In the first of these two articles looking at landscape paintings of ‘big’ views, I showed early examples of ‘World Views’ and how panoramas became popular in the eighteenth century. Although they had been patented in 1787 and had already been commercially successful, the heyday of the panorama came in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Paul Dominique Philippoteaux’s vast Gettysburg Cyclorama opened to public acclaim just twenty years after the battle, in 1883, and continues to draw attention at the battlefield’s visitor centre. It was commissioned by a group of Chicago investors, rather than anyone interested in its art.
John Brett’s World View of Florence from Bellosguardo (1863) was very different in intent. He probably started to paint this in January 1863, working without the aid of significant preparatory studies, and entirely from the motif. Even with Brett’s apparent eye for fine detail at a distance, much of it must have been painted with the aid of a telescope, and it has been suggested that he may also have used a camera lucida and/or photographs. Regardless of how he managed to paint such great detail, it is a triumph of painting, both technically and artistically, and it came as a shock when it was rejected by the Royal Academy in 1863.
By this time, Church was travelling the world in search of its most breath-taking views. One example is his view of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives (1870), assembled from notes and sketches made in front of the motif, and turned into a large finished canvas in the studio. Like many of the panoramas made for entertainment, Church provided a detailed key to the salient features, which was engraved and printed for the edification of the viewer. It was hailed a triumph when first displayed to the public in Goupil’s New York gallery in 1871, and at the end of the century Peter Bergheim made a photo-montage showing the same view.
The conventional requirements of a panorama are generally opposed to the principles of Impressionism, but the occasional painting slipped through.
One notable exception is Alfred Sisley’s Terrace at Saint-Germain, Spring, painted soon after he had moved to Marly-le-Roi in 1875. It’s one of the grandest panoramic views in the Impressionist canon, caught at the perfect moment with blossom on so many of the trees. Although the artist must by this stage have adopted Pissarro’s technique of painting in front of the same motif for several sessions, the image he has recorded retains an atmosphere of the instantaneous.
Brett wasn’t the only nineteenth century landscape painter to have made World Views so detailed that they qualify as being hyper-realist. The Norwegian Hans Gude painted this view of Sandvik Fjord (1879) from above Sandviken, now the northern suburbs of the Norwegian city of Bergen, looking to the west and the island of Askøy.
Painting mainly on the flat terrain of Russia, Isaac Levitan considered Above Eternal Rest (1893-4) to be his finest painting, and it makes interesting comparison to earlier World Views from Europe. A convincingly real appearance conceals greater artifice: it is a composite idealised landscape assembled from studies that he made in 1888 of the sixteenth century wooden church of St Peter and St Paul, built on a hill above the town of Plyos on the Volga.
The church’s tiny lit window is dwarfed against the expanse of swollen river, and the distant flat wilderness receding deep to a featureless horizon. Above, the dark clouds tower upwards.
I don’t have a date, though, for Henri Harpignies’ magnificent watercolour panorama of View of the Seine at Rouen, which I believe shows the view from Bonsecours, to the south-east of the city, looking north-west into the summer sunset.
Few can compare with what must be the ultimately ‘big’ landscape, which is 120 metres (over 130 yards) long, with an area of just under 1700 square metres (0.4 acres).
The final word in painted panoramas must go to Hendrik Willem Mesdag, in his staggering Panorama Mesdag (1880-1). Commissioned as a view of the village of Scheveningen, the Netherlands, from its coastal dunes, it is 14 metres high and 120 metres long, giving it an aspect ratio of 6.8:1. When tastes changed towards the end of the nineteenth century, the company exhibiting the panorama as an entertainment went bankrupt. Mesdag bought it back, and it remains housed in its dedicated building, an appropriately extreme memorial to this long-lasting fascination.
By this time, photographers were creating their own panoramas, a fascination which continues to this day in our cameras and mobile phones. Every self-respecting iPhone user is now their own panoramic artist.