Though largely forgotten today, John Banvard was probably the best-known artist of the 1850s. He was born in Manhattan in 1815, but after his father's death and the resulting family financial catastrophe, he moved to Kentucky in 1831. There he worked first as a store clerk who annoyed his boss by chalking caricatures of customers, and later as a sign painter who would also paint portraits.

In Louisville, he met William Chapman, who owned America's first showboat. Banvard worked as a scenery painter for about a year and then tried to start his own theater in Ohio. It failed, and back in Kentucky he started painting scenery for others. At this time he also started experimenting with "moving panoramas" -- huge pictures on rolls of canvas that could be cranked from side to side like a giant scroll. His first sales were panoramas of Venice, Jerusalem, and "the infernal regions" -- this proved there was a market for these 100-foot paintings.

Banvard then decided to take on a much bigger project; he wanted to do a portrait of the Mississippi River. He had traveled up and down the river a lot already, but in the spring of 1842 he took another trip, sketching from St. Louis to New Orleans. It took two years just to complete the sketching trip.

In 1844 he settled down to make the actual painting in a barn in Louisville. He had to devise a system to keep his huge lengths of canvas from sagging (this was later patented and profiled in Scientific American). In 1846, his 15,840 square feet of painting was ready to show to the world, along with the lecture he gave as the picture was cranked for the two hours it took to go through all of it. His June 29 opening did not draw a single person; Banvard had to give free tickets to passengers on ships docked at Louisville before word of mouth started to spread about his work.

Gradually, the moving panorama was such a success in Louisville that in November Banvard took it to Boston, then the center of the arts in the U.S. He commissioned piano music to accompany the show and lecture, and would later publish a pamphlet to go along with the whole idea. It was a massive success; John Greenleaf Whittier named a poem after the panorama and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow used it as the inspiration for the setting of Evangeline, as Longfellow had never actually been on the Mississippi. The work was advertised as the "Three Mile Painting," though Banvard admitted that this was quite an exaggeration of its 2000 foot-length.

With success came imitators. Banvard took the original to New York City and then England to compete with the panoramas that had been put in those places; in 1849 Queen Victoria requested a special showing. Panoramas in general were so popular that Artemus Ward parodied them in Artemus Ward, His Panorama.

Banvard then produced a painting of about the same size as the original, but depicting the western bank instead of the eastern one of the Mississippi. He toured with the new one while another narrator had charge of the old one. He took it to Paris, and traveled for inspiration in the Middle East, producing panoramas of Palestine and the Nile. By 1852, he was rich enough to build a castle on Long Island for himself, his wife (formerly his piano accompanist) and children.

With artifacts collected in his travels, Banvard decided to open a museum in New York. The problem here was the competition -- P.T. Barnum. Though Barnum's exhibits were not as interesting (nor as authentic) as Banvard's, Barnum was unarguably the better at advertising. Ten weeks after it opened, Banvard's museum closed. Banvard also wrote plays, but none were successes and the last two he wrote were plagiarized from other works.

Eventually Banvard and his wife had no more money. They sold the castle in the early 1880s and moved to South Dakota where their son had settled. Banvard wrote and published poetry and a book with his shorthand system, and also spent his time doing one last painting, though his eyesight was failing: "The Burning of Columbia." The destruction of the capital of South Carolina during the American Civil War was a great subject, and Banvard ran the whole moving panorama show himself. But there just wasn't enough audience nearby, and it was a failure.

Banvard died in 1891, and his obituary attracted attention from those who remembered his name. Some of his paintings did end up in museums, but the largest ones were cut into pieces, used for theater backdrops or even house insulation. However, his work, for sheer size if nothing else, has earned him a place in trivia if not art history. There's even a children's play about him.

Collins, Paul. Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck. New York: Picador USA, 2001.

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