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Panoramas as Sublime Vistas

The idea of the natural sublime was a symbolic standard for panorama reviewers, a way of evoking the awe-inspiring properties of panoramas representing natural scenes in ways familiar to even middle class audiences in the nineteenth-century. The panorama's realistic design thus “transported” spectators in two senses: to the location represented in the painting and to a level of metaphysical contemplation. In the case of wraparound panoramas the sensation of sublimity may have derived as much from the illusionism of the panorama “effect” as from the specific content of the painting.

Albert Smith’s “Ascent of Mont Blanc”that appeared in the Illustrated London News, December 25, 1851 was shown at the Egyptian Hall, Picadilly.
Altick, p.476
The panorama formed the background to a Swiss chalet before which Smith had placed a pool with fish and alpine plants. Critics did not approve when three dimensional props were added; more ordinary subjects could be embellished, but not locations associated with evocations of the sublime such as alpine scenes.

Battles were the subject of panoramas during the nineteenth-century panorama “craze,” and the idea of the sublime within this genre became an expression of nationalistic fervor. The viewer experienced the humbling effect of being transported to the battlefield not as a mere voyeur but as a witness to history. 

British Battle by Sir Robert Ker Porter
Guildhall Library Collage Database.
The panoramas of Sir Robert Ker Porter were responsible for developing the battle panorama in England. British victories became the subject of “instant” panoramas, which in their day were the static equivalent of todays’s CNN.
Broadside for the Burning of the Houses of Parliament
Courtesy of NYPL

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Poster for Baun and Edmund Beringer’s panorama.
Battle of Champigny-Villiers
Historiches Museum, Frankfurt
Poster for Philip Fleischer’s panorama “Battle of Trafalgar” 1890.
Historiches Museum, Frankfurt
Broadside for a panorama of the American Civil War. Library of Congress American Memory Collection.


In the early Imax film To Fly—produced as part of the 1976 Smithsonian Bicentenary celebrations—issues of national identity are bound tightly to technological developments in aviation through meta-narratives of American progress and domination in flight technology. While panoramas did circulate across national borders in the nineteenth century, their national specificity played a determining role in their success in foreign markets. For example, it was precisely the overtly nationalistic content of many European 360 degree panoramas which limited their appeal within the U.S. panorama market, where Americans were more interested in their own geography and western frontier than in ancient ruins and European battles.

Imax "To Fly" video jacket
Courtesy of IMAX Corporation


Broadside for Panorama to be exhibited North 11th, near Market St. The painting of the celebrated Palace and garden of Versailles, [Philadelphia] July 1821. Library of Congress American Memory Collection.
Arrowsmith’s Panorama of Western Travel [Harper’s New Monthly Magazine], Vol. 18, Issue 103, December 1858. Library of Congress American Memory Collection.
Broadside for “Original Panorama of the Gold Regions of California!” painted by S.A. Hudson, Esq. Library of Congress American Memory Collection.


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