Tyler Green
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Tyler Green Modern Art Notes

A ‘steampunk movie’ at the St. Louis Art Museum

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Author Lee Sandlin’s “Wicked River: The Mississippi When it Last Ran Wild,” a smart, delightful, fast-paced bit of summer non-fiction beach-reading, begins this way:

“One of the most popular art forms in nineteenth-century america was the panorama. A panorama was an oil painting done on a gigantic scale — so gigantic that the first sight of it would make spectators gasp… Some panoramas were so big that special halls had to be built to display them.

The subject of the typical panorama ran to the spectacular and violent… the most popular — and by far the largest — panoramas were of the Mississippi River.”

Typically these panoramas were displayed on scrolls in front of the audience so as to give the illusion of passing scenery. The scroll passed in one direction, say ‘downriver,’ for the first performance of the day, and back to the first reel, ‘upriver,’ for the second. The painting would typically be gas-lit and accompanied by piano or organ music and a dramatic reading of the history passing by — not to mention a few jokes and some tall tales. It typically cost an adult 25 cents to attend the two-hour show (the equivalent of $6.50 today). Children were half-price. Think of panoramas as an early mass entertainment, a kind of original steampunk movie. Even Queen Victoria is said to have enjoyed a Mississippi River panorama show.

According to Sandlin, in the early 1850s there were five different Mississippi panoramas on tour throughout the U.S. and Europe. Each one was advertised as the biggest painting on the planet. None of those five paintings has survived. Only one Mississippi River panorama is left, a 348-footer painted by an Irish Philadelphian, John J. Egan. It is now in the collection of the St. Louis Art Museum.

This summer SLAM has installed that painting, Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley (c.1850), in its main exhibition space, where a team ofconservators will work on it six days a week. The painting — and the conservation team — will be on view until August 21.

According to an essay by art historian Angela Miller in the Summer-Autumn, 1994 issue of American Art, the Egan is also one of just two known 19th-century artistic images of Mound Builder culture in the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. Miller  reports that it was typically exhibited with a “cabinet of Indian Curiosities” which handbills that advertised the panorama claimed included 40,000 relics from 1,000 Native American mounds. The St. Louis panorama was commissioned by a one Montroville Wilson Dickeson, a Philadelphia doctor who was the first person to conduct archaeological research on the mounds. Dickeson apparently hoped to make enough money showing Egan’s painting that he could conduct further digs in the Mississippi Valley. (The Cahokia Mounds, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis in Illinois, are the remnants of the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico. The mounds are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.)

Last week I spoke with Paul Haner, SLAM’s painting conservator about the job ahead. Janeen Turk, a senior curatorial assistant at the museum, joined us. [Image at top: Haner and Turk with the panorama, courtesy SLAM. ]

MAN: Give us an idea of what you’ll be doing with and to the painting, over what kind of period of time period, and what it will require.

Paul Haner: The plan is this: We’ll have it in the gallery for 10 weeks as our summer exhibitionthen we’re doing the same thing next summer, another 10 weeks. [Image: Egan, Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley, c.1850. Scene 1.]

I have a private conservator friend here from Philadelphia helping me and then we have three students who are helping. So hopefully between five of us working six days a week – every day but Monday, that is, not all five people on it at all times but at least two or three all the time – the plan is there but we’re a bit unsure about how long it will take. There is a different degree of damage and loss throughout the scroll, so we’re just kind of working our way through and we’ll see how long it takes for an average panel.There are 25 scenes. We want to get up to 12 or 13 by the end of the summer. After this exhibition. we’ll move the apparatus to an adjacent gallery which won’t be open to the public. It’ll just be like a storeroom, but we’ll be able to set it up and work on it over the winter if we have to.

MAN: Compared to traditional oil paintings of the period, say a George Caleb Bingham, was your painting made to last?

Paul Haner: The fabric that carries the scenes is kind of a medium-weight cotton fabric. It’s comparable to a normal painting canvas, except that typically easel paintings were on linen and this is just cotton. I think that’s probably because that’s what was available in Philadelphia in 1850, where and when the panorama was painted. The construction is quite something: It’s made up of two forty-six inch pieces with a seam running horizontally along the middle, and then along the top it has a two-inch heavier piece like a hem. Along that heavier piece it has grommets in it every 12 inches. That’s what holds it along the top edge, with little hooks. Historically, it would just scroll across from one roller to the other one. [Image: Egan, Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley, c.1850. Scene 9.]

The paint is very atypical too. It’s called distemper and it’s basically animal-glue binder with dried pigment. It’s a water-based paint that remains very water-soluble. It’s almost like watercolor.

MAN: It flakes off easily?

Paul Haner: Oh yes. It’s applied very thinly. I think it’s very much the style of theatrical scene painting. Probably a similar material was used for that. The fabric doesn’t have any preparation, no priming, the scenes are painted directly on the cotton fabric. It’s built up in layers, but it’s still very thin.

The main problem with the thing is that because of all the movement and the scrolling and the rolling it up numerous times, there were a lot of creases and wrinkles formed in it. Where the creases are, if they’re hard creases the paint became very dry and brittle. Most of the paint loss is along these creases, where the panorama gets folded. Over time, the paint just falls off from mechanical use.

I don’t really know how long these things were expcted to last. We don’t really know. We know it was shown in Philadelphia and that it was painted in Philadelphia. We don’t know if it traveled across the country. Maybe it didn’t get shown so many times, so that’s why it lasted. Some scenes have kind of minimal damage and one or two have a lot more damage. There’s one scene that makes us wonder if this was always shown indoors or if it was shown outooors too. There’s once scene in pretty bad shape: Maybe it was shown outside and it rained? That’s the kind of catastrophic thing that could have done the kind of damage we see in one panel. [Image: Haner with Panorama. Courtesy SLAM.]

But all in all, it’s remarkable it’s lasted this long. The colors are still bright. The surface is not noticeably dirty. There are a lot of old repairs, small tears or creases. Someone tried to do re-touching on the worst damages and we have to improve on those. The thing is so sensitive that you can’t really take old restorations off.

MAN: Has anyone ever conserved one of these before? I mean, I’m sure the Metropolitan Museum of Art has worked on its John Vanderlyn panorama, but that’s a circular and not a scrolling panorama. It’s a different deal.

Paul Haner: I know that a couple summers ago, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, at the Clark Art Institute, where there’s a regional center for conservation, they treated another panorama that’s 800-feet long. [Ed.: That painting was The Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress, painted by Edward Harrison May and Joseph Kyle in 1848-1850. It’s in the collection of the Saco Museum in Maine.] Ours is “just” 92-inches high and 348-feet long. I spoke to a couple of colleagues who worked on the one there just to talk about materials and such.

They didn’t do theirs in a public space or even in their own studio. It was too big. They did it in a warehouse, some place where they could open up the entire thing. They had to do a different treatment too, involving different materials which required solvents. You can’t really expose people to that stuff. They were able to do the whole thing in one summer.

So ours is pretty different. All our materials are water-based so the colors we’re using are like watercolor crayons. The drier you can apply the re-touching to the surface the better, because the original paint is so soluble that if you had a brush with watercolor paint, there’d be too much water in the brush. When you touch it to the surface of the painting, the water would migrate into the canvas and stain the paint. It makes little tide lines. So we have had to work out different ways to get the paint on the surface. [Image: Conservators with the scrolling platform the museum had built for Panorama. Courtesy SLAM.]

MAN: As you work on the painting, do you see any signs of the way it was used, as popular entertainment? Cigar smoke or anything like that?

Paul Haner: Not really. There are a few areas where water got spilled on it, which we can tell because there are damages a couple feet long and two inches wide. They go from top to bottom. So something dripped and disovlved the paint. And there’s wear-and-tear at the bottom edges, but that’s just from its touching the floor as it scrolled.

Janeen Turk: It seems like most of the panorams were shown indoors. Thre was often a speaker giving some kind of lecture or narration along with athe panorams. We know a little bit about what that must have been like from some of the advertisements that have survived with the panorams, which describe the performance shown with the scenes. That gives us some clues. The owner of this one published a series of articles about his adventures along the Mississippi River valley and you can get a sense for his interest in the imagery from the articles.

MAN: I couldn’t help but think that the museum’s decision to conserve the painting in public kind of harkens back to what the painting was made for. Was that your idea? The museum administration’s idea?

Janeen Turk: I didn’t think of it that way but it’s a great opportunity for the public to see it. It will be changing scenes on a weekly or biweekly basis and it’s free, so people will be able to see it multiple times.

Paul Haner: I hadn’t thought about that. It’s fun because people are very interested and we get a lot of good questions. We have a Q&A period every day and we get a lot of people for that. People are excited about it. There are a lot of text panels and computer interactive things in the galleries. We’ll also have a wall on which there will be photographs that show all 25 scenes in a row, complete with descriptive information about each scene. [Image: The platform on which Panorama will be conserved, exhibited. Courtesy SLAM.]

MAN: Has it ever been shown at the museum?

Paul Haner: It’s been in storage since 1953. I think it was put on view and displayed as it was historically scrolled in 1950. In 1953 the museum purchased it from the University of Pennsylvania and I’m not exactly sure how many times it’s been on view here since, but it’s been out on loan twice, once in the 1970s and then in 2005 or so in Minneapolis, where they showed just one scene. They had an exhibition on Mississippi River-related objects and they borrowed Bingham paintings and they wanted this, which was quite a production.

MAN: So this painting is almost 400-feet long and probably pretty darn heavy. I understand you or someone else at the museum is designing and manufacturing a gizmo so that the work can be seen?

Paul Haner: Yes. We had a local place make us a motorized armature, meaning that the painting can be vertical or it can lie down horizontally so we can work on it. It’s not mechanized so that the painting will continually in the galleries or anything – the painting is too fragile to be able to do that any more. [Image: Egan, Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley, c.1850. Scene 21.]

Instead – and the reason for this whole project – in 2014 when our American galleries are reopened, we’ll be moving American to different galleries. They’ll go on the third floor of our Cass Gilbert building, where modern art is now. So we had a very nice, extruded aluminum framework case made with two large 30-inch-in-diameter scrolls at either end that carry the panorama and that scroll it across the flat surface.

Janeen Turk: The idea originated with Andrew Walker, who is now the director of the Amon Carter. The layout has not been completely resolved yet but the panorama demands a certain amount of space. The scenes are 14 feet wide and they’re seven-and-a-half-feet tall.

With the whole apparatus, with the rollers and the motor and all, it’ll weigh 4,000 pounds. The electric motor by itself is 1,100 pounds.

Related: Author Lee Sandlin will speak at SLAM on July 21 and 22. The rest of SLAM’s panorama-related programming is available here.

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  1. Heather says:

    For another interesting panorama project, see the Garibaldi panorama digital initiative at Brown University.

  2. […] A ’steampunk movie’ at the St. Louis Art Museum | Tyler Green: Modern Art Notes | ARTINFO.com. […]

  3. Mark Sheerin says:

    Very interesting interview. The Mississippi must really have been both spectacular and violent to inspire the world’s five biggest paintings.

    The blockbuster queues which have been seen for Christian Marclay’s clock (in the UK at least) suggest today’s public has also has an appetite for artwork made on an exhaustive scale. Inland waterways have also just inspired the world’s longest TV show, for example: http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,1518,769826,00.html

  4. Gene Meier says:

    I am writing the first book from the American point of view about 19th century rotunda panoramas. These were the biggest paintings in the world, 50 x 400=20,000 square feet, housed in their own rotundas which were 16-sided polygons. Chicago in 1893 had 6 panorama companies and 6 panorama rotundas.

  5. […] For the second straight summer, the St. Louis Art Museum will be conserving its monumental panorama painting in one of its galleries. I talked with Paul Haner, SLAM’s painting conservator and Janeen Turk, a senior curatorial assistant at the museum, about what that entails. Pretty fantastic story. […]

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