Come with me to St. Louis, Missouri – 1849. Allow me to take you to “the movies,” courtesy of the starving young artist and business entrepreneur, Henry Lewis.
It’s the evening of Friday, August 31, 1849, and the upper crust of society has gathered at The Concert Hall in St. Louis for the “preview” performance of Lewis’ Mississippi River Panorama. In the crowd this evening are select newspaper reporters, and “those who are most familiar with the scenes, and are likely to be the best judges of its fidelity.”
The panorama will open to the public the next day (Saturday, September 1st), at half-past seven. The admission price for the almost two-hour program will be fifty cents for adults and twenty-five cents for children. For an additional 10-cents you can also have the illustrated guide book with the extra long title:
A Description of Lewis’ Mammoth Panorama of the Mississippi River, from the Falls of St. Anthony to the City of St. Louis; Containing an Account of the Distances, And Settlements of the Country; the Names and Population of the Various Cities, Towns and Villages on the River, with Historical Remarks, and Compiled from Various Authentic Sources.
The early reviews were encouraging. What impressed many is that unlike other Mississippi River panoramas that only show one side of the river, Lewis gave its viewers both. “By an almost magic power,” the New Era writes on September 3rd, Lewis has “drawn before you both banks, and you have, at a single glance, the enchanting and life-like scenery as it appears on both sides.” As it turned out, Lewis’ St. Louis engagement played before “very full rooms” in “the city where he first applied pencil to canvas” until September 26, at which time, Lewis took his panorama on the road.
Over the next three years (1849-1851), Lewis exhibited his Great National Work in cities and towns across the East (New York, Boston, Maine, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Richmond, Washington D.C., and Boston) as well as Canada, before heading to Europe in the fall of 1851. He carefully chose his itinerary in order to avoid appearing in the same cities and at the same time as the other Mississippi River panoramas that were flooding the market. FYI: Five other shows came to St. Louis between 1846-1849!
In Europe, moving panoramas were mounted on the walls of a rotunda. Viewers sat or stood on a platform that moved them around the still canvas that encircled them, as if they were traveling past the landscape on a train. American audiences, however, wanted to sit still while the scenes moved past them, just as one does in a movie theater. Thus, the enormous canvas was fastened between two rollers. The audience watched as it was gradually and steadily unwound from one roller and wound onto another. As the scene glided before the audience’s eyes, a stage crew manipulated the lighting to simulate sunrises and sunsets, daylight and darkness; a lecturer delivered a didactic, episodic commentary while a pianist played. Audiences in local opera houses and auditoriums were enthralled.
In truth, the moving panorama of the mid-nineteenth century was the earliest form of “motion pictures.” And just like today, the competition to capture the greatest audience was fierce indeed. While Europeans wanted to see Old World cityscapes, ancient and contemporary battles, and coronations, Americans craved contemporary landscapes, especially of their own western frontier, which was quickly opening to Euro-American settlement. Capitalizing on this fascination, several competing, skilled artists-showmen painted long scrolls of scenes along the Mississippi River. These panoramas were carried by wagon and riverboat from city to city, where for a modest admission the local citizenry could enjoy the show.
“Professor” Henry Lewis, as he liked to be called, was born in Newport, England, near the Welsh border, on January 12, 1819, and his family immigrated to Boston in 1833, where he apprenticed as a carpenter. At age seventeen (1836), he moved to St. Louis, where he worked as both a carpenter and scenery painter at the St. Louis Theatre. A self-taught, yet very talented artist, Henry dreamed of making it big with his creative work, but sadly, for much of his life he struggled to make ends meet. Fortunately, his supportive family and friends generously funded this starving artist as he worked his tail off, investing thousands of dollars into massive art projects like his Mississippi River panorama.
Some have credited Lewis as being the originator of the idea to create a panorama focusing on the Mississippi River, but more likely, he simply one-upped others with his plan to make the largest and longest at the time. His good business-sense also helped him decide to produce two different shows: one featuring the scenery of the Upper Mississippi Valley (St. Louis to St. Anthony, Minnesota), while the other focused on the southern portion of the Great River (from St. Louis to New Orleans). This way, when Henry came to town, he was guaranteed at least two nights of paying audiences instead of just one!
On two different occasions during the summers of 1846 and 1847, friends and family financed Henry to take short exploratory trips up north from St. Louis, making a large number of preliminary sketches along the way. Then, on June 14, 1848, Henry and his associates left St. Louis, traveling 741 miles on the steamboat Senator toward Fort Snelling (now St. Paul, Minnesota).
The trip took six days and once there, Lewis and his team set out to construct a floating studio. Since he couldn’t find any carpenters or laborers at the fort, they did the work themselves. Lewis secured two of the largest Native American canoes he could find, each fifty feet in length. He attached the two canoes with short beams, forming an eight-by-eleven-foot platform on which he built a cabin. Within the cabin he built bunks where he stored books, weapons, a tent, and food for the long voyage, and then christened what he described as this “most odd looking but complete craft,” the Menehaha, the Dakota name for the waterfall at St. Anthony, which means “rapid water.”
Through late-June, July, and into early August, 1848, Lewis and his small company floated down the Great River from the Falls of St. Anthony to St. Louis, traveling three to four miles per day, sketching rural scenery and towns along the way. Shortly thereafter, Lewis took his hundreds of sketches to Cincinnati where he and a crew of four other talented artists painstakingly created the first massive panorama, before returning to St. Louis again in late August of 1849 to “premiere” his new creation at Concert Hall.
As we said earlier, Lewis eventually had two different shows. The first covered the river from St. Anthony to St. Louis, and the second, from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico. Each show ran nearly two hours. Sadly, neither canvas survived, but fortunately in 1858, after Lewis had moved to Europe, he contracted with a German publisher to produce a beautiful 600-page book that contained most of his artwork used in both panorama programs.
The Illustrated Mississippi: From the Falls of St. Anthony to the Gulf of Mexico was printed in Düsseldorf, Germany in 1858. As we close, I’d like to share a handful of prints from the book, with most of what I share, of course, coming from the “Iowa” portion of Lewis’ program. I’ve included a map (below) which will help you identify the Iowa locations that Lewis included in his panorama…
As we mentioned earlier, Henry Lewis continued his panorama displays in both the U.S. and Canada until late 1851, when he took his business to Europe. His displays there continued until 1853 or 1854 when Lewis settled in Düsseldorf, Prussia (Germany), the seat of a prominent international art colony. There he married Englishwoman Maria Jones in 1859.
Lewis went to Europe initially to show his panorama, but the income generated from this performance, from the very beginning in the U.S. in 1849, was marginal, and by 1853 he was struggling to make a living as an artist in Düsseldorf. It was also his intent to sell his panorama, a matter with which he labored for a number of years until finally selling it to a Dutch East Indian planter named Hermens in 1857. After a long saga of unfulfilled promises, Lewis got less than half of the agreed-upon price, and Hermens eventually shipped the panorama off to the Far East (never to be seen again).
Lewis’ many letters to his brother George in St. Louis tell a sad story of continued disappointment in the sale of his paintings. In most years his income from art sales was little or nothing. There was also the matter of Das Illustrirte Mississippithal. In the end, the 1858 book was not very well done by publisher Arnz and Company of Düsseldorf. What’s more, before it was fully printed and distributed, the company failed, so Lewis got only a fraction of his expected remuneration. Things were so bad for Lewis that he seriously considered returning to the U.S., which he did not really want to do.
The advent of the Civil War put those plans on hold. Henry and Maria were able to hang on financially, generating a meager income by operating a boardinghouse, exhibiting artwork for others, and now and then selling a painting. Then they had a wonderful stroke of good fortune: he was hired by the U.S. Department of State, first working as a consular agent at Düsseldorf from June 1, 1867, to July 9, 1881, and from the latter date to February 2, 1884, as deputy commercial agent. By this time, when he was almost age 65, Lewis’ finances were much improved, and he lived out his remaining 20 years in Düsseldorf comfortably. Maria and Henry were happily married throughout that time, together until she died in 1891. Lewis, continued to paint right up until the time of his death in 1904.
We just can’t let you go until we share an amazing collectible from the Civil War-era. In the 1860’s, a pocket-sized roll-up map of the entire Mississippi River was produced. It measured 11-feet in length (when unrolled) and was a “must-have” when traveling up or down The Great River via steamboat. Amazing!
Here’s to Henry Lewis – and his amazing Mississippi River Panorama! And here’s to the Mississippi River – The Father of Waters.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.