Henry Lewis

Apr 1, 2021

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The Mississippi River and history have this in common: neither one always goes where you want it to go. That is why a young man who set out in 1848 to paint the most American painting in the world ended up instead with a book of lithographs of the Mississippi River printed in German.

Henry Lewis was already an artist living in St. Louis in 1842 when John Banvard unveiled his panorama of the Lower Mississippi painted on three miles of canvas. Banvard showed his painting by unrolling it in front of audiences, accompanied by a travelogue. Its success created a panorama craze in America which caught Henry Lewis in its frenzy. Lewis determined to paint and even more American painting—which is to say, larger. He planned to do the entire Mississippi from the Falls of St. Anthony to New Orleans, on four miles of canvas—a painting better by a mile than Banvard’s.

Lewis built a houseboat-studio on two strong canoes, equipped with small sails and heavy oars, and named it "Minnehaha." In good weather, he sketched scenes along the shore from the roof of this studio—the towns, the geographical features and all the sorts of river craft in his sketches.

Lewis's "Great National Work," as he called it, soon moved Banvard into second place, but like all other panoramas, it eventually vanished mysteriously. Lewis took it on tour to Europe, sold it to a Dutch planter who took it to India and then to Java, where it disappeared.

Lewis, meanwhile, joined an art colony in Dusseldorf, Germany, turned some of the sketches he had made for his panorama into eighty colored lithographs which were published as Das Illustrirte Mississippithal (The Illustrated Mississippi Valley) in 1854. Today, these casual chips of the artist's great life work form the most beautiful book we have of our river valley. Done as an afterthought, a by-product, they are worth their weight in gold.

Now go back to all those class notes you took in college and look carefully at the doodles in the margins you made during lulls in the lectures. Twenty-five years later, they may be worth more than the notes you took.

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