Bright Lights Film Journal

The Lost Films of the 1840s: The Mississippi River and the Tradition of Proto-Cinema

“The unrolling of the canvas was timed to take around two hours, with the speed of movement simulating the experience of drifting on a steamboat down the river itself. Lit by gaslight, the presentation was accompanied by the delivery of a lecture by a narrator, an episodic commentary that ranged from the didactic to the purely entertaining. The exhibition was often joined by piano accompaniment, the score composed specifically for the painting and even made available for purchase after viewing. In some cases, as the scene moved, stage crews would manipulate lighting to simulate sunrises and sunsets, daylight and darkness.”

People gather in the dark, taking their seats before a blank screen. The lights begin to dim. Music plays and the screen begins to move, displaying a series of scenes that glow dreamlike in the flickering light. The year is 1845. The screen is the canvas of a vast painting, being slowly revealed, one scene at a time, between two massive spools.

The tradition of the magic lantern, and how it influenced the imagination of many cinematic pioneers, is well known. Tracing even further back the phenomenon of shared illusions projected through darkness might lead us to the experiences of our Neolithic ancestors. The idea that cinema’s most ancient relative was born in the flickering legs of a horse painted on a cave wall has been examined explicitly in such films as Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and even referenced indirectly through a retelling of Teutonic myth in front of a campfire in the otherwise far from subtle Django Unchained. Far less well known, however, is the phenomenon of the “river panorama,” a particular method of exhibition for a particular method of painting that flourished in the United States between the mid-1840s and the 1850s.

The panorama was not unique to this period or the subject of the Mississippi River. Massive paintings, often hundreds of yards long, were exhibited across Europe and the Americas throughout the 19th century. In Europe, the subjects tended toward the cities of the Old World and historical events such as the cannonades blasting the harbor of Tripoli during the Barbary Wars or the 1812 burning of Moscow. Audiences moved from one scene to the next, history divided into observable sections. With the canvases of the “cosmoramic view” too large for most existing galleries, it was not uncommon for entire buildings to be created simply to display them. In certain cases, the paintings would be affixed to the walls of a rotunda, in the center of which spectators stood on a moving platform. Encircled by the painting, they were moved along the stretch of the canvas. Scenes were juxtaposed for maximum dramatic impact, but the overall exhibition amounted to little more than the combined effect of a series of individual paintings. The canvas’ size was a charming curiosity, and the presentation was novel, but the experience could not be described as inherently cinematic.

Meanwhile, the audiences of the United States preferred the iconography of the expanding frontier, the landscapes and upstart cities of the newly opened west. Common scenes included southern plantations and sleeping northern towns, Indian wars and rolling farms. Between 1846 and 1849, St. Louis alone saw six such panoramas exhibited. And there was no better symbol of this territory in the 1840s than the perceived western edge of the country, the already mythically endowed Mississippi River. The river was, along with the other subjects of the paintings, a symbol of a wild country waiting to be tamed, the personification of the then popular idea of manifest destiny.

And just as the American approach to the panoramas stretched their symbolic importance, so too did the presentation of their exhibitors. It is unclear who first displayed a painting on rollers mounted on opposite sides of a stage. It was a decision born of economic necessity. Given the difficulty of finding locations large enough to display their creations, the artists and exhibitors of the panoramas found a far more accessible number of venues capable of fitting the piece if it were unrolled one scene at a time. Able to be shown anywhere, as opposed to their centralized European counterparts, the American panoramas were seen in theaters, churches, riverboats, and even outdoors. The unrolling of the canvas was timed to take around two hours, with the speed of movement simulating the experience of drifting on a steamboat down the river itself. Lit by gaslight, the presentation was accompanied by the delivery of a lecture by a narrator, an episodic commentary that ranged from the didactic to the purely entertaining. The exhibition was often joined by piano accompaniment, the score composed specifically for the painting and even made available for purchase after viewing. In some cases, as the scene moved, stage crews would manipulate lighting to simulate sunrises and sunsets, daylight and darkness.

The creation of the paintings was often as cinematic as their presentation. Henry Lewis was a former stage set builder from Boston, his education as a painter fostered through exposure to the creators of the stage paintings in the St. Louis Opera House. Inspired by these depictions of dungeons and mountains, forests and oceans, Lewis opened a small studio in 1845, quickly gaining prominence as a respected landscape painter. Lewis was soon drawn to the subject of the Mississippi River, and likely inspired by the success of the panoramas of the day. He organized multiple scouting trips to gather sketches for his planned work, the most ambitious of which involved the construction of a floating studio. He constructed a platform between a pair of Native American canoes, on top of which he built a cabin. Within he stored bunks, supplies, weapons, food. He called his vessel the Mene-ha-hah, from the Dakota word for “rapid water.” He took with him a crew of three, as well as a correspondent from the St. Louis Post Dispatch. Lewis was 29. The journey took five weeks.

Lewis attracted considerable attention as he moved down the river, crowds gathering on banks and levees to observe his strange vehicle. In the image of the Mene-ha-hah, one can see the faintest shadows of Edison’s Big Black Mariah, the room constructed on rails to capture the procession of light in the primordial days of true moving pictures. We are reminded of contemporary cinematic river journeys taken by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and, once again, Werner Herzog. Something in the river draws a kind of manic ambition, a desire to create something so large that it encompasses its very subject. When Herzog attempted to move a steamboat over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo, he did so out of an admitted need to overcome what was likely an impossible task. Ironically, there seems less madness inherent in Lewis’ journey, but his ambition rings of the same level of hubris. In the 1840s, the Mississippi was the vein of a new nation, a modern superhighway that drew immigrants and entrepreneurs. Its currents bore constant traffic, staggering commercial tonnages driven by thousands of steamers and flatboats. Its conquering was a rock in the shoe of many of the overly ambition figures of the era, from industrialists to artists. In the coming decades, the river’s southern sections would be wildly reshaped and straightened. But for Lewis and the other creators of the panoramas, there was a draw to its untamed curves that inspired a passion so intense, the only way to properly express it was by channeling the unborn spirit of cinema.

Fittingly, there is a preexisting cinematography to the movement of a river, a steady flow that simulates a kind of unbroken tracking shot. Perhaps the audiences of the panoramas experienced something similar to the phantom rides of early motion picture exhibition, in which cameras were attached to the fronts of trolley cars or some other moving vehicle. And Lewis represented only one approach to the subject. In its brief life, the proto-cinematic form of the theatrical panorama channeled a wide range of artistic sensibilities.

Shared across the range of these differing artistic ambitions was a propaganda of landscape that predates the German mountain films and the American western by nearly a century. Though there were slight differences of depiction (for example, some painters were scornful of Native Americans while others depicted them as proud and mythic), the role of the panoramas as recruitment tool was unmistakable. From depictions of industrial progress to scenes of communal resilience overcoming the daunting wilderness, there was the common theme of growth, everywhere the signs of nascent occupation. Farmland looked fresh and verdant, untouched and rife with endless potential harvests. Steeples rose from tall bluffs while the black smoke from steam boats spoke of unfettered expansion.

In the case of Lewis, though the finished work has been lost, preliminary sketches survive and indicate the compositions of its scenes.

Lewis knew his audience would likely be unfamiliar with the geography of his subject, and so he aimed to create for them an experience of being on this wild and mysterious body of water. To serve these ends, he depicted topography in exacting detail, if not accuracy, as well as current events and incidents from national news and history. Sections of his panorama depicted the 1832 Battle of Black Axe, which marked the end of the Black Hawk War, as well as the Great St. Louis fire of 1849 and the New Madrid earthquake of 1811. Lewis also sought to depict river life in such a way as to draw potential settlers. Savannah, Illinois, was depicted as a town rising up from still dense vegetation, patrolled by steamboats, a tiny symbol of the country’s ability to overcome its own massive size and carve out a god-granted legacy.

Oddly, Lewis left out the people. Those who were depicted were shown as tiny dots, dwarfed by the landscape. He omitted the teeming details of life, the children in the streets and the crowds along the banks, the people fishing and waiting for the ferries. He included forts and omitted prisons, depicted the plantation of then president Zachary Tyalor but left absent the hundreds of slaves who worked there. The river was rife was drama, and Lewis could have painted lynchings and floods. But he was an artist seeking to affirm, not to titillate, and so his scenes were impersonal, almost pious, more intending to advertise a lifestyle than to lure with scandal. The view was distant, unparticular.

Contrast this with John Banvard’s Three Mile Painting. While its title was hyperbolic — though still massive and averaging around half a mile long, no panorama ever neared a length of three miles — Banvard’s appeal was immense. He toured Europe well into the 1850s, exhibiting his work before Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens long after other panorama painters had lost popularity. Where Lewis was controlled, Banvard was theatrical. While Lewis hired narrators, Banvard narrated his painting himself, spreading an image of his own river travels to rival the scenes of the work themselves. He billed himself as a self-taught hero of the frontier, bantering with the audience as he unveiled scene after scene. Even as Banvard gained renown for his theatricality, his rival, John Rowson Smith, toured under the veneer of historical veracity. Smith’s ambition was didactic and educational, his reputation destroyed when Mississippi writer and artist George Catlin declared his images to be fraudulent.

As evidenced by Smith’s failure in the face of geographic scrutiny, the panoramas demonstrate the presence of editing and selective cutting. For, unlike a painting isolated by a frame, the “directors” of the panoramas had the ability to juxtapose their images. With an audience captive in the dark, they were free to use lighting, sound, and image to manipulate emotions. When Lewis traveled to Cincinnati to compile his many sketches into a painting, he hired numerous ghost artists, including scene painters, architects, and men who would go on to become panorama painters themselves. The five contributing artists attempted to create the impression that the work was devised by one man, with Lewis determining the basic sequence of scenes, their color palate, and brightness. Lewis divided his work between two separate canvases, one for the lower and one for the upper sections of the river. Using over a mile of canvas in total, Lewis had the ability to pick and choose details freely from hundreds of miles of river. Unrestrained by the need to contain a message within a single image, he could link tragedy with hope, horror with resilience. He removed boats from one section and depicted them in another, while choosing color hues that contrasted with those of preceding images.

It is impossible to say for sure what some of these specific transitions were or may have looked like, as Lewis’ work was lost following his subsequent retirement in Germany and failure to find a buyer for the canvases. However, we can find the same simple edits present in the surviving work of painter John J. Egan, The Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley, as commissioned by Montroville W. Dickeson.

In one sequence of panels, Egan and Dickeson move us from tranquility to sadness and ultimately despair, then relieve us with a comedic episode. In the painting’s ninth image, an amber sunset blazes behind a series of manmade lakes and burial mounds. There is an absence of human life, the mounds sadly echoing the rainbow and lakeside Native American community of just a few images previous. There is a sense that something has passed, but the mood is tranquil, the light still blue upon the water.

The next scene darkens, depicting the beginnings of night around a settlement of Native Americans. A woman carries a child on her back while men cluster around the light of a struggling fire. Pale, skinny children are barely visible beyond the flaps of tents. In the distance can be seen a non-native settlement, the houses white, the roofs peaked.

The next scene is an explosion of nature, the burst of a storm overcoming the struggle of a family as they crouch beneath raging storm clouds and the broken branches of trees. This is the tornado that threatened Jackson County, Missouri, in 1844, and man’s efforts to civilize the landscape seem futile in the face of it. In the background, a Native man clings desperately to the grass. It is the most despairing image we have seen, the bright colors of a few scenes past long forgotten, replaced by harsh greens and blacks.

Then the sky brightens, the trees find their leaves, and a comical figure darts across the center of the image. A pack of wolves pursues him as he makes his way toward a ruined cabin. Though the situation is deadly, the scene is depicted in bright colors, the man’s movements exaggerated for clownish effect. A likely rebuke of the practice of squatting in abandoned homesteads, this comic interlude serves to alleviate the feeling of the audience. After four slides of deepening dread, the panorama deposits us once more into the light, preparing us for an ensuing sequence of landscape, war, and pastoral communion.

In this sequence of images, the panorama displays an awareness of editing that would not be realized again until well into the development of moving pictures. We can imagine the audience sitting in the dark, moving from one emotion to the next at the behest of the narrator, the rising and falling of lights, the transitions of the score. They were, as we are today, being manipulated through the process of cutting. The experience of viewing a painting in a gallery is dictated by the viewer. No image is inherently influenced by any other, as they can be moved between in any order and seen at any pace. But in the movement of the panorama, viewers’ exposures were both out of their own control and, perhaps more importantly, shared. It is not impossible to imagine a couple, together in the dark, experiencing the heightening of emotions that would so terrify censors in the 1920s. Likewise, the creation of these massive paintings was governed by the same selectivity of image and mise-en-scène that would one day inform the unique language of cinematic juxtaposition and editing.

The panorama, sadly, shares one additional thread with its cinematic descendants. Just as the majority of films created in the first half of the 20th century have been lost, so too have all but the single surviving panorama mentioned above. One was abandoned in Cuba. Another was sold, shipped to Asia, and lost on its way to Java. Leon Pomarede exhibited his Original Panorama of the Mississippi with billows of smoke to simulate the full power of steamboat boilers, leading to a predictably fiery demise while being exhibited in New Jersey. As the panorama craze waned, Banvard returned to the states a wealthy man, opening a museum and creating additional panoramas of the Holy Land and the Nile. He repainted his panorama of the Mississippi to reflect current events of the Civil War, after which the piece went into storage for a decade. By 1881, when he attempted to display the picture again, the format’s popularity had waned, as had the allure of the Mississippi. The frontier had moved on, pushing the world’s edge with it. Following more financial ups and downs, and a final tour of a complicated moving diorama displaying the burning of Columbia, South Carolina at the end of the civil war, Banvard settled into retirement and put the panorama into storage. It was one of the few possessions he had managed to salvage. His grandson would later reflect upon playing on it as a child, an immense roll twenty feet long and six feet thick. Upon Banvard’s death in 1891, the family discarded the painting. After years in storage, the canvas had rotted. According to local legends passed on to historian John Frances McDermott after the end of World War II, the piece may have been salvaged from the dump, its remaining sections separated and used to paper the walls of a local building. It could still remain, hidden under layers of plaster, waiting to be uncovered. But until tangible evidence comes to light, this work must be considered entirely lost as well.

What remains, however, is the unique emergence of a distinct cinematic art form that predates even the popular use of photography and, in many ways, predates the editing sophistication of early films. The Mississippi panorama makers were, through the limitation of their medium, forced to use techniques of editing that would take the pioneers of cinema decades to realize. Unlike Edison’s kissing couple or the Méliès brothers’ factory workers, the subjects of the panoramas were free to inform through juxtaposition. The painter’s “camera” was free to track and pan through space in ways that would have been too jarring for the audiences of cinema’s first exhibitions. And, in the combination of lighting and music, these works were presented in ways that viewers of the mid-19th century would have had no idea would one day become the world’s leading purveyor of popular entertainment.