Lewis-piasa2.jpg

In a gigantic irony, if the subject of a forthcoming free exhibition were still living and painting today, countless smartphones would be lensing his work.

“Mississippi Movies: The Legacy of Henry Lewis Panorama,” the exhibition in question, opens Jan. 31 and runs till May 10 in the St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in Bellerive.

It centers on a 431-page 1857 tome catchily titled Das illustrirte Mississippithal: dargestellt in 80 nach der Natur aufgenommenen Ansichten vom Wasserfalle zu St. Anthony an bis zum Gulf von Mexico (eine Entfernung von ungefähr 2300 englischen Meilen).

That tongue-tangler – typically shortened by English speakers to The Valley of the Mississippi Illustrated or just The Illustrated Mississippi – gave the Ken Burns film-plus-book treatment to a 19th-century ancestor of today’s movies, a panorama.

John Neal Hoover, the Mercantile’s executive director and curator of the exhibition, briefly explains the afflatus for “Mississippi Movies.”

“A combination of things inspired this,” Hoover says. “[First,] the fact that the Mercantile Library holds two copies of one of the rarest books of river history, Henry Lewis’ The Illustrated Mississippi … It’s a legendary rarity and one of the Mercantile staff’s favorite picks, if you will, of the all-time great Mississippi River volumes that we wanted to call attention to for a wider audience.

“Secondly, that book was the sole document left of the author, Henry Lewis’, own great Mississippi River panorama, which in the 1850s was actually shown in St. Louis at the Mercantile Library’s great hall at 510 Locust St.”

Lewis’ panorama, based on sketches and subsequent paintings the native Brit-turned-St. Louisan made on a multiyear tour of the Mississippi, would have constituted a moving, dual-spooled canvas measuring 12 feet high and roughly 1,300 yards long – just shy of three quarters of a mile. Variously accompanied, it would have unspooled for period audiences like an enormous landscape painting or, to use a cinematic reference, a pan shot to make Orson Welles’ opening to 1958’s Touch of Evil pale by comparison.

“To obtain sketches for his travel movie and notes for a lecture to accompany it, Lewis traveled extensively on both the upper and lower river between 1846 and 1849, using his vantage point at St. Louis as a base,” notes an online Minnesota Historical Society gloss on the behemoth.

“A preview in his home city in the summer of 1849 was followed by a successful and profitable run. At admission prices of 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children, Lewis’ travelogue played to packed houses. Later he toured the eastern states with his picture, and then he took it abroad. After showing it in England, he crossed to the continent, touring chiefly in Holland and Germany.”

A printer called Arnz & Comp. directly published the book edition in Düsseldorf, where Lewis settled, married and, ultimately, in 1904, died.

Lithographs from the book suggest the reason for the popularity of the panorama, which, unsurprisingly, failed to survive intact. Long before the world shrank so decisively, those lithos, in a largely earthen palette, depict scenes little seen or unseen at all by viewers: the steamboat Grand Turk docking after dark, a monolithic Minnesota fort, rolling prairies including a pair of teepees, a craggy waterfall of moderate size, a Native American cemetery.

The Minnesota Historical Society speculates that the poignancy of those painted views contributed to The Illustrated Mississippi’s treasured status: “Probably the pictorial and decorative value of the separate lithographs and their interest as collector’s items is one reason for the almost total disappearance of the [later, limited] English text, as well as the rarity of the German.”

That rarity suggests the Mercantile’s institutional enthusiasm for “Mississippi Movies,” whose actual physical display Hoover sketches.

“The 2,000-square-foot William Maffitt Bates Jr. Gallery in the Mercantile Library will be used to present not only rare books and art by Lewis, but also analogous prints and historical river images from his contemporaries,” he says. “A key feature will be a scaled-down re-creation of a panorama conveying the majesty and mystery of this 19th century ‘moving picture.’”

Given the significance of “Mississippi Movies,” conceiving and realizing it took considerable time and effort, Hoover relates.

“The exhibition was years in the planning,” he says. “It’s a dream exhibition – and one that would be very difficult to accomplish without the numerous individuals who were involved in making certain that examples of Lewis’ drawings, paintings and writings were presented in one location for the first time.

“While the panorama’s last documented location was in the East Indies, we have vestiges of it through his prints and drawings, and with modern enlargements that re-create the concept, we can experience its past glory.”

As the curator of “Mississippi Movies,” Hoover concludes by projecting exhibition viewers’ takeaway from it: “Our visitors will have discovered the legacy of one of the least-known, yet most interesting, of St. Louis’ early artists – a St. Louis house painter who eventually traveled the world extolling the beauty of the Mississippi Valley to audiences around the world.”

St. Louis Mercantile Library, University of Missouri-St. Louis,

1 University Blvd., St. Louis, umsl.edu/mercantile, 314-516-7240

Bryan A. Hollerbach serves as LN's copy editor and one of its staff writers. He loves to read, write, impersonate an amateur artist and research all things bibulous.