Historic Panoramic Paintings And Cycloramas

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The word ‘panorama’ is used very frequently in modern times. The rise of mobile phone photography and the ability to take panoramic photographs without specialized equipment contributed to its popularity. But the word itself is very old. It was originally coined by the Irish painter Robert Barker in 1792 to describe his paintings of Edinburgh, Scotland, which he made on a cylindrical surface. Barker displayed his 360-degree paintings inside a brick rotunda building which he erected in Leicester Square, London. He called it “The Panorama”.

Barker charged visitors a flat 3 shillings to stand on a central platform under a skylight, surrounding which were enormous paintings that created an immersive illusion of standing in the middle of the landscape while the depicted scenes unfolded. To increase the realism of his scenes, Baker concealed all the borders of the canvas and strategically placed props in the foreground. Patrons were given orientation plans to help them navigate the scene and identify key buildings, sites, or events exhibited on the canvas. To heighten the immersive experience, Barker even made the audience walk down a dark corridor and up a long flight of stairs so that their minds could be refreshed before they viewed a scene.

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Details from a panorama depicting the Siege of Sevastopol, created in 1905. Photo credit: Rumlin/Wikimedia

The success of Barker's Panorama spread to rest of Europe, and later to the U.S., where it spawned a series of immersive panoramas. These panoramas originally depicted urban settings, but later military battles became a popular subject among panorama artists and viewers both. Robert Barker’s son Henry Aston Barker created several panoramas of Napoleon Bonaparte’s battles, impressing the French general and forging a lifelong friendship between the two.

A team of artists were usually involved in the creation of a single panorama. Some did the landscape, some drew the people, some created the skies. Often artists would travel to the sites and sketch the scenes on site. These panoramas were displayed on purpose-built circular or hexagonal-shaped buildings known as cycloramas, which existed on every major European and American cities. New panoramas were being created all the time, and exhibits were changed every few months. Between 1793 and 1863, at least 126 panoramas were exhibited at the Museum of London.

One of the most prolific panorama painters was the Russian, Franz Alekseyevich Roubaud, who created some of the largest and best known panoramic paintings. His two most famous creations are the Sevastopol Panorama (created in 1905), depicting the Siege of Sevastopol, and the Borodino Panorama (created in 1911), depicting the Battle of Borodino.

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Sevastopol Panorama [click to enlarge]. Photo credit: Rumlin/Wikimedia

The Sevastopol Panorama is 14 meters tall and 115 meters long, and shows the Allied assault on the Malakhov Battery in 1855 during the Siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War. The panoramic painting was completed in three years after extensive research by Franz Roubaud that involved travelling to Sevastopol, reading historical documents and talking to survivors. It is Franz Roubaud’s best works, and it can be seen at the Panorama Museum in Sevastopol, Ukraine.

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Borodino Panorama [click to enlarge]. Photo credit: Public domain 

Franz Roubaud’s other famous work, the Borodino Panorama, depicts the Battle of Borodino that took place in 1812 in the Russian city of Borodino during Napoleon's French invasion of Russia. The painting is 15 meters tall and 115 meters long. It’s now on display at the Panorama Museum of the Borodino Battle in Moscow.

The oldest known surviving panorama was completed in 1814 by Marquard Wocher, and is on display at the Schadau Castle. It depicts an average morning in the Swiss town of Thun. Another very old panorama is the Salzburg Panorama, dating to 1829. It was painted by Johann Michael Sattler and is housed in the Salzburg Museum, in Austria.

Other noteworthy panoramas include:

  • Maroldovo Panorama (1898) located in Prague
  • Cyclorama of the Battle of Atlanta (1885-87) located in Atlanta, the US
  • Panorama Mesdag (1880) located in The Hague, in The Netherland
  • Gettysburg Cyclorama (1883) located in Gettysburg, the US
  • Pleven Panorama (1877) in Pleven, Bulgaria
  • Racławice Panorama (1893) located in Wrocław, Poland
  • Panorama of the Garden and Palace of Versailles (1818-19) located in New York City
  • Cyclorama of Jerusalem (1895) located in Quebec, Canada
  • Arrival of the Hungarians or Feszty Panorama (1892-94) located in Ópusztaszer, Hungary
  • Bourbaki Panorama (1881) located in Switzerland
  • Panorama of the Battle of Waterloo (1911) located in Belgium

The interest in panoramic paintings waned in the 20th century with the arrival of moving pictures, though in the United States they experienced a partial revival. The most popular ones traveled from city to city to provide local entertainment, like a travelling circus. New panoramas are still being created, but on a smaller scale. Among contemporary panoramas, the one that is worth visiting is the Panorama 1453 Historical Museum in Istanbul that depicts the Fall of Constantinople.

Panorama Mesdag

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Panorama Mesdag. Photo credit: denhaag.com

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Detail of Panorama Mesdag. Photo credit: Ingrid Truemper/Flickr

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Detail of Panorama Mesdag. Photo credit: Allan Harris/Flickr

Cyclorama of the Battle of Atlanta

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Details from the Cyclorama of the Battle of Atlanta at the Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum. Photo credit: Darren & Brad/Flickr

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Details from the Cyclorama of the Battle of Atlanta at the Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum. Photo credit: Darren & Brad/Flickr

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Details from the Cyclorama of the Battle of Atlanta at the Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum. Photo credit: Darren & Brad/Flickr

Gettysburg Cyclorama

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Details from Gettysburg Cyclorama. Photo credit: Desiree Williams/Flickr

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Details from Gettysburg Cyclorama. Photo credit: Desiree Williams/Flickr

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Details from Gettysburg Cyclorama. Photo credit: Espino Family/Flickr

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Details from Gettysburg Cyclorama. Photo credit: butforthesky.com/Flickr

Pleven Panorama

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Pleven Panorama [click to enlarge]. Photo credit: Klearchos Kapoutsis/Flickr

Racławice Panorama

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Photo credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland/Flickr

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Details from Racławice Panorama. Photo credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland/Flickr

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Details from Racławice Panorama. Photo credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland/Flickr

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Details from Racławice Panorama. Photo credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland/Flickr

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Details from Racławice Panorama. Photo credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland/Flickr

Feszty Panorama

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Details from Feszty Panorama [click to enlarge]. Photo credit: Gigapan 

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Details from Feszty Panorama. Photo credit: TiborK/Wikimedia

Bourbaki Panorama

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Details from Bourbaki Panorama. Photo credit: JP.Neri/Wikimedia

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Details from Bourbaki Panorama. Photo credit: HG/Panoramio

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Details from Bourbaki Panorama. Photo credit: Marco/Flickr

Panorama 1453 Historical Museum

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The panorama at Panorama 1453 Historical Museum. Photo credit: todd.vision/Flickr

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A model of Panorama 1453 Historical Museum, within the museum. Photo credit: Sumayyah A/Flickr

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Photo credit: EllenSeptember/Flickr

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Photo credit: Ibrahim Arab/Flickr

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