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Banvard's Panorama

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Landscape painters who sketch mountains and lakes have it easy. Their subjects fit so neatly into a well-proportioned frame of canvas.

In contrast, consider those painters who find their souls gripped by the Mississippi River. Their subject is a mile or two wide at the most, while its length, give or take a bend or two, is 2,500 miles. Such a subject requires a bit of American ingenuity.

And ingenuity it found aplenty in the 1840s in a teenager from New York, John Banvard. While working at St. Louis, Banvard made a trip out onto the Mississippi in a tiny skiff and was overwhelmed. He resolved in that moment, he said, to become an artist and paint the largest painting in the world as a tribute to the Father of Waters. With no prior instruction or practice in painting, he set out in 1841 to make sketches of the river, knowing only, he wrote, that his painting "should be superior to all others, in point of size, as the Mississippi is superior to the streamlets of Europe."

By 1846, Banvard had painted the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans in a canvas twelve feet high and, by his own account, three miles long. It was exhibited by unrolling it from one scroll to another to the accompaniment of a travelogue pointing out the passing scenes to seated audiences.

The huge success of Banvard's Mississippi Panorama in both America and Europe led to competition. John Rowson Smith soon exhibited a Leviathan Panorama of the entire Mississippi from the Falls of St. Anthony to New Orleans in what he claimed was four miles of canvas. At least three other competitors followed with even greater claims.

Today, not one inch of those miles of canvas exist. How could paintings that large disappear? There is some evidence that Banvard's was cut up for use as theater backdrops in Midwestern high schools. It might well be that when a South Dakota high school puts on the inevitable Our Town, the audience is really watching one of our towns—Clinton, Muscatine, Burlington, or Dubuque?

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.