Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Description of Banvard's Panorama of the Mississippi River

John Banvard (?) - Description of Banvard's Panorama of the Mississippi River (1847)

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Banvard's Panorama is an interesting cultural curiosity.  The story is covered in some detail in Paul Collins highly recommended Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn't Change the World (2001).  (Though I prefer the original hardcover subtitle "Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck".)  Collins claims "The life of John Banvard is the most perfect crystallization of loss imaginable," noting how during the 1850s Banvard was enormously famous and possibly the first millionaire artist but then a few decades later buried in a pauper's grave, unknown and his art destroyed.

The panorama was an extremely long, unbroken painting of the Mississippi River.  Claimed to cover the entire river, the panorama was advertised as being three miles in length though it seems to have actually been closer to only half a mile.  It would be exhibited as a presentation, being unrolled while Banvard described what was being seen.  This is sometimes considered a rough precursor to cinema but Banvard wasn't the only one doing this - there were panoramas of Rome, California, Canada and others, including a competing Mississippi River one.  (See Anne Baker's 2006 Heartless Immensity: Literature, Culture, and Geography in Antebellum America for more details.)

This pamphlet is a companion to the panorama, containing a brief biographical sketch, testimonials and descriptions of the views.  Unfortunately there are no illustrations.

Melville referenced Banvard once - see p35 of Journal Up the Straits, a record of an 1856-7 trip that was published in 1935.

And Banvard?  With his now immense wealth he decided to build a duplicate of Windsor Castle on Long Island (that's the "folly") and then retired there.  By 1867 he decided to build a museum and theater in Manhattan to compete with P.T. Barnum but made disastrous financial decisions resulting in a move to South Dakota.  (The Castle and theater were later destroyed.)  There he wrote, tried to create a final panorama and eventually died in 1891.  Only a few fragments of his paintings still exist though none are known of the Mississippi Panorama.