This week we have a special guest post by Janeen Turk, senior curatorial assistant for American Art, who provided curatorial oversight for Restoring an American Treasure. I asked her to talk about how panorama paintings were used in the mid-19th century.
As you may know from earlier blog posts, moving panoramas were very long strips of cloth painted with a series of scenes. (The Museum’s panorama is 348 feet long and 7 ½ feet high; it features 25 scenes, each about 14 feet wide.) They were shown to audiences on two upright rollers positioned a set distance apart. The strip was rolled from one roller to the other, so that the painted scenes would pass in front of the rapt audience.
Scene 12 has been conserved, and the conservators have begun work on Scene 13 – Prairie with Buffalo, Elk, and Gigantic Bust on the Ledge of a Limestone Rock; Spring Creek, Texas. Its centerpiece is a massive stone figure carved into a rock face next to a river. Buffalo gallop in the background, while two elk enjoy the view by the river’s edge.
The Museum’s conservators have already uncovered new information about this scene. After flattening out the creases and examining the scene more closely, they discovered that the dark lines in the stone figure’s forehead – previously assumed to be wrinkles – actually form a third eye. This area was one of the first to be retouched, so visitors to the exhibition can now clearly see the extra eye.
Like several other scenes in the panorama, Scene 13 is highly fanciful and likely has little grounding in reality. There are no known archaeological sites that resemble the stone figure, and attempts to find the “Spring Creek, Texas” named in the title have been unsuccessful. It is likely that Dickeson heard rumors about such a monument and included it as an oddity in his lectures.
This scene reveals the collaboration between Dickeson and Egan. Dickeson, the commissioner, likely requested an image of the stone bust, based on something he encountered during his years as an amateur archaeologist. Egan, the artist, embellished the scene with elaborate foliage, buffalo and elk, and a vibrant sunset.
The scene should be on view for about a little over a week. Come and see the progress!
It is the mystery, the impenetrable mystery veiling these aged sepulchers, which gives them an interest for the traveler’s eye…
Regarded by some as a pioneer of American archaeology and by others as a snake-oil salesman, Montroville Wilson Dickeson is a fascinating figure. In reality he was probably somewhere between the two extremes, a man who genuinely loved learning about America’s ancient past but who also saw the value in putting on a show for the public.
When you visit Restoring an American Treasure, you might hear some unfamiliar words and phrases thrown around. Here’s a handy guide to help you talk like a conservator.
- Conservation: The restoration and preservation of works of art.
- Consolidation: The process of re-adhering loose paint to a canvas. Conservators spray a gelatin solution on the panorama to consolidate the existing paint.
- Distemper: A type of paint made by mixing pigment and an animal-based binder. Used frequently in the 19th century, distemper has a matte, dry-looking appearance. The panorama is painted with distemper.
- Friable: Easily crumbled or reduced to powder. The paint on the panorama has become friable over time and needs treatment to remain stable.
- In-Painting: The process of re-coloring areas of a painting that have lost their pigment. The conservators of the panorama use watercolor crayons for their in-painting.
- Toned: Stained with color. In some areas of the panorama where paint has been lost, the canvas has been toned with the original color. This helps the conservators determine what colors to use in their in-painting.
- Overpainting: The process of painting over areas that still have original paint. Conservators often use overpainting to correct or clean up areas of earlier restoration.
Hear or read any other puzzling words? Ask about them in the comments!