Edwin A. Urich Museum of Art
Wichita State University, Wichita, KS
The Grand Moving Panorama: Pilgrim's Progress (1851)
January 20 - March 5, 2000
The Grand Moving Panorama: Pilgrim's Progress (1851), opens January 20, 2000 at the Edwin A. Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University. The five-hundred foot long painting will be installed in the Museum's Polk and Wilson Galleries. The exhibition, which was organized by the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey, concludes its national tour at the Ulrich Museum.
In 1851, the panorama toured the east coast of the United States to popular acclaim. John Bunyan's seventeenth-century Christian allegory Pilgrim's Progress was widely read among nineteenth-century Americans, and audiences flocked to see the moving illustrations of the novel. Originally, the panorama was mounted on two large spools, and a crank served to transfer the canvas from one spool to another. As such, the images unfolded before the audience, activating the narrative visually in a manner similar to modern motion pictures. The images themselves may have been familiar to the audience as well, since most were based on paintings by notable American artists such as Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and Daniel Huntington. The Ulrich Museum's painting by Thomas Cole, The Cross and the World: Study for Two Youths Enter Upon a Pilgrimage - One to the Cross, the Other to the World, 1846-47, is included in the exhibition as related material. Cole had planned a series of paintings on Pilgrim's Progress before his death in 1848. (left: Mercy Faints at the Wicket Gate, Panorama Slide #49, courtesy of York Institute, Saco, Maine)
The Panorama of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress was presumed lost for a century until it was rediscovered in the basement of the York Institute Museum in Saco, Maine in 1996. Two 200 foot long sections of this monumental canvas (originally 8 feet high and about 1,200 feet long) have been conserved for this exhibition.
Moving panoramas, as opposed to the stationary type, were especially popular during the mid-century Age of Panoramas. With metal beads at the top and bottom, the huge painted canvas moved through metal tracks powered by hand cranks, and was unrolled from giant wooden spools. In darkened theaters, meeting houses, and churches, audiences witnessed a "motion picture" revealed scene-by-scene before their eyes. Adding to the illusion, the approximately two-hour-long spectacles were often accompanied by piano music and narration. (right: Mercy's Dream, Panorama Slide #53, courtesy of York Institute, Saco, Maine)
In the presentation of Panorama of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, the narrator would have described John Bunyan's seventeenth-century allegory, which ranked second only to the Bible among conservative Protestants in the nineteenth century. Pilgrim's Progress traces the path of Christian, and later his wife, Christiana, who flee the evil City of Destruction to find salvation in the faraway Celestial City. En route, the pilgrims endure arduous tests of faith but also experience moments of encouragement. As one newspaper account of the 1850s reported, the viewer can follow the pilgrims "through the Slough of Despond and the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and the City of Vanity Fair, and by the Cave of the Giant Despair, and through the beautiful Land of Beulah, up to the Gates of the Celestial City." Although Bunyan's religious intent is not in keeping with our own secular era, his parable can be interpreted more generally as a voyage of life, in which good triumphs over evil.
In effect, Pilgrim's Progress is the ancestor of renowned cinematic "quests" much like the Wizard of Oz or the Star Wars trilogy. While panoramas were a tremendously popular form of entertainment 150 years ago, Pilgrim's Progress is the only one to have been painted by artists with academic backgrounds. In turn,the panoramic arts had a great influence on landscape painters of the time, such as Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt , whose monumental works doubled as theatrical events. Although its extreme fragility prevents the panorama from being viewed in its original moving format, it is incredible that it exists at all. Remarkably, we can witness close-up this virtually extinct genre which made such a profound impact on both nineteenth-century culture and art.
The exhibition closes on March 5, 2000 and will be presented in conjunction with the conference Image and Text: American Creativity and the Relationship between writing and the Visual Arts, January 21-22, 2000 with guest speakers Professor Charles Eldredge and 1999 Pultizer Prize winner Mark Strand.
RL editor's note:
For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
The Edwin A. Urich Museum of Art and its Outdoor Sculpture Collection is located at 1845 Fairmount, Wichita State University. T (information as of 1/00)
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