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Panoramania in Rochester

Panoramania in Rochester

In the mid-19th century, Rochester, like much of America, found its entertainment in moving pictures. Not the film-based attractions that would be developed in the early 20th century, but variants of panoramas and dioramas.

The first panoramas were developed in England in the late 18th-century, and were housed in multi-story rotunda adorned with canvases on the walls and 3-dimensional “false terrain” at the bottom, creating the illusion of an all-encompassing landscape for visitors who viewed these scenes from the center of the building. These monumental early panoramas often featured views of exotic scenes and military battles.

In 1822, Louis-Jacques Daguerre (later known for his invention of the daguerreotype, forerunner of photography) invented a variation, the diorama. Visitors seated on a rotating platform viewed a pair of monumental transparent watercolors with ingenious lighting effects. Both the original panoramas and dioramas were housed in fixed buildings, which limited their geographic reach. Although both were known to tour, the tours were necessarily limited, with long runs in any location.

Image of a moving panorama from Scientific American, Vol. 4, Issue 13 (December 16, 1848), page 100By the 1830’s “moving panoramas” made their way to the United States. These more compact panoramas married large scale paintings with the craft of stage spectacles, with a mechanism which was designed to roll the canvases from one side of the stage to another. Moving panoramas were designed to be viewed in auditoriums or venues with a proscenium to hide the mechanism. Promoters would routinely boast of the length of their canvases and the extravagance of the stage effects.

The Conflagration of Moscow

On August 12, 1834, the Rochester Daily Democrat advertised that Messrs. Waugh were to present an “Exhibition of Paintings & Mechanism” which displayed several landscapes, including a view of “Mount Etna, in Eruption” which featured a “high pressure Steamboat in full operation.” A “Chinese Kaleidescope,” unrivalled “for brilliancy and beautiful changes,” played in the Interlude, followed by the “Conflagration of Moscow.”


The Moscow Conflagration was created in 1813 by the Austrian showman John Maelzel, who had been in Moscow in October 1812 when it fell to Napoleon’s troups. This complicated panorama included facades of churches, castles and the Kremlin, all of which appeared to blow up and fall down; causeways & bridges over which Russian and French armies could be seen to move; and extensive sound and lighting effects. While much of the panorama was automated, it reportedly still took over a dozen people to perform it. Maelzel brought the panorama to American in 1827, and it was widely copied. It returned to Rochester in April 1855.

Mississippi River Panoramas

On August 15, 1839, Miss Hayden, an itinerant magician, showed the Conflagration of Moscow at Rochester’s National Hotel in combination with an early panorama of the Mississippi River, probably that created by John Rowson Smith and Richard Risley, which was seen in Boston in 1839 or 1840. Many of the moving panoramas included lecturers, “professors,” or other showmen to describe the scenes as they progressed before the audience. An editorial stated that Miss Hayden “is an American lady, and the only one who has attempted these wonderful and mysterious illusions in such a pleasant and agreeable style as to elicit general admiration and applause.”

An 1846 Mississippi panorama by John Banvard was credited with reviving interest in panoramas abroad and creating a decade of “panorama fever” in America during the 1850s.

Sacred Panoramas

Panoramas and dioramas on biblical themes were also popular. “Parker’s Sacred Diorama,” about which little is known, visited Rochester on 12/30/1842. Local artist Eugene Sintzenich created a “Holy Land Panorama,” which was exhibited on August 5, 1851. Unfortunately, as with much of the artist’s work, it remains unlocated. Later that year a “Creation and Deluge” diorama by the Hanington Brothers was shown in the Concert Hall. Another sacred spectacle to visit Rochester was based on John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which was on view in the Concert Hall in October 1853.

The Pilgrim’s Progress diorama that visited Rochester was the work of noted easel painters, and included at least one scene designed by Emmanuel Leutze, which identifies this version as a rival to the earlier “Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress,” which happens to be one of the few panoramas still extant today. They Behold the Fate of the Apostate, design by Joseph Kyle and Henry Courtney SelousThis earlier Pilgrim’s Progress panorama was based upon designs by important artists including Frederic Edwin Church, Jasper Cropsey, Felix Octavius Carr Darley and Daniel Huntington. It opened in New York in 1850, and travelled to rave reviews for 15 years before being donated to the York Institute Museum (now the Saco Museum) in Saco Maine, where it was lost to view for 100 years. Re-found in 1996 and conserved in 2012, the panorama can now be watched online in a digital reconstruction on the Museum’s website.

Arctic Panoramas

Like the Pilgrim’s Progress, there were many variants of “Kane’s Arctic Panorama,” which came to Rochester in September 1859. America’s interest in this subject dated to Britain’s tragic Franklin expedition which unsuccessfully searched for a Northwest Passage from eastern Canada to Alaska. The expedition (1849-1851) became icebound, with no survivors; it is now clear that some men and officers reverted to cannibalism in their last days. The fate of the expedition was a matter of much media speculation, both in the press and via panoramas, and British and American vessels were directed to search for the ship.

Beechy Island-Franklin's First Winter Quarters, illustration by J. Hamilton after a sketch by Elisha Kent KaneElisha Kent Kane was a physician who was on the American Grinnell Expedition, which was the first to find a trace of Franklin’s men: three graves. Kane’s dispatches drew considerable media attention, and in an effort to fund a later expedition, he published an illustrated account of his experiences which became a bestseller. He commanded the 2nd Grinnell Expedition, which set out in May 1853, and was feared lost until contact was restored in October 1855. America’s first arctic panorama opened in Washington D.C. in September 1855, with scenes based upon the illustrations in Kane’s book. Kane’s reappearance brought him a hero’s welcome, and the panorama reaped the benefit in attendance. With Kane’s unexpected death in February 1857, rival arctic panoramas soon sprung up, touring the country with souvenirs brought back from the arctic.

Travel via Panorama

Panoramic trips to Europe, virtual “Grand Tours,” were also popular. In 1859 Rochesterians were able to vicariously travel to Italy through Samuel Bell Waugh’s panorama, the “Mirror of Italy” (the first scene of this portfolio has been preserved by the Museum of the City of New York).

In December 1862 a panorama of the Holy Land by Louis Duflocq came through Rochester, having been shown in Buffalo the previous month. Panorama 918.27.1_UN.189.2d_scAn even more exotic trip was Russell & Purrington’s “Whaling Voyage Around the World,” which probably came to Rochester in 1862. Created based on Russell’s experiences aboard a whaler, and roughly contemporaneous to Melville’s Moby Dick, this panoramic journey started in New Bedford, travelled to the Azores, to Brazil, around Cape Horn to the South Pacific, then north to Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest, then southwest toward Australia and eventually back around the Cape of Good Hope, ending rather oddly at the island of St. Helena, where Napoleon had been exiled. This panorama is being conserved by the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Panoramas and American landscape painting

In August 1850, the Rochester Democrat and Advertiser announced that artist A. Oakley had been commissioned by a group of Penfield citizens to paint a Hudson River panorama. The paper reported that “a building was erected to put up the canvas, which is several miles in length.” It noted that the canvas, designed for travelling exhibition, had been completed up to Hyde Park, and was expected to be completed up to Troy by the Fall.

Both panoramas and mid-century American landscape painting were large scale and dramatic. We know that many Hudson River School painters, starting with Thomas Cole, worked with themes that directly or indirectly were also seen in panoramas of the time. Like the panoramas, many of these large scale paintings toured the country and were exhibited with an admission fee charged. Panoramas such as Pilgrim’s Progress utilized designs by artists affiliated with the National Academy. As the century progressed, fewer panoramas were seen in Rochester, replaced in part with Stereopticon or Magic Lantern lectures.

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