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Journey to the Ohio River,
John Banvard (1815 – 1891)

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Oil on canvas
22 1/8 x 26 1/8 inches
Status: Available

Artists working in all media—painting, sculpture, print-making, and architecture—in the nineteenth-century United States practiced traditional arts of painting, printing, and illustration to earn livings. In addition, they adapted those art forms or created new ones to capture the patronage of the citizens of this new nation.  Itinerant portrait painters Samuel F.B. Morse and Thomas Sully traveled throughout America seeking commissions to paint portraits.   “National” painters—history painters is the modern term for their works—John Trumbull, John Blake White, and Emanuel Leutze sought federal and state government commissions to adorn newly-built federal and state buildings with images of the New World, the War of Independence, the achievements of the nation’s Founding Fathers.  They created artistic symbols of the nation, captured the visages of the men and women who had established the United States, and immortalized the principles of democratic republicanism. 

Such traditional artistic enterprises had been imported from Europe where they had been popular for centuries with a small, exclusive community of aristocratic art lovers and safe-keepers of public taste.  However, in the early 1800s they were proving insufficient to satisfy the cultural tastes of Americans.  The United States was expanding westward across the continent; industrialization and urbanization were transforming the landscape of America; and revolutions in transportation and communication were changing profoundly social and cultural relationships.  So many remarkable changes occurring simultaneously challenged artists to expand their horizons to create new art forms that reflected the values and aspirations of the new nation.

The panorama artist John Banvard (1815-91) was one artist who accepted that great challenge “to make new” art forms and artistic enterprise in America.[i]  He and others—many of them English and German immigrants—were skilled practitioners of the painter’s arts of form, color, and expressiveness.  In that respect their surviving paintings are much in demand as works of art and as important documents of art history.  But, they also seized opportunities to place their talents in the service of a distinctive American vision of democratic republicanism and business enterprise.[ii]  Banvard perfected the panorama as an art spectacle that applied a new form of artistic creation to new purposes:  collective public attendance at performances and education regarding the history and geography of the United States.  Panoramas were both the name of a particular kind of artwork and of a new form of popular entertainment and education.  Artists created immensely long paintings on canvas mounted on roller mechanisms that revealed visual narratives of time and place as the canvas scrolled before the eyes of an admission-paying audience.[iii] 

During the 1840s and 1850s—the heyday of the art form—panorama artists and their impresarios could be found in cities throughout the United States.  Occasionally, a city hosted two or more competing panoramas, which led the artists to embellish their performances with musical accompaniment, to publish guides to their spectacles, and to flood local newspapers with advertisement and testimonials of distinguished viewers.  The subjects of panoramas were many:  famous military campaigns of antiquity and the modern era, imaginary visits to European cities, excursions on the Nile River, and you-are-there whaling voyages.  One remarkable artist, James Presley Ball (1825-1904), an African American daguerreotypist and limner from Cincinnati, Ohio, created an abolitionist panorama in 1855, Ball’s Splendid Mammoth Pictorial Tour of the United States, comprising Views of the African Slave Trade; of Northern and Southern Cities; of Cotton and Sugar Plantations; of the Mississippi, Ohio and Susquehanna Rivers, Niagara Falls, &c., that was 600 yards in length and featured fifty three scenes.[iv]  The Mississippi River scenes in Ball’s Splendid Mammoth Pictorial Tour were uniquely arranged.  They began in slave-holding New Orleans and traveled upriver, moved onto the Ohio River, and concluded at Queenstown, on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, a destination of the Underground Railroad that carried African Americans to freedom.

In Banvard’s case, the man’s life story was nearly as panoramic as the works of art he created.  He cultivated his life story as a narrative of self-reliance, frontier enterprise, and fascination with progress as part of his artistic and cultural representation of America.  Indeed, the published guides that described his panoramas always had some version of “Adventures of the Artist.”  He and other panorama artists made their life stories part of the exhibitions that they offered their audiences.   Banvard was born in New York City in 1815 but the collapse of his father’s construction business and the father’s early demise obliged the youth to seek his fortunes in Ohio and Missouri.  Discovering his artistic talent, he determined to become a painter whose main topic would be to immortalize the American experience.  One version of “Adventures” (possibly written by himself or a friend) stated that

He was stimulated in the prosecution of his original and herculean task, by seeing it stated in some foreign journal, that in this country there were some of the most picturesque and magnificent scenes in the world, but that America had no artist adequate to the task of giving a correct and faithful representation of them.  Mr. B. resolved upon an effort, by which the talent of his country should be redeemed from this aspersion, and by which the world should know that American genius was competent to give an appropriate and beautiful representation of American scenes.[v]

Banvard painted panoramas of Jerusalem and Venice without ever having seen those places by adapting the works of other artists to this new medium of unrolling canvas.  Success and failure did not dishearten the young man, and through thought and experiment he determined to choose the Mississippi River as his sole topic.  From 1842 to 1846 he traveled the length of the river, enduring privations, and meeting all classes and character of Americans as he sketched and made studies of scenes that would become the panorama.  The years of preparation became part of the story he sought to unfold in words and pictures—the story of young America.  In 1847 he began to display the massive canvas in Louisville, Kentucky, and by 1848 he was exhibiting the work in Boston and New York.  In Boston the work was on display for six months at Armory Hall and newspaper articles reported that 251,702 spectators had seen the work and earned the artist more than fifty thousand dollars.  In 1848 Banvard carried the panorama to London and hired Egyptian Hall, one of the biggest entertainment venues in the city.  Queen Victoria and Albert, Prince of Wales, were given a private showing at Windsor Palace while more than 600,000 Englishmen eventually viewed the canvas Mississippi tour.[vi]  The title of Banvard’s guide to his work remained practically the same through its several versions and provides pretty clear information regarding the nature of the work and of his showman’s approach to promoting it:  Description of Banvard’s Panorama of the Mississippi River, Painted on Three Miles of Canvas: Exhibiting a View of Country 1200 Miles in Length, Extending from the Mouth of the Missouri River to the City of New Orleans; Being The Largest Picture ever Executed by Man.

As his fame grew, Banvard added more features to the Mississippi panorama, with scenes of excursions up the Missouri and Ohio Rivers, which would appeal to local audiences in those locales.  John Banvard is likely the most famous creator and manager of these art spectacles.  His Mississippi River panoramas were wildly popular during the 1840s and 1850s.  His 1862 version contained a “War Section” that depicted several battles along the Mississippi. Among them were the capture of Island Number 10 and the Battle of Forts Saint Philip and Fort Jackson in April 1862 that led to the surrender of New Orleans. 

The important thing to keep in mind regarding the man and his work was that Banvard was a showman as well as a dedicated artist.  His exhibitions of the panorama took nearly two hours, during which time he lectured on the passing scenes, adding anecdotes and personal observations.  The pamphlet guides contained his autobiography, numbered descriptions of the scenes, and testimonials or endorsements by Mississippi riverboat captains, the mayors of cities, and others attesting to the accuracy of the work.  Finally, he included excerpts from newspaper reviews and endorsements by notables.  The exhibition was accompanied by music written specifically for the panorama and played on a piano much like the sound accompaniments of pioneer silent films.  Indeed, Banvard aimed to provide his audiences with entertainment and enlightenment. 

A number of industrial and technological break-through were vital to the success of the panorama phenomenon.  The transportation revolution based upon railroads and steamships made it possible reliably to schedule panorama exhibitions in throughout the nation.  In recognition of the importance of steamboats not only to American progress but also his enterprise, Banvard was a full-throated steamboat enthusiast.  Numerous vessels appeared in the Mississippi panoramas and, as an artist, he prided himself on accurate depictions of the vessels.  Indeed, his praise of steamboats as both emblems and vehicles of progress was uninhibited.

There is no portion of the globe where the invention of steamboats should be so highly appreciated, as in the valley of the Mississippi.  This invention deserves to be estimated the most memorable era of the West; and the name of the inventor ought to be handed down with glory to the generations to come.  No triumph of art over the obstacles of nature has ever been so complete.  . . . The day that commemorates this invention, should be a holiday of interest, only second to that which gave birth to the nation.[vii]

Simultaneously, the print revolution gave panorama artists and promoters means to advertise their exhibitions cheaply and persistently.  Newspapers and magazines published reviews and endorsements; job printers in the smallest towns and villages produced handbills and special advertisements; and the artists published inexpensive pamphlet guides to their exhibitions.  These pamphlets were likely considered ephemera, like today’s concert programs or team rosters at sporting events but they are priceless records regarding this art and entertainment form.  For, despite the great number and variety of nineteenth-century panorama not one of them survives intact in the present day. 

Despite the global popularity of panoramas during the nineteenth century, they were superseded by technological advances in photography, magic lantern projections, and ultimately by the invention of motion pictures.  Huge and unwieldy, they were the adaptation of a universal art form—painting on canvas—to the rise of mass, popular entertainments.  Chautauqua lectures, speaking tours, museums, circuses, professional theatrical and musical performances all exploded in popularity during the Victorian Age and much of that explosion was grounded in the transportation and communications revolution.  Motion pictures, no matter how primitive the technology, wrecked the panorama enterprise with as deadly effect as a Mississippi snag or boiler explosion could destroy one of Banvard’s much-loved steamboats. 

In The Lost Panoramas of the Mississippi, John Francis McDermott traced the fate of Banvard’s Mississippi panorama.  As the entertainment form withered, Banvard settled in Watertown, South Dakota, in 1883.  He died there in 1891.  His descendants reported that the intact canvas had been stored in the basement of his home.  Portions of it were cut up to serve as scenery backdrops or theatrical productions; that parts of it had been hung on building walls as murals; and that ultimately, it was ruined by neglect, climate, and age, and was ultimately discarded.[viii] The notion that such huge canvases might survive to become conservation projects of huge scope is nearly as daunting as distress that none are known to survive.  Banvard’s papers, including sketchbooks, writings, clippings, and even some finished artworks were donated to the Minnesota Historical Society, Saint Paul.  Several of these items, especially his surviving paintings, can be viewed online at the MHS website. 

One source of information regarding Banvard’s life in Watertown reported that the artist had in his late years created a cyclorama, a large painting hung in a circle that depicted “The Burning of Columbia” by Union troops led by General William T. Sherman.  The cyclorama was exhibited successfully in Watertown and nearby communities.[ix]  The Civil War gave a short-lived vitality to dioramas and cycloramas as artists sought to recreate spectacular versions of battles and landscapes ravaged by warfare.  Some cycloramas were mounted on circular walls that moved along the circumference of a room while audiences viewed the scene from seats in the middle of the circle.  Other cycloramas were static and were experienced as visitors walked along the walls of the rooms that housed them.  They were in part heirs to the mechanical wizardry of panoramas but were soon superseded by motion pictures. Paul Philippoteaux’s 1883 depiction of Pickett’s Charge, the climactic moment in the Battle of Gettysburg, and The Battle of Atlanta, painted by a crew of thirteen artists in the 1880s were the most notable cycloramas.  They survive today and still attract interested audiences.

Despite the extinction of the huge canvas rolls, some scenes depicted on them survive as oil studies or even finished paintings that, like the pamphlet guides, offer tantalizing glimpses of what thousands of Americans saw as episodes in captivating passing scenes.  Banvard’s undated “Steamboat on a River” (oil on canvas, 22 x 26 inches, private collection) is likely one of sorts of scenes.  The Smithsonian Institution Research Information System (SIRIS) has twenty five entries for Banvard’s paintings, most of which are untitled and undated.  However, by virtue of their subjects many of them can confidently be considered studies for portions of now-lost panoramas.  The Minnesota Historical Society owns several of these paintings, among which are “Autumn Scene,” “Mississippi River Plantation Scene,” “River Scene in Moonlight,” and “Glenada,” the artist’s mansion in Long Island, New York.  An engraving of Glenada was published in the 1862 edition of Description of Banvard’s Geographical Painting of the Mississippi River . . . (NY: L. H. Bigelow, 1862)  Some other likely panorama scenes were “Along the Mississippi,” “Holy Land,” “Falls and Building,” “River Boats,” and “River Bluffs,” which were in descendants’ collections or small museums in Pierre, South Dakota.  McDermott’s Lost Panoramas and Joanita Kant’s “Watertown’s John Banvard” reproduce several drawings and finished paintings by Banvard, among which are several listed in SIRIS.  A systematic comparison of these paintings to descriptions in Banvard’s two panorama guides might lead to a matching of image and description.  Indeed, such a comparison may provide information respecting the geographical location of “Steamboat on the River” as well as its possible place in Banvard’s panorama.


[i] For information on Banvard’s life and career, see Joanita Kant, “Watertown’s John Banvard, Artist and Showman,” South Dakota History, 27, nos. 1 and 2 (1997): 1-20; John Hanners, “A Tale of Two Artists:  Anna Mary Howitt’s Portrait of John Banvard,” Minnesota History Magazine (Spring 1987): 204-8.  Hanners wrote a doctoral dissertation on Banvard at the University of Michigan in 1979.  See also Banvard; Or, The Adventures of an Artist, An O’er True Tale (London: W.J. Golbourn, 1848).  Adventures of an Artist was published as  separate pamphlet in London in 1848 and 1881 but versions of the text were published in all of Banvard’s editions of his descriptive guide to his panorama. 

[ii] John Rowson Smith and John Vanderlyn were painters who also created panoramas.  Joshua Shaw, George Harvey, and Edward Beyer, Karl Bodmer, and George Catlin traveled the nation painting scenes of life and landscapes to exhibit collectively and to serve as artwork for lavishly-illustrated books and print portfolios.  All were driven to capture the uniqueness of America and to convey through art that uniqueness to interested audiences throughout America, Great Britain, and Europe.

[iii] The scholarly literature on panoramas is unaccountably slight.  John Francis McDermott’s The Lost Panoramas of the Mississippi (University of Chicago Press, 1958) remains a valuable source of information on the art and enterprise.

[iv]  Willis, Deborah, ed., J.P. Ball, Daguerrean and Studio Photographer (New York: Garland Press, 1993) contains biographical information and samples of his photographic work.  Ball’s Splendid Mammoth Pictorial Tour of the United States, comprising Views of the African Slave Trade; of Northern and Southern Cities; of Cotton and Sugar Plantations; of the Mississippi, Ohio and Susquehanna Rivers, Niagara Falls, &c.(Cincinnati: Achilles Pugh, 1855) is the 56-page descriptive guide to the panorama.  This guide contained a biography of the artist along with copious descriptions of the fifty three scenes depicted on the canvas roll.  As in Banvard’s case, the biography highlights the artist’s Horatio Alger-like story.

[v] Description of Banvard’s Panorama of the Mississippi River, Painted on Three Miles of Canvas: Exhibiting a View of Country 1200 Miles in Length, Extending from the Mouth of the Missouri River to the City of New Orleans; Being The Largest Picture ever Executed by Man (Boston: John Putnam, 1847) was revised and expanded in several editions during the century.  Editions in 1852 added scenes of the Missouri and Ohio rivers and the 1862 edition described a “War Section” that depicted Civil War engagements on the Mississippi river.  This quotation is from the 1847 edition, page 4.

[vi] Hanners, “A Tale of Two Artists,” 25.

[vii] Description (1847), 38-9.

[viii] McDermott, Lost Panoramas, 162.

[ix] Kant, Watertown’s John Banvard,” 10.

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This essay is copyrighted by Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc. and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission.

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