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Krannert Art Museum to unveil rare panoramic painting of scenes from the life of Christ
Marcus Mote, Panorama - Scenes from the Life of Christ, 19th century. Distemper on Cotton Muslin. Approx. 7 x 525 feet. Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois on behalf of its Krannert Art Museum. Gift of Anita C. Crawford, 1991-21-1.1/.3. Photographs by Molly Briggs.

CHAMPAIGN, ILL.- Krannert Art Museum will unveil a portion of a rare panoramic painting in the museum’s permanent collection.

The painting – which dates to the 1870s and comprises three rolls of muslin, which are 525 feet long in total and seven feet high – is one of fewer than two dozen surviving examples in the world of moving panoramas, said Molly Briggs. Briggs is a University of Illinois doctoral student in landscape architecture who is writing her dissertation on panoramic media in Chicago, and who is a painter and an instructor in the School of Art and Design. She has been researching Krannert Art Museum’s painting and will serve as a guest curator for a future exhibition at the museum on moving panoramas.

“So few panoramas survived, even though they were incredibly popular,” Briggs said. “The significance of this moving panorama is that it’s an extant example of an influential mass medium that is now virtually lost.”

A portion of the museum’s painting will be unrolled at noon March 9, and a digital projection of the entire 525-foot artwork will be displayed in the CRL gallery on the lower level at the museum. Briggs and two other scholars – Erkki Huhtamo and Machiko Kusahara, experts in panoramic paintings from UCLA and Waseda University in Tokyo, respectively – will talk about this painting and the genre more broadly. The event is open to the public.

Briggs said panoramic paintings, which were popular from the 1790s to the 1890s, were a precursor to cinema. Round panoramas, in vogue in the early and late phases of that period, often displayed a landscape or city scenes.

“The idea was that people could walk into a building and be transported to another place – a place tourists would want to go, but often weren’t be able to go,” said Briggs, adding the invention of the medium coincided with the rise of the middle class.
Other popular subjects were decisive battles and religious subjects, including temperance.

Round panoramas were displaced by moving panoramas in the 1830s. They showed the same type of subject matter, as well as scenes from popular literature, such as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

The moving panoramas worked like a film strip, Briggs said. The canvas or cloth was attached to a spindle at each end, and an apparatus allowed it to be cranked from one end to the other. Various scenes were displayed through a cutout that served as a stage. Krannert Art Museum’s panoramic painting includes the spindles and the apparatus for turning them.

“That’s very rare. It’s fascinating to see,” Briggs said.

The moving panoramas were smaller, cheaper and more portable than the round panoramas, and thus could be viewed by a wider audience.

“It was truly a mass medium,” she said.

“The reason so few survived is they were never considered art,” Briggs said. “They were popular entertainment. They were developed as economically as possible and were a way to make a living for itinerant showman. The panoramic paintings that have survived are always a matter of luck and benign neglect.”

Krannert Art Museum’s painting is titled “Scenes from the Life of Christ,” and it presents an account of the New Testament.

Briggs believes the panorama was painted by Marcus Mote, an Indiana Quaker and self-taught painter. Mote painted portraits and landscapes, and he made moving panoramas in Lebanon, Ohio, where he was born, until moving to Indiana. KAM’s panorama was found in the Richmond, Indiana, area, where Mote lived.

Although none of his other moving panoramas survived for comparison purposes, Briggs has compared the museum’s painting to Mote’s smaller paintings.

“Whether or not I’m able to confirm (Motes’ identity as the painter), knowing where it was, how it looked and what people were looking at then gives a picture in time and a way to understand how media functioned in that space and that place,” she said.

A local auctioneer purchased the panorama in Indiana in the mid-1980s. He was unable to sell it at auction, so he stored it until two folk art collectors bought it from him, Briggs said. It was donated to Krannert Art Museum in 1991.

Briggs said the museum hopes to eventually display the three rolls linearly, so viewers could walk along them. Together with a digital projection, viewers could get an idea of how people originally viewed them. The future exhibition will address moving panoramas as a landscape medium – how they worked and how the mechanics affected the audience – rather than just as images.

First, though, the museum will seek grant funding to do conservation work. Briggs said the paintings aren’t stable enough now to exhibit, and some of the paint is not in good condition.

But, she said, they are still beautiful to see. “There are a lot of scenes embellished with foil and sequins. There are some gorgeous passages.”

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