Artistic Process, or, Why is there a Ghost Snake in Scene 24?

Over the past two summers it has become clear that the creation of The Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley wasn’t just a single event. As he painted the panorama, John Egan made numerous edits to his own work. We’ve already seen this editing process in Scene 17, which was inserted into the panorama at a later date and incorporates a different type of paint.

Another way in which we have learned about Egan’s artistic process is via his repainting of earlier work. Occasionally, Egan would return to paint over areas that he had already finished, in order to fix small errors or edit details. As the panorama suffered damage in later years, this outer layer of overpaint began flaking off, revealing Egan’s earlier work underneath.

Detail from Scene 24: Temple of the Sun by Sunset



The image above, from Scene 24, is a notable example of this process. Originally, Egan painted the snake with a taller, outstretched head, but for some reason decided to change the image to make the snake’s head lower. Flaking paint has now partially uncovered the original snakehead, creating ghostly double head above the snake’s body.

When encountering these areas, conservators and curators overseeing conservation need to decide whether to leave the artist’s edits in, or return the painting to its earliest state. Many factors can affect this decision: the degree of the original error, the quality of the overpainting, the state of preservation, etc. In the case of the snake, the Saint Louis Art Museum’s curators and conservators decided to leave both snake heads in because they show the artist’s process without detracting from the overall scene.

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