Grand Illusions

Thomas Moran

catalog of the traveling exhibition, edited by Nancy K. Anderson, with contributions from Thomas P. Bruhn, by Joni L. Kinsey, by Anne Morand
National Gallery of Art/Yale University Press, 400 pp., $60.00

I knew the artist was going to paint a big picture, but I didn’t know how big it would be. It was not begun till he had been back from his summer rambles many months. When I think of his carrying that immense canvas across his brain so long, I wonder that he didn’t go through doors sidewise, and call to people to look out when they came near.”

The artist with the fourteen-foot-wide canvas on the brain is the English-born American painter Thomas Moran, described by a contemporary in 1872, but it could have been any one of several American landscape painters of the day. Big was good. Big was appreciated. We are told by the art historian Barbara Novak that the public liked to bring their opera glasses to view the grand canvases when they went on display.

This was an age which had developed a taste for Cinemascope—in advance of the invention of the motion picture. This was the audience that, in 1849, came to the Louisville Theater in Kentucky, paying fifty cents for dress circle and parquet, twenty-five cents for boxes on the second tier, to see Henry Lewis’s Mammoth Panorama of the Mississippi River, “representing the Mississippi from St. Louis to the Falls of St. Anthony.” “Doors opened at seven forty-five and the Pano-rama commenced moving at ‘8 1/2 precisely.”’ There was a spoken commentary and a piano accompaniment—exactly, as Novak says, like a silent film.

Such a marriage of theater and painting is not an American invention. It goes back, at least, to the late eighteenth century, to the Alsatian painter Philip de Loutherberg, whose London production of Omai: or Obesa Queen of the Sandwich Islands (Drury Lane, 1785) was based on the drawings made by John Webber of Captain Cook’s last voyage, which culminated in the apotheosis of Cook. De Loutherberg’s experiments in synesthesia were conducted in his Eidophusikon, and involved ingenious use of oil lamps for optical effects. The first such scene, in 1781, was called “Aurora, or the Effects of Dawn, with a View of London from Greenwich Park.”

Topography, the latest news, the oldest news (geological formations), the eternal verities (the voyage of Life from Childhood to Old Age in the paintings of Thomas Cole), paradise, wilderness, hell—all these formed appropriate themes for the artists of panorama, diorama, and the great landscape machine. Most of the panoramas have been thrown away. They had to be. Henry Lewis’s Mississippi was painted on 45,000 square feet of canvas. (The Metropolitan Museum retains John Vanderlyne’s exquisite panorama of Versailles.) But one may conclude that, for instance, the first black artist in this tradition, Robert Scott Duncanson, was creating work much like de Loutherberg’s, in Cincinnati’s Concert Hall in 1844, when he advertised “chemical paintings… after the singular style of Daguerre.”

These chemical paintings were executed on cloth transparencies, painted on both sides, so as to respond to …

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