John Banvard's Three-Mile Panorama

John Banvard is the most successful American artist you've never heard of, probably because his chosen medium was a 19th-century show business gimmick. Banvard was a talented painter at the time when panorama exhibitions were hot. The shows were mechanical moving pictures, in which a canvas painted with interesting scenes was scrolled in front of an audience. Banvard painted and sold these scenes, but he wanted to become his own boss, so he decided to create the biggest and best panorama of them all: a production showing the entire Mississippi River.

In the spring of 1842, he set off in a skiff to capture on canvas some 1200 miles of river, from St. Louis to New Orleans. It took him two years of dealing with blistering heat and yellow fever in the summer, rain and cold in the winter. While he worked, he made a threadbare living by selling and trading whatever small items he could find. It was an arduous adventure, but he did it, and when he was finished, he knew that what he had was very, very good. It may not quite have been, as the advertisements boasted, three miles long, but it came damn close. It was the largest painting in the world.

His next necessity was to create an entirely new system of spools and levers capable of handling this unprecedentedly huge canvas. He succeeded so well that he patented the device. Finally, in 1844, he was able to present his leviathan of a panorama in Louisville. He accompanied the exhibit with his own narration, giving highly-colored but immensely entertaining anecdotes about his travels down the river. He was not only a born panorama painter, but a natural showman. Within a few days, it was a huge success.

Banvard's panorama later went to Boston, New York, and London, where crowds flocked to see it. Banvard became one of the richest men in America, so he built a huge mansion on Long Island and retired from showing his panoramas. But he had other interests, and managed to blow his entire fortune. Read the many ways John Banvard destroyed his bank account and his legacy at Strange Company. Hint: P.T. Barnum was involved.

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