Editor's note: The following essay was written in connection with the exhibition Restoring an American Treasure: The Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley, on view at the Saint Louis Art Museum June 8 through September 3, 2012. The essay was published online in Resource Library on August 13, 2012 with permission of the Saint Louis Art Museum, which was granted to TFAO on August 10, 2012. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Saint Louis Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley: The Last of the Mississippi Panoramas

by Janeen Turk


During the mid-19th century, moving panoramas proliferated as a popular form of visual entertainment. These long strips of painted canvas were mounted on two vertical rollers and wound from one roller to the other so that a series of scenes scrolled past a gathered audience. The Mississippi River was a popular subject for such panoramas, and many examples toured throughout the United States and Europe. Heavy use and the physical stress of transport took their toll on these massive works, and now only one Mississippi River panorama survives: the Saint Louis Art Museum's Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley.

The story of this panorama begins with Montroville Wilson Dickeson (1810-1882). Dickeson, a medical doctor and amateur archaeologist, left his home in Philadelphia and spent a number of years during the 1830s and 1840s traveling through Mississippi and Louisiana, conducting excavations of the ancient mounds in the region. He made drawings and notes about what he saw and amassed a collection he described as including "40,000 relics."

When he returned to his native Philadelphia, Dickeson began giving lectures about his adventures in the West. He hired the artist John J. Egan to paint a massive panorama which served as a visual accompaniment to these lectures. The multi-scene panorama includes views of the prehistoric burial mounds Dickeson excavated as well as sensationalized versions of historical events that occurred in the region and of the daily life of Native Americans.

Although Dickeson did not paint the panorama himself, his drawings and recollections served as the basis for some of Egan's work. And he would have had the final say in the details of its composition, since each scene needed to suit the stories and reminiscences he planned to relate as he presented it. For example, scene 18 shows mounds on the Ferguson Plantation, positioned on bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River. Dickeson explored these in the summer of 1846 and would have been able to offer a firsthand explanation of the mounds' arrangement. At the base of one of the mounds, Dickeson's excavation is underway, carried out by plantation slaves. Additionally, the cypress trees near the river correspond to illustrations accompanying an article Dickeson co-authored for Lotus magazine titled "On the Cypress Timber of Mississippi and Louisiana."

Other scenes owe more to creative license than to Dickeson's personal recollection. The second scene was labeled as "Circleville Aboriginal Tumuli; Cado Chiefs in Full Costume; Youths at Their War Practice." The position of the mounds and earthworks corresponds to nineteenth-century descriptions of the Circleville, Ohio, site, but the representation of the Native American group is much more fanciful. First, the Caddo tribe did not reside in Ohio. Furthermore, the figure at left is based on an earlier depiction of a member of yet another tribe, which did not live in Ohio either.

In every case, the scenes are broadly painted in saturated colors and calculated to accommodate the position of Dickeson's audience -- gathered in a crowd and seated at some distance from the scrolling painting. Sweeping gestures and dramatic lighting further heightened the theatricality of the experience. Egan sought to keep the audience's interest by representing a range of weather phenomena including storms, snow, a tornado, and a rainbow.

The panorama remained in Dickeson's family after his death, until 1899 when his brother sold it to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The Saint Louis Art Museum borrowed the panorama for a 1949 exhibition about the Mississippi River and then finally purchased the work from the Pennsylvania Museum a few years later.

Restoring an American Treasure: The Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley features the in-gallery conservation of the Saint Louis Art Museum's moving panorama as well as drawings and artifacts from Dickeson's collection, held by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The exhibition is curated by Janeen Turk, senior curatorial assistant, with conservation by Paul Haner, paintings conservator and will be on view in the Museum's main exhibition galleries from June 8 through September 3, 2012.


About the author

Janeen Turk is senior curatorial assistant at the Saint Louis Art Museum.


Resource Library editor's note:

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Tessa Cheek, Communications Assistant, Saint Louis Art Museum, for her help concerning permission for publishing online the above essay.

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