The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium

by Stephan Oetterman

Zone Books, 1997

Image ©1997 Zone Books - MIT Press

reviewed by Russell A. Potter

"I hope to show that the pictorial panorama was in one respect an apparatus for glorifying the bourgeois view of the world; it served both as an instrument for liberating human vision and for limiting and "imprisoning" it anew. As such it represents the first true mass medium." (7)

As the end of the twentieth century -- and the second millennium -- draws near, the technology of motion pictures on film has just passed its century mark, and its profound influence on visual culture is so secure as to seem more 'natural' than nature itself. We think nothing of spending more producing a film of the sinking of the Titanic -- including a 90% scale model -- than the original builders spent on the actual ship, and the demand for spectacle is still only temporarily sated. Yet our collective appetite for such a visual feast has a history which long predates the projections of the earliest film, and in the century before the one about to be extinguished, crowds lined up across Europe and America to see massive depictions of no less spectacular disasters, ranging from the Battle of Waterloo to the Great Earthquake of Lisbon to the burning of Sebastapol. If our own time can be characterized, as it was by Guy Debord, as that of the 'Society of the Spectacle,' then its history must be extended to include the Panorama, where the very sense of society self-seen in the mirror of media was born, and whose technology was as characteristic of its age as the cinema is of the twentieth century.

Stephan Oetterman insists, and perhaps rightly so, that one should not seek to understand the Panorama primarily as the predecessor of the cinema. He emphasizes instead its historical disjunction, and cites Adorno's cautionary admonition that "nothing is more detrimental to a theoretical understanding of modern art than attempts to reduce it to similarities with what went before." Yet the kind of history at stake in the Panorama seems not to be the ostensibly progressive history of which Adorno was so suspect, but a kind of Borgesian history, in which the present casts its shadow upon the past, and views it with a perhaps chauvinistic assuredness that its own categories of meaning will still apply. Oetterman observes, for instance, that some critics today see the Panorama as an artistic representation of something which was 'always there' in nature itself, and imagine that both the term and its visual sense of a 360 degree view preceded any painterly prision of the eye's apprehension. That this is demonstrably false is not quite the point; what is more germane is that, in being believed, the influence of the Panorama upon its own pre-history is dramatically demonstrated. As Nietzsche once remarked, the history of imaginary truth is perhaps more vital to the genealogy of culture than that of what actually was -- and, disclaimers aside, it is just such a history that Oetterman's book provides.

Oetterman begins by giving a history of just those elements of visual culture which the Panorama, by manufacturing, rendered self-evidently 'natural.' It is odd, for instance, to think of the 'horizon' itself as a kind of discovery -- but Oetterman demonstrates that that is exactly what happened in the 1780's and '90's. From Goethe's amazement at the horizon's plane on his sole sea-voyage in 1787, to the concomitant 'see sickness' of that time, which provoked a rage of building-climbing, tower-building, and aerial ballooning, the urge to see one's self from the perspective once reserved for God and kings emerges as the fundamental drive from which the Panorama took its form. Unlike the elaborate stage-machinery of receding backdrops, which gave only the inhabitant of the Royal box a sense of true perspective from foreground to point of disappearance, the Panorama was truly a mass-medium, where anyone at the railing of the observation platform had an equal view in correct perspective of anything near or far that they might wish to observe. The affordability of the Panorama, and its place at the center of the new bourgeois avenues and parks of Europe's large metropolitan cities, gave it a demotic aura which persisted, even when monarchs and ministers came to 'take in the view.'

Frederick Birnie, Aquatint after Robert Barker's Panorama of London, 1792

The first subject of the first Panorama, appropriately enough, was Robert Barker's view of London from the roof of the Albion Mills, which debuted in 1791. That the inhabitants of London would turn out in droves to pay money to see a representation of the very city they could see for free every day becomes a characteristic trope of the Panorama's foundational doubleness, which if anything was only amplified as the eighteenth century faded into the nineteenth. Paris and Berlin soon boasted panoramas of their own, from which -- not unexpectedly -- one could see panoramic views of Paris and Berlin. And, since the canvas of these early Panoramas was, though weighty, still portable, they often went on tour, giving the inhabitants of one city a peek at another (Barker's London, indeed, was viewed by so many, and in so many places, that it eventually fell to pieces). Yet such civic navel-gazing was only the overture to the Panorama's most common subject, which was the depiction of battle; the Napoleonic wars gave rise to all manner of vast circles, including Barker's 'Battle of Waterloo,' his all-time best seller, and throughout the century there was scarcely a conflict, from the 'The defeat of the French at Devil's Bridge' (a panorama of which won Robert Ker Porter an offer to become court painter to the Czar in 1804), to the Crimean War and the U.S. Civil War, right up through the Boer War, which was not represented by at least a half-dozen panoramas.

From Castres' Panorama of the French Army Entering Switzerland, 1889

Like the famous New Yorker cover which depicted the New Yorker's perspective of the rest of the globe at far less than 'actual size' in proportion to the perceived (in)significance of its parts, Panoramas as a whole gave each nation, each city, a visual means of apprehending that which was most vital to itself. Panoramas thus became central to the emergent nationalisms of the nineteenth century, and were duly encouraged and supported by the State, both through official sanctions and patronage, and by the endorsements of military figures (many of whom were present at the engagements depicted, and conferred authenticity along with the imprimatur of their rank). And, at the farthest peripheries of vision, Panoramas secured that which was most distant and exotic to the staid citizens of one or another European capital. The Holy Land, the palaces of the Emperor of Japan, the crags of the Swiss alps, and the desolate icy wastes of the Arctic, all became as visually accessible as the view out one's own window. Charles Dickens, among others, poked lightly ironic fun at this phenomenon, creating a peripatetic character by the name of Mr. Booley, who had traversed most of the known globe -- following the Overland Mail to India, ascending the Mississippi River by steam-boat, and sojourning among the icbergs in Baffin's Bay -- all without leaving the confines of London's Leicester Square, or even exchanging his coat and top-hat for any more cumbrous clothing.

From Philippoteaux's Panorama of the Battle of Gettysburg

Oetterman notes all of this, though the question of nationalism ends up being unaddressed because treated as a given; the book, which after its introductory sections is organized into chapters by country, clearly takes such rubrics 'The Panorama in France' and 'The Panorama in Germany' as foundational, and does not analyze them further except via each chapter's occasional commentary on the perceived 'patriotism' of certain scenes. The downside of this organizational scheme is that the chronological development of the Panorama is diffused, and one must resort to flipping back and forth between chapters to get any sense of how the various topics and technologies moved across national boundaries. Yet Oetterman does take occasion, whenever a particular panorama raises a theoretical issue, to address it in a broader sense. For instance, in discussing Thomas Hornor's massive panorama of London painted for his London Colosseum, he notes that, on such a scale -- and Horner was so obsessed with verisimilitude that he slept on his scaffolding atop St. Paul's just to catch the morning light on distant buildings, which he sketched with the aid of a telescope -- the Panorama aspired not to artistic stance or synthesis, but to an encyclopedic gaze midway between that of some aeronautic insect and that of a real-estate sales agent. That viewers of this Panorama sought to pick out their own homes in the painting no doubt confirmed Horner's tastes, even as for some it relegated the Panorama to the domain of non-art.

This brings up what is perhaps the one theoretical shortcoming of this book, which is its insufficient attention to the questions posed to and about the Panorama by artists -- not only the older, aristocratic artists who preferred to model their landscapes on Fragonard trees and Lorrain hills, but to the generations of artists who grew up, as it were, in the Panorama's shadow. Oetterman relates some remarkable instances of the conflict between the two -- his account of how Gericault's Raft of the Medusa was upstaged in Dublin by the Marshalls' Moving Panorama of the same scene is particularly telling -- but does not comment on their implications except to say that they demonstrated a public preference for 'true' Panoramas over large easel paintings. Yet the plethora of such massive canvasses as the century progressed was surely a symptom of some of the same shifts of sensibility which the Panorama brought about, even as, by raising the stakes, a certain eventual obsolescence was guaranteed. In this regard, the attitude of those painters whose art flourished at these same moments -- such as Turner (whom Oetterman rightly but only briefly notes had an aesthetic quite antagonistic to that of the Panorama), Constable, or Frederic Edward Church (whose canvasses at times rivaled the Panoramas for spectacularity) -- would have been invaluable, but it is largely missing. There is a brief discussion of Caspar David Friedrich's interest in the Panorama, and its influence on his work, but it remains at a high level of generality. There is no mention of the fact that Friedrich's Arctic Shipwreck of 1823-4 was almost certainly influenced by Arctic panoramas by Antonio Sacchetti and Johann Karl Enslen which had appeared shortly before it, nor are either artist's panoramas discussed at any length.

© Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, used by permission

Man Standing in front of a Moving Panorama of the Arctic, circa 1850's

Such panoramas, in fact, as Sacchetti's and Enslen's Arctic Regions, are part of a broad category of shows that seem to evade Oetterman's careful research. The search for exotica, be it in far-flung regions such as China, Indonesia, or the North Pole, or in realms of the imagination, such as Burford's panorama of Milton's Pandemonium or the wildly popular Panorama of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress painted collaboratively by a group of American artists in 1850, was a recurring urge behind many of the most striking and sublime subjects brought forth under Panoramic pleasure domes. Yet none of these panoramas merits more than a brief sentence or two (if that) in Oetterman's study, as a result of which the reader receives the misleading impression that the bourgeois audience patronized an largely unvarying series of bourgeois subjects -- cities, wars, and alpine vistas. This effect is amplified somewhat by the relative paucity of advertisements, playbills, and broadsides (except in the chapter on the Panorama in the U.S.), and the reliance on quotes from art-journals and the middlebrow press, which gives the Panorama a strangely genteel air, far from the hissing gaslights, murmuring crowds, and garish broadsides that marked so much of its history. Such a history needs to be recovered and while the appearance of Oetterman's book in English is a tremendous boon, it also highlights the comparative neglect of the subject in the English-speaking world. With the exception of Ralph Hyde's Panoramania!, Richard Altick's Shows of London, and the (as of yet unpublished) dissertation by Kevin Avery on American panoramas, there have been no other book-length studies of the form in English -- a situation in need of considerable correction. When a series as vaunted as Hughes's American Visions can go with scarcely a mention of the most widely-attended public mode of art in the nineteenth century, the result is a history perversely skewed.

The strongest point of Oetterman's book, however, is in its attention to the technology of the Panorama, as part of its insistence that the Panorama was as much a technical as an aesthetic or artistic achievement. Oetterman's explanation of the problems of perspective on a panoramic surface is both readable and technically specific, and his discussion of some of the lesser known forms of the Panorama -- such as the moving panorama, the miniature panorama, the cosmorama, and the myriorama -- is thorough and precise. Oetterman is also unique in providing a truly panoramic sense of the Panorama as an international phenomenon. While it is not quite true, as the dust-jacket claims, that the subject has never been broadly treated in English (Altick's Shows of London, which includes detailed discussions of hundreds of panoramas, is in fact more comprehensive in regard to the panorama in England), it is certainly true that, until now, English-speaking scholars have not had access to a readily accessible account of the full efflorescence of the Panorama phenomenon, nor one which so comprehensively follows the major panorama painters and proprietors through the various developments in the medium. Oetterman's is also the first full-fledged brief of the theoretical issues raised by the Panoramic medium; while Foucault's exegesis of the implication of Bentham's Panopticon prison (which, Oetterman notes, emerged at almost the exact same historical moment as the Panorama) is familiar to almost any scholar in English or cultural studies, the Panorama remains obscure, even to many students of the nineteenth century, where its influence was so vast that it might well be called incalculable.

A prison designed along the lines of Bentham's Panopticon

To take only one example, the history of panoramas of the polar regions is as substantial, and as lengthy, as that of polar exploration itself. The earliest polar panorama was displayed by Henry Aston Barker at his father's establishment in Leicester Square in 1820, and depicted the exploits of one Captain Buchan, who along with his soon to be better-known young lieutenant, John Franklin, dared the ice near the Spitzbergen Islands in 1818. A moving panorama of the same subject was produced the year following by the Marshalls of Glasgow, and was succeeded on the continent by Enslen's and Sacchetti's polar panoramas, which were based on William Edward Parry's foray in search of a North-West Passage in 1820. In 1824, a semi-literate sea-captain by the name of Samuel Hadlock displayed two "Esquimaux Indians" and their household effects, polar-bear paws, and narwhal tusks -- mixed in with a strange array of antipodal relics from New Zealand (including the tattooed skin of a "Zealand Chief") -- at the Egyptian Hall in London, in front of a painted wall-panorama of icebergs in Baffin's Bay. Sir John Ross's expedition of 1829-33, on which he located the North Magnetic Pole, inspired two additional panoramas -- one at the Leicester Square Panorama painted by H.C. Selous, and a Diorama at the Queen's Bazaar which incorporated Ross's own watercolor scenes of his sojourns among the "Esquimaux." The disappearance of Sir John Franklin on his ill-fated voyage of 1845 inspired no fewer than five panoramas in England between 1849 and 1857, and the American Elisha Kent Kane's search for Franklin inspired four massive Arctic panoramas in the U.S., which featured a circus sideshow's worth of parallel attractions, among them a wax mannequin of Kane, a stuffed "Esquimaux dog," fur suits, and the wooden boat with which Kane's party had escaped their trapped ship -- not to mention "a variety of chemical and mechanical apparatuses," whose details were unspecified.

Various Kane panoramas toured the U.S. for over a decade; when in 1864 Frederic Edwin Church was looking for cities in which to display his monumental canvas "The North: Icebergs," he had to skip Philadelphia, for fear of being overshadowed by a massive Kane panorama, which the proprietor claimed was "the largest ever painted." The ubiquity of such panoramic shows, and their particular fascination with geographical and human extremities, combined with the effect of pictorial papers such as the Illustrated London News and Frank Leslie's Weekly Newspaper, constituted a vast and responsive theater of public spectacles, a "mass medium" quite literally in the sense that they brought a massive flow of the latest disasters, earthquakes, and train-wrecks to the hungering public eye, in the process shaping the very formation and definition of a "mass" audience. The fascination with polar exploration, which continued unabated into the early twentieth century, had been stoked for generations by these shows; it would be hard to find a Londoner, or for that matter a Philadelphian, who had not encountered his or her share of "Esquimaux" and icebergs in the 1850's, without ever venturing north of 60 degrees of latitude. Similarly, the regime of plantation slavery, the vast prairies of western North America, the battles of the U.S. civil war, and the imperial palace of the Emperor of Japan, were all "known" through their panoramic representations on both sides of the Atlantic, and formed, as much as newsreels in the 1940's or the Discovery Channel and National Geographic TV specials of today, part of the common stock from which an understanding of the world was drawn. The origin of the fascination with ostensibly "exotic" subjects, and the concomitant development of the wide range of stereotypes that underpinned colonialism and imperialism around the globe, and gave the British and American middle classes the sense that the world was 'their backyard,' must surely be sought in these shows, as much or more than in the printed texts -- such as Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which are so much more frequently cited by critics.

The U.S., treated in a chapter which fills only a few relatively brief pages at the end of Oetterman's treatise, was the grand capital of the panorama business in the latter part of the 19th century, as well as a major "exporter," as proprietors such as Banvard and Smith took their shows to England and Europe to packed halls. The portability of moving panoramas led them to dominate this trade, and while Oetterman touches on the best-known, he stops again at the most general level of description. And again, little of the sweat and sensationalism that accompanied these shows comes through. The latter part of the century receives particularly short shrift, even though in many ways it was the most fascinating chapter of the panorama's development (and the one which might call into question Oetterman's broad claim that the panorama ought not be seen as the precursor of cinema). As time wore on and receipts declined, panoramic shows moved from large rented halls to high-school auditoriums and church picnics, mixing in paintings of scriptural scenes and touting endorsements from area ministers of their 'spiritual and educational value.' Mark Twain, for one, could not resist poking fun at some of these entrepreneurs of visual upliftment, particularly when their accompanists (and no moving panorama from the 1820's onward was complete without music) took to adding their own all-too-vernacular glosses upon the ostensibly high moral tone of the pictures. The end-market for these shows seemed to last as long as the canvas held together, as the panoramas passed from one proprietor to another; finally reduced to tatters, they were more likely to vanish from use than from neglect, and very few have survived to the present day. Here and there, they were preserved by accident after being put into storage; a few years ago, curators at the York Museum and Institute in Saco, Maine, were surprised to find that the two moldering rolls of canvas in their basement turned out to by the once-famous "Bunyan Tableaux" or "Moving Panorama of Pilgrim's Progress." Painted by the cream of American artists, including Church, May, Kyle, Dallas, and Cropsey, along with the British painter H.C. Selous (long a regular at the original Panorama at Leicester Square), it was one of two full copies which toured the U.S. throughout the 1850's and beyond, making substantial sums for its proprietors, before eventually being sold and forgotten.

The very same audiences which had flocked to these panoramic shows, arrived to see the first generation of "moving pictures" -- first, by means of sophisticated magic-lanterns which could flip from one image to another ("dissolving-views"), and then by various "motion picture" processes. And the subjects were often similar, as when, in the wake of the Spanish-American war, American audiences were invited to tour "Our Newest Possessions," -- as were the claims made for these shows, that they offered "more information in two hours' entertainment than in many days reading." Oetterman is certainly correct in seeing the original Panorama as much a technological as an artistic phenomenon, but he seems unwilling to make the connection on either level to early motion pictures -- many of which, ironically enough, were displayed in the very buildings that formerly housed the panoramic shows that movies put out of business. And, while he can trace the desire for a 360-degree viewing experience as far as the short-lived "Cinerama" process, he implies that its demise meant the end of such efforts -- a conclusion that has since proved to be false, as IMAX technology has managed to succeed despite the technical barriers and enormous cost of projecting pictures upon a domed surface. Today, still newer technologies, such as the PhotoBubble and its cousins, offer miniature panoramic pictures of their own, residing upon the private screens of individual home computer users. Last year I happened upon an exhibit of these pictures at the New York Times's website -- and was amazed to see that one of their first offerings was a view of "Red Square" in Moscow -- which, except for the modern dress of the people in the image, might well have been a much-shrunken version of a nineteenth-century city panorama. Many of the offered subjects -- the Great Pyramids, the interior of the Titanic -- seemed to recreate the spectacularity of the panoramic gaze, while others, such as PhotoBubbles of apartment and house interiors used by real-estate agencies, seemed to finally fulfill he promise of Hornor's Colosseum panorama, that the bourgeois gaze be ultimately turned upon itself.

Yet despite its apparent aversion to anything which would unduly trouble the placid, viewable "horizon" opened up by the Panorama and its many avatars, Oetterman's book is still a welcome arrival. The vast procession of European panoramas, largely untold and difficult to trace with the resources of most American research libraries, is given at least a documentary baseline. The illustrations, high in quality and visual fascination, give a strong sense of the ways in which the Panorama shaped the public act of seeing, and having shaped it, satisfied it. The clearest view which it discloses, however, is that of a chasm -- the amnesiac cavity in the common understanding of the history of public visual arts which marks the place of the Panorama.

-- Russell A. Potter, Rhode Island College

Panorama Links

Bourbaki Panorama

Virtual Panorama Mesdag (requires QuickTime Plug-In)

Barker's 1791 Panorama of London from the Roof of Albion Mills (from the Bill Douglas Centre)

Mark Twain on the hazards of Moving Panoramas(from the Dead Media Project)

Scenes from the Gettysburg Panorama

Moving Panorama of Pilgrim's Progress (York Institute)

The C.C.A. Christensen Mormon Panorama (BYU Museum)

Other surviving Panoramas (from the Dead Media project)

A Panorama Bibliography (from the Dead Media project)