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The panorama, Greek for "all-sight," was "a large painting arranged in a circle that produced the illusion of an actual landscape surrounding the viewer" (Avery 53). Immensely popular in the nineteenth century, “[i]t was a vast circular representation of objects, where the eye reached to a horizon, and there being no limit, the illusion was complete” (Foucand 94).

Bottom-Right Image: The diagram of a panorama (Grau 367).

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A patent dated June 19th, 1787 is granted to Irish “portrait-painter” Robert Barker of the city of Edinburgh for an invention “called by him La Nature à Coup ď Œil, for the purpose of displaying Views of Nature at large, by Oil-painting, Fresco, Water-colours, Crayons, or any other Mode of painting or drawing.” Literally “The Nature of the Blow of the Eye,” the patent notes that “this invention has been since called the Panorama” (Barker 165). That Barker’s technique is not merely a new, page-bound perspective for two-dimensional markings but an interdisciplinary experience necessitating particular reception is apparent in his introductory sentence: “my invention…is intended, by drawing and painting, and a proper disposition of the whole, to perfect an entire view of any country or situation, as it appears to an observer turning quite round” (emphasis added; 165). The remainder of the document describes the proper construction of the building in which a panorama painting may be displayed, discussed in depth below.

Synthesis of Artistic Disciplines

Although the head painter or designer would be heralded in print for each individual work, the panorama effect, as hinted above, cannot be achieved through pictures alone. Teams of artisans working in a variety of fields are required to coerce depictions into the three dimensional world and complete the illusion through the careful construction of visio-spatial syntax.


The panorama essentially consisted of a large, circular building approximately sixty feet high and one hundred feet across. A gated observation platform stood at center of the room (at the intersection of the room’s x and y axis); the floor and false terrain worked to together to cover the bottom frame of the presented scene while a conical or umbrella shaped roof extended beyond the deck below, effectively shielding both the light sources and the painting’s top edge from view. Barker describes this “shade or roof” functioning to “prevent an observer from feeling above the drawing or painting , when looking up” and the bottom parts as preventing the observer “from feeling below;” through this duality of “interception nothing can be seen on the outer circle, but the drawing or painting intended to represent nature” (Barker 167). The platform can only be reached from below by a staircase "or in the 1830s at Reghent's Colosseum, in London's first hydraulic lift" after navigating a series of dimly lit corridors functioning like those of contemporary theaters, to let one’s eyes “adjust to the low level of light inside the rotunda” ( Wood 102, Oettermann 49). These corridors were entered after obtaining entrance in the building’s front, and many sources have mentioned them as being disorientating and thus adding to sensory shock that occurs upon entrance into the rotunda.

The platform's gate and floor, along with the ceiling, can be considered some of the entire devices tics or "pops and hisses." It would be here that the viewer, no matter how engrossed in the exhibit, would be recalled from complete immersion. It also should be noted that although particular architectural constructions attempted to frame one’s vision to only see the distant painting, this effect occurs naturally for one who looks out at a panoramic view due to the physical limits of the human sensory receptors, what Uexküll call a subject’s “umwelt;” even boundless space retains the umwelt’s fringe. Though I have encountered no proof as such, the overhead roof which vertically narrows one's viewpoint may also be examined as an extension of the ever-present hat-brim for both men and women of C19. Many cross section views of panoramas include visitors moving through them with hats on their head—in this instance, the over-hang would only serve as disguise of light sources.

Sketching and Painting

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(Oettermann 49)

Encoding techniques of panorama painting differ from those used in pictures viewed in more traditional, gallery environments. An 1863 guide to visual arts explains that “These pictures are intended to be viewed at from a distance, and consequently the lines must be bold, and the contrasts of light and shade very apparent. . .the pupil will notice that those parts which look harsh and coarse when closely examined, are the very portions which give character to the picture when viewed from an appropriate distance” (Urbino 65). Furthermore, instead of a single focus point which eyes could be led towards, the panorama required a multitude of interacting points that led vision around, back and forth, and up or down. The canvas itself could weigh four tons, covering six thousand square feet.

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(Avery 66)

A variety of dead and remediated devices used in eC19 by artists to capture accurate preliminary sketches were employed by panorama artists as well, including the grid based “Alberti’s veil,” or the more expensive camera obscuras and lucidas. To sketch the full 360 degree viewpoint, these devices were rotated and modified; 1803 saw the invention of a panoramagraph, while a curved ruler added to a camera lucida “made it possible to correct in advance the distortions in perspective that would occur when the sketches made on a flat surface were connected and bent into a cylinder” (Oettermann 52). Daguerreotypes and magic lanterns were also used for sketches and their subsequent projection onto a gridded panorama canvas for tracing. Other developments included sheer ingenuity on the team of artists’ part, such as rolling scaffolding around the room to make grids or attaching pencils to “a bamboo pole about fifteen feet long” so that an artist could sketch from the viewing platform; “Anyone standing in front of the canvas. . .cannot tell whether a line is straight or not. . .The curvature. . .means that all lines have to be drawn curved if they are to appear straight” (54).

In spite of this, Oettermann notes that advertisements for panorama "would mention that the creator had used no mechanical aids whatsoever in his work. This made the final illusion achieved seem all the more impressive and also represented a bow towards the prevailing aesthetic theories of the day, which condemned paintings made with mechanical aids as "inartistic"" (52).

Sculpture and 'False Terrain'

Historical accuracy and realism of battles or other scenes were of utmost importance because the panorama’s goal was to present an actual viewpoint that existed in the world. Painted and built verisimilitude was achieved through detailed, on site analysis of light and shadow during the time of day depicted reconstruction of plant life, geological formations, and co-temporary clothing and buildings. Oetterman says that “It would be demanded by the public. . .visitors would be military history buffs, and some might have taken part in the battles. . .aristocracy and landed gentry would know all the breeds of horses shown, ladies would note details of clothing, and sailors would point out errors in the masts and rigging of ships” (52). Stage and theater setting techniques and illusions were employed, covering the floor below the observation deck and extending into the painting. Certain sculpted representations that met the wall required existence in both the two dimensional and three dimensional world; half-sculptures and wooden silhouettes would emerge from the painting, and appear as a whole from the viewing platform.

The Experience

"Seasickness" & Perception

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The "Panorama Mesdag" in the Hague (Sillevis 767).

Walking into a panorama meant more than just standing in front of a painting, even though the panorama’s focus was placed upon a large circular painting. Panoramas were created with the intentions of illusion and deception, meant to cut off spectators from the outside world and fully engulf them in the scene before their eyes. Whereas, with typical paintings, the viewer would still be wholly aware of his or her immediate surroundings, such was not the case with the panorama. The spectator was intentionally faced with and surrounded by the unfamiliar. In most cases, viewers were first led through a dark or dimly lit corridor before entering the panorama. Whether this was meant to situate viewers’ eyes to new lighting (like in movie theaters), ease them into a new “world,” cut them off from reality, or prepare them for impending shock is unclear (perhaps all of these were intended).

One thing that is clear, however, is the mental and physical shock that overcame viewers upon entering the panorama. From the initial corridor, the viewer would ascend a spiral staircase and enter the panorama from the center of the room. Immediately, the spectators were literally encompassed by the medium. In addition to the massive painting surrounding them, viewers were also met by intense lighting and occasionally sounds and/or music, depending on the scene that was being depicted (Sternberger 5). The “real” disappears beyond the panorama – all that’s left is reality depicted upon a circular canvas, and the effects were mentally and physically taxing:

"I am swaying between reality and unreality…between truth and pretense. My thoughts, my whole being are given a movement which has the same effect as spinning or the rocking of a boat. Thus I explain the dizziness and sickness which overcomes the concentrated onlooker in the panorama” (Eberhard 175).

For most viewers, the effect described above was compared to seasickness – the nausea and dizziness that arises from the “rocking of a boat.” Here, we can see the mental effects of the medium (“swaying between reality and unreality”) lead to physical effects (“dizziness and sickness”). This overall disorientation can be attributed to a number of things: the initial corridor, the spiral staircase, the sudden illumination and circular sensation of the panorama, the separation from reality and immersion into hyper-“reality.” In many ways, these effects are the “pops and hisses” of the panorama: the material qualities of the object (corridor, staircase, circular encasement) unintentionally enter into the medium’s system of representation, and somehow enhance its semiotic meaning. Because of these material qualities, the onlooker becomes physically dizzy, but simultaneously falls into the trap of illusion that is intended by the panorama. Even though the panorama’s “pops and hisses” are not enjoyable, they would ultimately lend to the optical tricks leading into overall illusion.

These effects were not blindly accepted, however: “the panorama was criticized mainly for psychological reasons. It was argued that the illusion could result in an inability to perceive reality” (Grau 367).

Theatrics of the Panorama

As noted in the previous section, after traveling through a dark winding hallway, the patron ascends to the middle of the floor of the panorama. The process of entering in the center of the room seems to add to the theatrical effect of the panorama. By entering at the center of the room, one is completely immersed at once by the scene painted upon the wall. But is it truly necessary to come into the scene from the middle? Why is it that a spectator can not enter from a trap door on the side of the panorama that melts back into the landscape? What is it about this middle of the floor opening that makes it so unique? The entire notion of the panorama seems to center on the idea of entertainment from the suspenseful walk through the mysterious corridor to the elevation to the middle of a seemingly “new world.” These characteristics build on the idea of the panorama as a means of escape and entertainment. It seems as if these aspects are functional nonsense and yet vital to the viewing of the panorama. In order to be completely immersed in the image one has to enter from the center of the room. But one could also still experience the panorama by entering it from the side of the room just in a different way.

Perhaps these traits of entertainment lead to why the building of the panorama would also hold trinket shows. One advertisement from 1797 describes the other items on display at the panorama including “a grand automaton bird-cage clock for 500 dollars (contains the Canary and Bulfinch bird that sing as perfect as living birds show all the motions of life), fine paintings, a large collection of American butterflies and other insects in frames, and elegant pair of chandelier with burnished gold arms and candle sockets for 100 dollars” (Advertisement 2).

Bourgeois Eyeball? Structuralist Precedent?

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Examining the etymology of the word “panorama,” Oettermann notes the almost instantaneous movement of the word from its technical origins around 1787 to a broad and metaphorical term indicating “a kind of pattern for organizing visual experience” introduced (sometimes before the technical term) into all European languages by 1800 (7). In opposition to a dissertation by Sune Lundwall that argues for the understanding of panorama in terms of earlier epochs, Oettermann is interested in situating the panorama in its actual historical context to frame the apparatus as as an aid “for teaching and glorifying the bourgeois view of the world” (7). Contrary to modern dictionaries and the almost immediate appropriation of the word into other discourses which suggest that the style of painting occurred as a natural extension of a pre-existent consciousness and vision, Oettermann argues that “the panorama is instead the pictorial expression or “symbolic form” of a specifically modern, bourgeois view of nature and the world” (7). This argument is poignant in face of period and more contemporary usage, in which actually occurring landscapes are described as stretching out before one ‘like a panorama,’ effectively exchanging the real for the symbolic and framing a discursively constructed mode of vision as objective.

The panorama’s “thrilling novelty”, however, was rejected by most European cultural elites (Wood 104). In his 1845 memoirs, Englishman John Constable Esq. says that in 1803, “Panorama painting is all the rage” but “great principles are neither expected nor looked for in this mode of describing nature, also noting art patron Sir George Beaumont’s remarks that “Panorama painting has been injurious to the taste, both of the artists and the public, in landscape” (Leslie 18). Gillen D’Arcy Wood explains some of this elite rejection of the medium and certain mimetic art through close readings of Wordsworth (who had encountered a panorama and speaks of generally panoramic viewpoints at length), Milton (and thus Satan’s biblical instantaneous panoramic revelation of kingdoms to Jesus in the desert), and various others; their hesitance is perhaps generalized best as “class anxiety surrounding the rise of modern visual culture,” “a culture dominated by popular taste for technologically engineered documentation of the visible world—a culture we currently inhabit— was clearly evident at the panorama. . .the lyric poet permanently marginalized” (Wood 120, 119). Wood further sees “a pictorial subject of even greater fascination for the bourgeoisie: themselves” (not noting the elite culture’s similar fascination), for in cityscapes, one may locate one’s home or workplace, known places—“As a popular destination of for curiosity seekers from all social levels, the panorama was a place not only to see and be seen, but to see oneself” (119).

Writing about the Eiffel tower in 1964, Roland Barthes also argues that the “panoramic vision” afforded is a “new perception, of an intellectualist mode” in which “the Tower. . .gives us the world to read and not only to perceive. . .to see things in their structure. . .concrete abstraction. . .a corpus of intelligent forms.” A visitor “spontaneously distinguishes separate—because known—points—and yet does not stop linking them, perceiving them within a great functional space…we try to recognize known sites. . .knowledge. . .struggles with your perception, and in a sense, that is what intelligence is: to reconstitute, to make memory and sensation cooperate so as to produce in your mind a simulacrum” (242-43). The smooth continuity of the picture engages us in a struggle to distinguish signs within it, something described by Oettermann’s panoramic visitors critiquing the accuracy of a painting. His conclusion about the Tower speaks to the true duality of C19 panorama, that while observing a plethora of sights and circumstances, one is actually totally surrounded by walls, encircled by a gated platform: “one can feel oneself cut off from the world and yet the owner of a world” (250).

The Moving Panorama & "The Obvious" in Both Forms

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Moving Panorama Advertisement for Purrington & Russell's Original Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World. Exhibition at Amory Hall, Boston, 1849 (Avery 54).

The moving panorama was a remediation of the original panorama that, in many ways, served as a sort of “bridge” in between the panorama and cinema. Like the cinema, it displayed images on a "reel" that was rotated across a screen and hidden behind a curtain, but these images were panoramic, painted in the tradition of those displayed in circular panoramas at the same time. But while the moving panorama came after the panorama and before cinema, it did not last longer than either; its short lifespan was between 1846 and 1870 (Avery 52).

Avery describes how the moving panorama functioned:

"The continuously rendered topography was painted usually in distemper, a water-based paint, on long strips of linen or cotton that ran to hundreds or even thousands of feet and were stored on large cylinders. The painting was exhibited by drawing the cloth from one cylinder to another via a hand-operated crank which also turned a pulley with hooks that supported the cloth being displayed. With the cylinders, machinery, and hooks concealed behind a proscenium-like frame , only the painted image was visible; occasionally, stage props, such as the tuming wheel of a steamboat, were attached to the frame to enhance the illusion that the viewer, not the painting,was in transit. Invariably, a lecturer was on stage to describe the scenery as it passed, and often the performance, frequently lasting for two hours, was accompanied by music keyed to the dramatic character of each scene, played on a pianoforte or harp, sometimes punctuated by vocal passages performed by a local singer" (Avery 52-53).

The very first moving panorama originated in Britain in 1820, and “this art form typically illustrated landscape scenery as though perceived from a moving vehicle, such as a boat or a train” (Avery 52). Immediately, the “obvious” of the panorama and moving panorama reveals itself. The panorama reached its peak during the Industrial Revolution, when the popular taste for travel had been rapidly expanding. The idea of a large painting encircling the viewer, creating the illusion of an actual landscape, caters to this fondness for travel – this thirst to see and be in new places. The moving panorama in particular responded to the increasing availability of rapid transportation – the notion of looking at an illusionary landscape as though sitting in a moving vehicle speaks to this very clearly.

Analog vs. Digital

Although the panorama can be thought of as an attempt to make representations of nature truly visually analog, framing one's sensorium, the artist still must make a single discrete selection from the continuum of human experience.

Formal Prohibitions

While the people who can "write" this medium are limited to males who could paint, sculpt, and build, what's interesting to note is the democratic nature of viewing a panorama. There's no "front-row-center" or "VIP" seating - in a circular panorama, where everyone is at equal distance from the "text" on all sides, everyone gets a fair viewing. Two spectators can stand back to back and see the same piece of art.


Early advertisements for the panorama refer to it as new type of entertainment. It is typically listed under the classified/ news blurb sections of the newspaper. The advertisements note being able to escape and learn about a place that may be foreign. One advertisement from 1797 notes that a pamphlet would be handed out while viewing the panorama so that one could pick up bits of information and history of the area that they are viewing in the image (Advertisement). This advertisement in particular was for the panorama of Charleston accredited to Mr. Winstanly. Another means of marketing these panoramas was through editorial reviews. A review from 1805 analyzes the work of panorama artist R. K. Porter who specialized in battle scene images (Fine Arts).


Digital Camera Settings

Digital cameras often enable a photographer to take multiple, successive snapshots of a landscape that may then be "stitched" together with computer software. While this language may come from any number of textile based synthesis procedures, Oettermann notes that weaving mills could not produce single canvases large enough for panorama painting, making it necessary "to sew together a number of strips approximately nine feet wide" (54). The cinematic term and technique of horizontally “panning” has also been linked to the experience and etymology of panorama.

Virtual Reality

Most real estate websites now advertise 360 degree interior views of homes. These images are essentially panoramas as a camera is placed in the middle of the room and pans around the area depicting every angle. The real estate shopper is therefore placed in a similar position as the visitor to the 19th century panorama. This technique is also used for marketing of hotels, schools, nursing homes, and other attractions that benefit from making an online visitor feel like they are actually on location.

Virtual reality rooms and headsets also attempt to “transport” a player into another world. The player’s vision is all encompassed by the headset or room leaving them no choice but to assume allusions as reality. The spherical or total allusion transports one’s vision to another setting. Modern virtual reality gamers report many of the same complaints as viewers at the panorama. They complain on nausea and dizziness, which is now referred to as simulator sickness.

The Panorama's Demise: Destroying a Medium

Today, the panorama is seen as “belonging to the world of odd nineteenth-century amusements, prepared for a public in search for optical illusions and sensations” (Sillevis 766). It is not surprising, then, that the panorama fell into utter obscurity in light of the cinema; the panorama’s intentions were “so much better realized in the era of the cinema” than they had been on their own (Sillevis 766). Once film rolled around, the decline in appreciation for panoramas was “sudden and in most cases final” (Sillevis 769). Sillevis also addresses the fact that “research on panoramas has become rather difficult,” since there are only an estimated twenty panoramas left in the world (769). But what’s interesting to note is the process by which panoramas were shelved as a dead medium: “Most panoramas went bankrupt, they were sold and cut to pieces, or simply destroyed” (Sillevis 769). Panoramas, therefore, were made dead in the most literal sense of the word – they were “killed,” chopped up, with no hope for resuscitation. This, of course, could be attributed to the sheer scale of panoramas. Unlike many dead media, the panorama relied on its architecture: a large, circular room, a floor and a ceiling, with enough space between the viewer and the painting to make the illusion most believable. Without the structure, the panorama was useless, and without money, the structure wasn’t possible. Cinema audiences abandoned the panorama almost immediately, which must mean that the drop in profit for panoramas was equally as sudden and steep. It is no wonder, then, that bankrupt panorama owners destroyed the media in such a drastic manner.

Modern Remnants

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Moving Panorama. The Garibaldi Panorama being digitized by Brown University. (Brown).

Brown University announced in September that their Library and Department of Italian Studies are working together to digitize the Garibaldi Panorama (a moving panorama) and make it a part of Brown’s Digital Library. Dr. James Walter Smith donated the moving panorama that depicts Giuseppe Garibaldi’s life story to Brown in 2005. Librarian Harriette Hemmasi notes that the panorama is “an important and largely ignored part of our cultural heritage in a vital way” (Garibaldi). This specific moving panorama was a doubled sided watercolor. Brown intends to take the numerous digital photographs and put them together to present it as one continuous image online. The University will also provide a text version as well as a recording of the original manuscript narration in either Italian or English.[1]

A more well-known panorama exists at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Vanderlyn Panorama of the Palace and Garden of Versailles, which opened on October 11, 1956. The Museum's Bulletin, "Other Museum Activities," from October 1957 cites it as "the oldest American panorama painting known to have survived in its entirety." But while this is the closest remnant of the original panorama, a key difference is that the spectator enters from the sides, not the center, making the separation between either "end" of the panorama obvious. It is not a full circle; the same effect is not achieved.


  • "Advertisement 2 -- No Title. " Weekly Museum (1791-1805)8 Apr. 1797: 0_004. APS Online. ProQuest. NYU.
  • Avery, Kevin J. "'Whaling Voyage Round the World': Russell and Purrington's Moving Panorama and Herman Melville's 'Mighty Book.'" American Art Journal, Vol.22, No. 1. Spring 1990, pp. 50-78.
  • Barker, Robert, “Specification of the Patent granted to Mr. Robert Barker…Called by Him ‘La Nature à Coup ď Œil,’” in The Repertory of Arts and Manufactures: Consisting of Original Communications, Specifications of Patent Inventions, and Selections of Useful Practical Papers from the Transactions of the Philosophical Societies of All Nations, &c . &c. Vol. 4. London: 1776, pp.165-167.
  • Eberhard, J.A. Handbuch der Ästhetik. Translated by Oliver Grau. Halle, Germany: Hemmerde and Schwetschke, 1805. Part 1, Letter 28, p. 175.
  • Foucaud, Edward. “The Book of Illustrious Mechanics of Europe and America.” translated by John Frost. D. Appleton & Co., New York: 1847.
  • Grau, Oliver. "Into the Belly of the Image: Historical Aspects of Virtual Reality." Leonardo, Vol. 32, No. 5, Seventh New York Digital Salon. 1999. pp. 365-371.
  • Leslie, C. R. “Memoirs of the Life of John Constable Esq. R.A.: Composed chiefly of His Letters.” Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, London: 1845.
  • Oettermann, Stephan. “The Panorama.” Zone Books, New York: 1997.
  • "Other Museum Activities." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 16, No. 2, Eighty-Seventh Annual Report of the Trustees for the Fiscal Year 1956-1957. (Oct., 1957), pp. 71-74.
  • Sillevis, John. "The Hague. Panorama Mesdag, 1881-1981." The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 123, No. 945. Dec., 1981. pp. 766-767, 769.
  • Sternberger, Dolf. "Panorama of the 19th Century." Translated by Joachim Neugroschel. October, Vol. 4. Autumn, 1977. pp. 3-20.
  • THE FINE ARTS. Review. (1805, May). The Port - Folio (1801-1827), 5(20), 156. ProQuest. NYU.
  • Uexküll, J. von. “An Introduction to Umwelt.” tr. Gösta Brunow. “Niegeschaute Welten.” Berlin, 1936.
  • Urbino, L. B. and Henry Day. “Art Recreations: Being a Complete Guide to Pencil Drawing, Oil Painting. . .” J. E. Tilton and company, Boston: 1863.
  • Wood, Gillen D’Arcy. “The Shock of the Real: Romanticism and Visual Culture, 1760-1860.” Palgrave, NY:2001.