Before the dawn of film, motion picture entertainment was often literally a moving picture. From the late 18th to 19th centuries, entrepreneurs traveled the United States and Great Britain with colossal moving panoramas in tow. The large-scale paintings would be rolled between two huge spools for an audience, revealing a narrative through a succession of images.
Among these mostly lost wonders is America’s longest painting. The 1848 “Purrington-Russell Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World,” owned by the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, stretches 1,275 feet in length and stands eight and a half feet tall. To put that in perspective, the museum has a graph comparing its length to 14 blue whales or 28 school buses. While the panorama had numerous exhibitions around the country in its heyday, including an appearance at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, it hasn’t been displayed in over 50 years. A restoration project, supported by a 2016 award from the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, aims to return it to view.
“It is being conserved now as the culmination of a nearly 20-year effort to stabilize it,” Jordan Berson, the museum’s director of collections and head of the panorama conservation project, told Hyperallergic. “There are tears, holes, and several sections were cut out. These are all being reintegrated back into their original order. Since the New Bedford Whaling Museum received the panorama in 1918, we hope to have it conserved and displayed in its entirety for the 100th anniversary of our custodianship.”
The “Whaling Voyage Round the World” isn’t just an impressive work of large-scale art; it’s also an important historical document. Moving panoramas had a variety of themes, from then current events to biblical stories. For instance, the 19th-century “Panorama: Scenes from the Life of Christ” at the University of Illinois’s Krannert Art Museum, which had a rare viewing last March, features New Testament passages painted by Marcus Mote, who adorned the 525-foot panorama with gold foil and sequins. Another that survives at the Saco Museum in Maine features illustrations from Pilgrims Progress.
“This particular panorama was painted by a failed local merchant, Benjamin Russell, who went into the project as a business venture,” Berson said. “He embarked on a whaling voyage purposely to gather images and a storyline of a real whaling voyage around the world. While at sea, he learned to paint.”
The New Bedford Whaling Museum has a Flickr album of 150 details of the panorama, including the departure of the vessel from New Bedford and encounters with volcanoes, shipwrecks, indigenous island communities, and, of course, whales. Russell collaborated with an area sign painter named Caleb Purrington, and together they spent a year creating the work.
“The sign painter is assumed to have done all the background work, with the detailed work being done by Mr. Russell,” Berson explained. “Because the audience was largely local — although [the painting] did travel to other cities — the panorama was painted with attention to accurate detail. Thus it is now a valuable record of New Bedford and the whaling industry.”
Due to excessive handling, as well as the arrival of cinema and other novel entertainments, most moving panoramas disappeared, going on to be sliced into smaller paintings, used as theater backdrops, or just discarded. Obviously, conserving a painting that is the length of four Statue of Liberties is no easy task — challenges include transportation, building a proper apparatus for its care, and finding large enough spools and other supplies to accommodate its bulk. While the whaling panorama has yet to return to regaling audiences with its nautical journey, visitors to the museum can witness the conservators at work as they protect this delicate behemoth of American art.