On John Banvard: Because Life is Short and Art is Long

John Banvard (1815-1891) was an American pioneer. Not the kind that shoots, and forages, and clears trails. Although the geography of the natural landscape was part and parcel of what he did.

A painter by trade and by training, Banvard is best known for creating a half-mile long panorama depicting a trip up the Mississippi Valley. He advertised this unique work as being three miles long. The river is of course 2,340 miles long, so what his painting really depicted was scenic highlights. The panorama was a kind of scroll, with a cranking mechanism that allowed for the an ever changing sequential display. (Theater for the New City uses such a device in their annual Street Theater productions). Banvard began showing and touring with his panorama in the 1840s, and thereby became one of the richest men in the country. His flair for showmanship makes him rare among visual artists (as compared with theatre artists, authors and the like). But if you think about it, his presentation in its way was more akin to the exhibition of MOTION pictures, where showmanship of his sort is quite common. He later added the Nile and the Holy Lands to his repertoire. He built a mansion on Long Island, and started a museum in New York City. But many of his gambits failed, and he finally went bust in the Panic of 1877. He lived out his remaining years with a son in South Dakota.

Despite his great fame in his own time, Banvard is nearly forgotten today, though there are numerous books and articles about him available. I learned about him from my friend West Hyler, who cowrote a musical about him entitled Georama.