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One of the longest paintings ever created is an 1848 depiction of a “whaling voyage ’round the world” that stretches 1,275 feet — roughly the length of 14 blue whales, according to its holder, the New Bedford Whaling Museum. It wasn’t meant to be viewed all at once. As a sort of pre-cinema film strip, it would be slowly turned for an audience as it immersed itself in the nautical narrative. Despite the huge popularity of such moving panoramas in the 19th century, very few survive. One of these rare examples is having a special viewing this month.
“Moving panoramas were lost in a number of ways,” Molly Briggs, visiting assistant professor of foundations and a doctoral student at the University of Illinois, told Hyperallergic. “They became unprofitable for various reasons: they wore out from repeated handling, or the imagery was no longer drawing audiences, and eventually the medium itself was just no longer drawing audiences.” Eventually, she explained, “the material was repurposed,” with most cut into pieces to sell, recycled as theater backdrops, or just “used for something more utilitarian, like insulation or packing material,” if they weren’t thrown away entirely.
Briggs is writing a dissertation on panoramic media, and on March 9 at the Krannert Art Museum — which holds the University of Illinois art collection — she’ll be part of a public unrolling of a small section of the museum’s own 525-foot moving panorama. With fellow panoramic scholars Erkki Huhtamo of UCLA and Machiko Kusahara of Waseda University in Tokyo, they’ll present a digital projection showing the panorama in its entirety, and discuss its place in the history of a forgotten medium.
The Krannert Art Museum’s panorama is believed to be the work of self-taught Indiana Quaker artist Marcus Mote and features New Testament scenes from the life of Christ. The paintings are adorned with gold foil and sequins that would have glistened with the movement of the muslin.
“We don’t know exactly how ours survived,” Briggs said. “It was found by some auction pickers in a building slated for demolition in the mid 1980s. They brought it to Champaign, Illinois, to be auctioned. When it didn’t sell, a Champaign auctioneer bought it himself, more for the wooden crates than for the paintings themselves.”
Eventually, it arrived at the Krannert Art Museum, but its value wasn’t immediately recognized and it remained in storage for years.
“Because they weren’t considered art, they weren’t valued or handled as such,” Briggs added.
Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art can experience an early panorama with the circular painting of Versailles from 1818–19 by John Vanderlyn, which, like the Krannert panorama, toured the United States in the 19th century. Circular panoramas were replaced by the moving versions, which offered the same immersive effect with a more dynamic presentation. Many depicted biblical scenes, but others showed current events. A handbill at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum at the University of Exeter simultaneously advertises panoramas of the search for the lost voyage of John Franklin and the “Great Earthquake at Lisbon.” Literary subjects were also popular, such as one at the Saco Museum in Maine featuring illustrations from Pilgrims Progress.
The Krannert panorama is in need of conservation before it can go on longterm view, but there are plans for a future display. Briggs noted that, as a painter herself, she was especially interested in how the art was used to “make viewers feel transported to other places and times.”