moving Mirror, which opened in Peoria, Illinois, in September of that year. Estimated to be about ten feet high and seven hundred feet long, the Moving Mirror re-created Wilkins’s journey from the Missouri River to San Francisco. In its first six nights it created so much excitement, according to the Democratic Press review, that “every night numbers had to be turned away.” The reviewer found himself transported by Wilkins’s work: “Mind, sense, all seemed wrapped up in the great Panorama before us; and anyone with a little imagination, would actually believe that he was on his way to California, instead of viewing the route.” Wilkins’s work, like Blanvard’s, also played to romantic notions of the West. In the Moving Mirror the reviewer found “all that Byron or Coleridge have written or sung of the far famed Alpine scenery.”
Pantoscope. J. Wesley Jones’s Pantoscope of California presented a West that was both romantic and rugged. Working from the fifteen hundred daguerreotypes and sketches he made while traveling the Overland Trail in
1851, his panorama depicted the Sierra Nevadas as comparable, in their sublimity and grandeur, to the “mountain paths of the Alps.” Nebraska and Kansas, however, were “desert wastes … fit only for the wandering tribes to whom it has hitherto been devoted by nature.” Jones and his promoter, John Dix, found that regions “of dreariness” also had selling points to an Eastern audience. The Humboldt River, in the deserts of Utah and Nevada, “zig-zaged [sic ] through a desert of ashes and lime,” Dix pronounced; “all the horrors of the desert follow. Broken wagons, dying animals, and men feeding on their carcasses, groaning in agonies of despair and death.” Such melodrama proved popular, and the Pantoscope met with great success. In Boston, according to one reviewer, the show “played to overflowing houses, where it met with the most triumphant success. Extra railway trains brought in large parties on excursions from neighboring towns.”
A Vanishing Vision. Unfortunately none of these panoramas exist today. Some may have simply worn out as they moved on their rollers, and the development of photographic processes, such as the stereoscope, made them obsolete. However, they did make an impact on the nineteenth-century vision of the Western landscape. While Cole may have abandoned his own plans for a panorama, some art historians have suggested that his The Oxbow and the Course of Empire series were influenced by the popularity of panoramas. Further, these panoramas helped shape the Eastern view of the West. As the minister Henry Ward Beecher commented about the Pantoscope, “It communicates important knowledge about a large tract of our own territory, the like of which for its peculiar, wild, and original features, is nowhere else to be seen on earth.”
Anne Hyde, An American Vision: Far Western Landscape and National Culture, 1820–1920 (New York: New York University Press, 1990);
John Francis McDermott, “Gold Rush Movies,” California Historical Society Quarterly, 33 (March 1954): 29–38;
Lee Parry, “Landscape Theater in America,” Art in America, 53 (November-December 1971): 52–61.