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The Panorama Effect: Spectacle for the Masses

Panorama painting seems all the rage.”

John Constable, 1803

Letter to John Dunthorne from John Constable, May 23, 1803 in R.B. Beckett, ed., John Constable's Correspondence II: Early Friends and Maria Bicknell (Mrs. Constable), (Ipswich: Suffolk Records Society, Vol. VI, 1964), p. 34.

During the panorama craze of the early 1800s, audiences flocked by the thousands to witness the latest spectacular representations of nature, battle scenes, and exotic locations in 360 degree painted panoramas displayed in purpose-built circular rotundas. Popular interest in the panorama and its multiple spin-offs--the most notable being the horizontal moving panorama--waxed and waned throughout the century. As a result of exhibit competetion spin-off names were coined including cosmorama, noctorama, diomonorama, paleorama, pleorama, georama, caricaturama, and mareorama.


Section of the Rotunda, Leicester Square, 1801. Burford's Panorama, Leicester Square: cross section (acquatint from Robert Mitchell's Plans and Views in Perspective of Buildings Erected in England and Scotland, 1901).
Stephen Oetermann, The Panorama History of Mass Media, N.Y. : Zone Books, 1997, p. 104

Mitchell was the panorama's architect. Notice that several panoramas could be exhibited in viewing apartments stacked on on top of the other.

The origin of the panorama can be traced to 1787 and the Irishman Robert Barker who saw this medium as a "kind of pattern for organizing visual experience." It was adopted and independently produced by several European painters around this period.

The contemporary spectator described a shiver running down his spine upon entering the panorama rotunda, witnessing the reality of the depicted scene. Vanessa Schwartz argues in her study of early mass culture that the panorama's illusion "lay not so much in the actual quality of the panorama's realistic representation of a particular place ( for few in the audience would have stood before the acual site and therefore could judge the quality of the copy) as in its technological illusionism."Vanessa R. Schwartz, Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siecle France. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p.153.

The effect of total immersion in the depicted scene was enhanced by the panorama's skillful manipulation of perspective, lighting, and as in the case of the panorama of London painted from the top of St. Paul's Cathedral installed at the London Colosseum, three dimensional effects via mock-ups of the rooftop of St. Paul's that blended with the 2-D foreground of the painting to create the illusion of additional depth. Like the present day curved and almost endless Imas Solido screen, 360 panoramas had no visible edges and appeared to go on forever.

Picture of the Panorama Building
Stephen Oetermann, The Panorama History of Mass Media, N.Y. : Zone Books, 1997, p. 102

Panorama of London—observation tower.
Interior view of the colosseum. It shows workmen preparing the panorama of London, 1829.
Guildhall Library Collage Database.

[See larger image]

Opened in 1794, the panorama building, according to Richard Altick, “was so designed that two of the forces which militate against perfect illusion in a gallery painting—the limiting frame and standards of size and distance external to the picture itself—were eliminated…The intrusive elements of the spectator’s surroundings being blacked out, the world in which they were entwined consisted exclusively of the landscape or cityscape depicted on the canvas suspended thirty feet away.” (Richard Altick, The Shows of London [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978], p.132-3).

The effect of going from darkness into the naturally lit circular rotunda was meant to heighten the sensation of standing out of doors and viewing a scene as if one had virtually traveled there in the time it took to enter the building. Audiences would then spend approximately 15 to 20 minutes viewing the panorama from an observation platform [belvedere] that could be reached by a short staircase. In the case of Robert Burford's 1801 Rotunda constructed in Leicester Square, two panoramas, one stacked on top of the other, necessitated two viewing platforms. Audiences were charged different rates for entry into these thematically distinct circular views.

The popularity of panoramas and their precarious status as legitimate art works was determined in part by the role panoramists occupied in the art world, making their living as artists outside the traditional networks of patronage and public exposure. Because illusionism was the primary goal of the panorama, it was judged inferior to serious art, although the panorama certainly played an influential role in the subject matter and scale of landscape painters of the eighteenth century.

“The Traveling Panoramist," Punch,
July 14, 1849
As reproduced in Oetermann, p.109

Information booklets vouched for the accuracy of the depicted scene (as did panorama advertisements) informing potential spectators that the panorama was painted from sketches taken by the artist “on the spot.” Claims of accuracy and mathematical precision in copying techniques were typical of the promotional writing around panoramas, often accompanied by tales of personal risk, expense and hardship in procuring sketches.

Reviewers were also often generous with praise for the accuracy of the depiction. A review in The Living Age of “The Panorama of Hong-Kong” in 1844 stated “A nearer approach by art to reality has never been witnessed; and the great merit of the panorama is, that while a genuine Chinese view, with all its most striking characteristics is presented, the materials are selected with a painter’s skill, and so managed as to form a most harmonious picture.”

Cover page from book
Broadside for Marshall's Panorama of the Coronation of King George IV.
Courtesy of NYPL

Cover of: The Colosseum Handbook: descriptive of the cyclorama of Paris by Night, now on exhibition S.E. corner Broad & Locust Streets. Philadelphia, PA: Allen, Lane & Scott, 1876.
Courtesy of The New-York Historical Society.

Broadside for Robert's Panorama of St. Petersburgh.
Courtesy of NYPL

Like many twentieth-century technologies of imaging and electronics the panorama has its roots in military research. Based on drawings supplied by army officers, panoramists such as Robert Burford used “prospect formats,” the eighteenth-century pictorial records of coastlines and land masses, for his painted panoramas of Benares, Delhi, and Hong-Kong.Companies specializing in immersive and interactive still and moving Internet images that teleport viewers into a multidimensional, 360 degree environment, emerged. IPIX developed as a result of a Small Business Innovation Research contract through the Langley Research Center. It received the support of NASA who used the technology for guiding robots in their shuttle and space station programs, and the US Department of Energy, who needed technology that could offer them remote viewing of potentially hazardous environments.

IPIX "An Eyes Man."
Courtersy of IMAX Corporation
Panorama. Merrimac & Monitor Naval Battle.
Guildhall Library, Corporation of London.
Civil War Panorama, General Hancock
Courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society
Panorama of the Battle of Sedan, Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, Anton von Werner.
British Library

Moving panoramas, which were horizontal strips of canvas that were unfurled from one cylinder to another at the opposite end of a stage created the sensation of travel through simulated journeys, often by river. Mississippi River panoramist John Banvard coined the term “Georama” in 1853 to describe his latest geographic panorama, which offered audiences tours through the world’s most exotic locales.

“The Mississippi Waltzes—Banvard’s...picture of the Mississippi River”1847.
American Memory, Library of Congress.
Broadside advertising Banvard's Mississippi Panorama.
Oetermann, p. 333

"A Painting Three Miles Long," The Living Age. Vol. 14, issue 176, pp594-595

“ His [John Banvard] grand object, as he himself informs us, was to falsify the assertion, that America had “no artists commensurate with the grandeur and extent of her scenery,” and to accomplish this, by producing the largest painting in the world!”
“When the preparatory drawings were completed, he erected a building at Louisville in Kentucky, where he at length commenced his picture, which was to be a panorama of the Mississippi, painted on canvass[sic], three miles long; …”

[See image]
"John Banvard's Great Picture--Life on the Mississippi," The Living Age, Vol. 15, issue 187, p.511-514
[See image]

The sensation of walking into and around a giant picture, of literally being placed at its center, has resurfaced in the context of IPIX, although the walking done here is with one’s computer mouse. According to IPIX CEO Jim Philips, “Everyone we’ve showed this to says it’s like teleportation. It’s using ordinary cameras to give viewers the ability to literally walk into the picture.” (Shira Levine, “A Web Walk: IPIX Brings 3-D to the Internet,” Telephony, August 18, 1997.)


Paradoxically, the panorama effect was considered at the time to be both deceiving and correct. A London Times reviewer of the Panorama of Paris exhibited at the Colosseum in 1848 began by arguing that “nothing can be more perfectly deceptive nor minutely correct than this view…[of] the Hotel de Ville, the Colonne de Juillet, the Arc de l’Etoile, and the Tuileries.”

Descriptive drawing in the souvenir guide to the "Panorama of Paris", 1815.
Barker's Panorama, Altick, p.175
"The Paris Panoramas of the Nineteenth Century," The Century; a popular quarterly. Vol. 39, issue 2, December 1889, p.256
[See image]


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