Panoramic painting

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Panoramic paintings are massive artworks that reveal a wide, all-encompassing view of a particular subject, often a landscape, military battle, or historical event. They became especially popular in the 19th Century in Europe and the United States, inciting opposition from writers of Romantic poetry. A few have survived into the 21st Century and are on public display.



The word "panorama", from Greek pan ("all") horama ("view") was coined by the Irish painter Robert Barker in 1792 to describe his paintings of Edinburgh, Scotland shown on a cylindrical surface, which he soon was exhibiting in London, as "The Panorama". In 1793 Barker moved his panoramas to the first purpose-built panorama building in the world, in Leicester Square, and made a fortune.

Viewers flocked to pay a stiff 3 shillings to stand on a central platform under a skylight, which offered an even lighting, and get an experience that was "panoramic" (an adjective that didn't appear in print until 1813). The extended meaning of a "comprehensive survey" of a subject followed sooner, in 1801. Visitors to Barker's Panorama of London, painted as if viewed from the roof of Albion Mills on the South Bank, could purchase a series of six prints that modestly recalled the experience; end-to-end the prints stretched 3.25 meters. In contrast, the actual panorama spanned 250 square meters.[1]

Despite the success of Barker's first panorama in Leicester Square, it was neither his first attempt at the craft nor his first exhibition. In 1788 Barker showcased his first panorama.[2] It was only a semi-circular view of Edinburgh, Scotland, and Barker's inability to bring the image to a full 360 degrees disappointed him.[3] To realize his true vision, Barker and his son, Henry Aston Barker, took on the task of painting a scene of the Albion Mills.[4] The first version of what was to be Barker's first successful panorama was displayed in the Barker home and measured only 137 square meters.[5]

Barker's accomplishment involved sophisticated manipulations of perspective not encountered in the panorama's predecessors, the wide-angle "prospect" of a city familiar since the 16th century, or Wenceslas Hollar's "long view" of London, etched on several contiguous sheets. When Barker first patented his technique in 1787, he had given it a French title: La Nature à Coup d’ Oeil ("Nature at a glance"). A sensibility to the "picturesque" was developing among the educated class, and as they toured picturesque districts, like the Lake District, they might have in the carriage with them a large lens set in a picture frame, a "landscape glass" that would contract a wide view into a "picture" when held at arm's length.

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