All summer, conservators have worked diligently at the Saint Louis Art Museum to restore a 19th-century American treasure: The Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley, the only survivor of six Mississippi panoramas known to have existed. With significant progress gained during the exhibition, visitors to the Museum were permitted to observe as nine of the scenes were repaired, resulting in 18 finished panels of 25 overall. Curator Janeen Turk says that conservators hope to complete three more by the end of the exhibit, which runs through Sept. 3.
“Besides the fact that visitors were able to see this amazing, massive painting that has been off of view for most of its lifetime, I think they have been really excited to see the conservators at work,” Turk notes. “Visitors don’t often get the chance to see a painting being restored before their eyes. And we find that many are interested in the training of the conservators and the materials they are using.”
Turk describes the restoration led by paintings conservator Paul Haner as a process that includes reclining the panorama, panel by panel, to a horizontal position, and spraying a gelatin solution over the entire surface to stabilize the paint, while applying a bit of tension to the fabric to relax the wrinkles. “The creasing of the cloth is where a lot of the loss of paint occurred,” she explains. “To flatten out those creases is an important step. From there, they use watercolor crayons and sometimes a slightly damp brush to fill in the areas of missing color; they then layer the colors to match the original color used.”
Sometime around 1850, Dr. Montroville Dickeson, who enjoyed archaeology as a pastime, commissioned artist John J. Egan to paint a scrolling panorama illustrating life in the Mississippi River Valley, including scenes depicting the 16th-century burial of Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, an 18th-century battle and 19th-century Native Americans. Turk points out that in the mid-19th century, moving panoramas were an important form of visual entertainment and information. “We have objects on view that are artifacts from Dickeson’s own collection,” she says. “We also have drawings from his papers that relate to the scenery in the panorama, so that’s an exciting element that gives us insight into how Egan came up with some of the scenes and how he worked with Dickeson.”
Because so few of these historic illustrations exist today, the importance of this work is immense. “In their heyday, the Mississippi River was the most popular subject for these panoramas. In particular, the subject held special appeal for American audiences because it represented the American West and the frontier it embodied.”
Having started restoration in 2011, Turk says the project is expected to be completed next year. When finished, it will become a permanent installation of the Museum’s American collection. And while its scrolling days are over due to its fragile state, the panorama will be set up for viewing one scene at a time. “Originally, people would see the panorama one scene at a time,” Turk notes. “But we will change it on a schedule, like once a month.We may create a framing device to go around it—or we could just show it on the apparatus that it’s on, as people are interested in the mechanical aspect of it, as well.”