Tucked away and forgotten in the basement of the Penn Museum from about 1900, the last surviving Mississippi panorama found its way to the Saint Louis Art Museum because of a dinner party conversation in the 1940s, when then-museum director Perry Rathbone heard about the find from another guest. “He was already planning an exhibition about images of the Mississippi from the 19th century,” says museum senior curatorial assistant Janeen Turk. “He knew right away that he wanted to borrow the panorama, and he did. That exhibition was from 1949 to 1950 and then a few years later the museum purchased it from Penn.”
This summer, visitors will have the opportunity to see Restoring an American Treasure: The Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley, as it is being restored by a team of experts led by museum paintings conservator Paul Haner. The massive work, measuring approximately 348 feet long, is sometimes described as a canvas, but is actually cotton muslin, Turk explains. “There are 25 different scenes illustrating the adventures of Dr. Montroville Dickeson, an amateur archeologist who left his Pennsylvania medical practice in 1837 to explore the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys. He spent seven years excavating Indian burial grounds, sketching his travels along the way.” Upon returning home, she adds, he commissioned Irish artist John Egan to bring his drawings to life.
“It’s imaginative and fanciful, rather than an actual documentation of his travels,” Turk explains. “Throughout the panorama, he often combined different elements or time periods to make it as interesting as possible. For example, there’s a panel depicting the 16th century burial of Hernando de Soto, and of course Dickeson didn’t see that in person. But these historical events had taken place in the areas he visited, and they’re incorporated into the work.”
Visitors familiar with St. Louis might find this information helpful when they study scene eight, showing Bonhomme Island in the Missouri River, Turk adds. “Because Dickeson loved the chance to add drama whenever possible, he had Egan insert the Rocky Mountain as a backdrop. So people might be familiar with the island, and the Missouri River, but not this particular vista.”
Little is known about the artist, Turk notes. “We do know that Egan was born in Ireland, and believed to have been working in Philadelphia in the 1850s because he showed at the Pennsylvania academy of fine arts, but that’s all scholars have been able to learn about him. Not a single other work survives.”
Describing one of her favorite scenes, Turk says Cave in the Rock exemplifies Dickeson’s adventuresome spirit. “It shows men exploring a cave in southern Illinois that was known as a hideout for bandits and river pirates, so there’s a romantic adventure quality to it.”
Turk believes the doctor would have been thrilled to see his adventures displayed. “If he were alive, I think he might compare himself to Indiana Jones.” LN
On the Cover: This summer, visitors to the Saint Louis Art Museum will have an opportunity to witness the restoration of a massive 19th century work, Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley. The only surviving panorama of the Mississippi River, the 348-foot painting by artist John Egan comprises sensationalized versions of historic moments, as well as depictions of Native Americans activity, views of ancient mounds with steamboats passing, the excavation of a mastodon skeleton, and a natural disaster. The exhibit runs through Aug. 21. For more information, call 721-0072 or visit slam.org.