Tuesday, May 19, 2015

On a Long-Lost American Masterpiece, and Why Public Museums Matter

The Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress on view in Building 13 of the Pepperell Mill Campus, Biddeford, Maine, June 18, 2012. Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette, courtesy Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.

by Jessica Skwire Routhier, coauthor (with Kevin J. Avery and Thomas Hardiman, Jr.) of The Painters' Panorama: Narrative, Art, and Faith in the Moving Panorama of Pilgrim's Progress

You would think that an 800-foot-long painting, created by leading American artists and seen all over the United States in the 1850s, would be hard to lose track of. But in fact, that’s exactly what happened to the Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress, the subject of The Painters’ Panorama, new from UPNE this month.

By the time the panorama was rediscovered, in 1996, in the storage vault of Maine’s Saco Museum (then called the York Institute), no one had seen it for more than a century. Historians of panoramas, a kind of mass entertainment medium of the 19th century, as well as scholars of the Hudson River School painters who designed it—Frederic Edwin Church, Jasper Cropsey, Daniel Huntington, and others—were aware of its history and importance in their fields, and they often referred to it in their writings. But they invariably described it as “lost” or “unlocated,” never imagining that this enormous canvas, once the toast of New York and described by one excitable reviewer as “beyond exception the finest work of art ever produced in this country,” lay safe and untouched—albeit utterly forgotten—within the walls of one of America’s first-generation museums.

Land of Beulah, design attributed to Jasper Cropsey, from the Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress.

In fact, the reason we know much of anything at all about the Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress, beyond the historical fact of its existence and the newspaper accounts of its production and enthusiastic public reception in 1851, is that it was donated to a public museum. It’s a historical coincidence that just as panoramas were falling out of fashion—they were being replaced, in the second half of the 19th century, by magic lantern shows and other novelties derived from the alluring new art of photography—museums were being established all over America. As the U.S. passed the benchmarks of its 50th, 75th, and 100th anniversaries, and as American towns, especially in New England, passed even more impressive anniversaries (Saco was founded in 1636), citizens were inspired to create institutions that would preserve their history and artifacts that embodied it.

At the Saco Museum, which was established in 1866, the founders (which included John Johnson, co-inventor of the world’s earliest commercial camera) were also aware that the technological inventions of their time would bring permanent, global change to the way that we work, make things, and look at the world. They knew that the artifacts of the past, or indeed of their present, would not necessarily be the artifacts of the future. The museum’s earliest formal collections therefore included not only art and historical artifacts, but also geological and natural history specimens as well as technological gadgets, including Johnson’s 1839 camera.

“The Splendid Moving Mirror of the Bunyan Tableaux!” Polytechnic Institute (location unknown), circa 1857. Collections of the Dyer Library and Saco Museum, Saco, Maine. Gift of Kathleen M. Swaim.

So in 1896, when the Bryant family of Biddeford (Saco’s sister city across the river) approached the Institute with the gift of the Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress (or the “Bunyan Tableaux,” as it was then frequently called)—which had been hanging, neglected, in a family barn for a generation or more—the trustees were probably intrigued by it less as a work of art than as an artifact of American entrepreneurship and innovation. Indeed, in the sparse documentation that exists for the gift of the panorama, there is no indication that anyone at that point remembered that the panorama was associated with major American artists—not even Frederic Edwin Church, who was still very much alive at the time and widely revered as a living patriarch of American landscape painting.

Perhaps this explains why, apart from an apparent exhibition or performance within a year of its donation, the panorama was rolled up, tucked away, and soon forgotten. A century’s worth of museum directors, curators, and trustees must have picked their way around it in the storage vault, assuming that it was nothing more than rolled-up dropcloths. Finally, in 1996, then-curator Tom Hardiman (a co-author of The Painters’ Panorama) decided that it was time to finally take those aging bolts of fabric to the dumpster—but he’d better just look at them first to make sure they weren’t anything important.

You might say, at this point, that “the rest is history”—but to do so might imply that what came before was somehow not history. One of the most engaging things about the panorama is its rich and complex relationship to history, from the work of 17th-century English literature that provides its title and subject, to the simultaneous rise of American art and theater in the pre-Civil War years, to the advancements in travel and textile production that meant it could feasibly be presented to audiences all over the United States, to its quiet berth and century-long sleep in one of America’s earliest public museums, to that same small museum’s extraordinary efforts in 2012 to restore and reinterpret it for a new generation and a worldwide audience—efforts made possible, notably, through advancements in video-sharing technology and digital photography.

Jacob Dallas, Joseph Kyle, and Edward Harrison May, The Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress (detail), 1851, distemper on muslin, Saco Museum, Saco, Maine. Gift of the heirs of Luther Bryant, 1896. Photo by Matthew Hamilton, Williamstown Art Conservation Center; photo splicing by Portland Color.

The Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress was created as a teaching object; its Christian message was meant to positively influence those who came to see it (find out more about the book The Pilgrim’s Progress here). To many, those ideals are no less important today than they were in 1851. However, in its current form and context the panorama also provides a broader illustration of the world and human experience—the “humanities,” if you will. It is, for instance, lasting evidence that art, religion, entertainment, technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship are not mutually exclusive endeavors, not then and not now. The panorama gives physical, material weight behind the ideal that these passions and pursuits can exist together, not only in a single, remarkable artifact from a specific moment in time, but also—significantly, satisfyingly, and enduringly—in our public museums.

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