All the World’s a Painting

The age of the panorama.

By Addis Goldman

Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Siege of Sevastopol, by Franz Roubaud, 1904. Wikimedia Commons.

The invention of the panorama in the late eighteenth century represents a decisive transformation in the history of visual culture. As cultural historian Stephan Oetterman wrote in his authoritative 1997 history of the medium, the term panorama emerged in Europe in the 1780s to describe a specific form of large landscape painting and exhibition design. The itinerant Irish portraitist Robert Barker supposedly struck upon the idea of rendering the circumferential sweep of the vista before him while strolling Calton Hill in Edinburgh around 1787. He gathered a series of frames, sketched each view, and brought them together as a unified surface. Sensing the novelty of this approach, Barker—with the considerable aid of his son Henry Aston Barker, a skilled draftsman—sought to codify what is arguably the first truly modern mass visual entertainment.

Barker acquired a royal patent from King George III on June 17, 1787, for his method of presenting in the round “an entire view of any country or situation as it appears…so as to make observers…feel as if really on the very spot.” Although his invention remained unrealized at the time of his patent application, Barker detailed how one might construct and exhibit a continuous 360-degree painting housed within a large cylindrical building. The application also mentioned an elevated observation platform—a central rotunda—concentrically situated within such a building that would allow audiences to stroll freely amid their painted environs. At the time of its approval, this schematic ambition would receive the name La Nature à Coup d’Oeil, or “nature at a glance.”

With the financial backing of Lord Elcho, a wealthy Scottish nobleman, Barker brought his View of Edinburgh and the Adjacent Country from Calton Hill to a building on Haymarket Street in London in 1789. Although painted in distemper—a chalky substance that lacked the richness of oil paint—and capturing only a 180-degree perspective, it led an anonymous reviewer for the Times to describe “vast gratification” upon encountering the “full effect of nature” on display. This elevated view of Edinburgh reinforced the city’s status as a cradle of the Enlightenment and site of the Jacobite rising of 1745.

Barker’s bombastic marketing materials described the apparatus as “unlimiting the bounds of the art of painting,” inspiring a sense of “enlarged freedom given on scientific principles,” and offering nothing less than “one of the most picturesque views in Europe.” Only later, in 1791, did Barker adopt the neologism panorama—derived from the Greek roots pan (all) and horama (view)—to define his innovation.


Throughout the nineteenth century, the staging of panoramas in museums and purpose-built exhibition spaces endured as a blockbuster commercial enterprise in major cities across Europe and in the United States, where they would sometimes be referred to as cycloramas. These “paintings without borders” were the IMAX theaters of their time. Panoramas turned audiences into virtual tourists, transporting them to scenic vistas, historic events, famous military campaigns and decisive battles, cityscapes, far-flung and tropically luxuriant locales, colonial outposts, ancient ruins, and biblical and literary narratives.

Top: London from the Roof of Albion Mills, by Henry Aston Barker after Robert Barker, 1792. Bottom: Panoramic view of Ratisbon, by George Scharf, 1845.

Think of “artistic views” of the Battles of Trafalgar and the Nile, the Bay of Messina in Sicily, the Japanese countryside, the Svalbard archipelago in Norway, the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls; renderings of Jerusalem, Cairo, Athens, and Rio de Janeiro; or idealized representations of the Garden of Eden and Pilgrim’s Progress, the seventeenth-century morality tale written by Puritan preacher John Bunyan. The English satirist and illustrator William Henry Pyne’s reflections on the spectacle from 1824 paint an exciting picture:

We have seen Vesuvius in full roar and torrent…Constantinople, with its bearded and turbaned multitudes…Switzerland, with its lakes covered with sunset…and now Pompeii, reposing in its slumber of two thousand years…There is no exaggeration in talking of those things as really existing…The scene is absolutely alive, vivid, and true.

The parameters of the medium evolved over time, eventually incorporating elements of theatrical stagecraft—props such as mannequins, shrubbery, and shell casings—to enhance the sense of “being there.” In its coverage of French painter Paul Philippoteaux’s Battle of Gettysburg cyclorama, exhibited in Brooklyn in 1886, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle noted that “the public is asked to see a battle, not a painting…deceptions are employed to intensify the illusion.” Ambitious artists and shrewd entrepreneurs capitalized on these lucrative attractions. Robert Fulton, the inventor of the steamboat, in partnership with Joel Barlow, the American poet and diplomat, acquired a “license of exploitation”—or, in less exciting language, permission to use Barker’s idea—in 1799. The French painter Pierre Prévost’s Vue de Paris depuis les Tuileries—allegedly the first panorama exhibited in Paris’ Passages des Panoramas—was bankrolled by the pair, who made quite the return on their investment. Fulton would use his proceeds to develop torpedo and submarine technology for Napoleon and the British Royal Navy—perhaps an early example of the entertainment-military-industrial complex.


The curvature of these enveloping paintings mark a clear departure from the constraints of Renaissance perspective and the traditional frame. They enclosed viewers within a scene. Panoramas’ naturalistic realism anticipated the documentary power of photography and the immersive qualities of cinema while also seizing on bourgeois appetites for the picturesque and experiential entertainment. In 1859 Charles Baudelaire reflected on the “brutal and enormous magic” of panoramas, their ability to “impose a genuine illusion” that, “because they are false, are infinitely closer to the truth.” For German philosopher Johann August Eberhard, panoramas induced the sense of being caught “in a net spread by an irrational dream world.” For ambivalent Romantics of the era, such as William Wordsworth, panoramas were “mimic-sites that ape / The absolute presence of reality.” This mixed reception anticipated twentieth-century critiques of representation from Walter Benjamin and Guy Debord, among others.

But critics weren’t the only audience for these giant artworks or the most consequential; the panorama is responsible, in part, for democratizing viewership in the Victorian era. “It is a delightful characteristic of these times,” Charles Dickens wrote in 1850, “that new and cheap means are continually being devised for conveying the results of actual experience to those who are unable to obtain such experiences for themselves.” In his influential 1978 study The Shows of London, literary scholar Richard Altick confirmed as much, arguing that although the price of admission remained prohibitive to some, panoramas were a “bourgeois public’s substitute for the Grand Tour, that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century cultural rite de passage of upper-class society.”

The panorama emerged in the context of the great transformational currents—cultural, political, intellectual, economic—of the nineteenth century. It was an age of liberal and ideological politics, colonial expansionism, imperial adventurism, and technological acceleration of every kind—arguably the first wave of globalization. Critics have conceived of the panorama as a Foucauldian “cultural technology,” linking visual culture and cultural power at the dawn of modernity. Art historian Henry Sayre has written that due to a “general romantic taste for sublime vastness and extension,” panoramas were a “manifestation of a cultural will to power in the guise of a mere aesthetic taste…the age’s image par excellence.” Cultural historian Angela Miller wrote that panoramas “satisfied the nineteenth-century craving for visual—and by extension physical and political—control over a rapidly expanding world.” Many such scholars connect Romantic aesthetic discourse, in particular notions of the sublime, that flourished in the mid- to late eighteenth century with the all-encompassing scope of panoramic perspective and the distinctly modern sense that the whole wide world was out there for the taking—and, in the spirit of Balzac, that the individual was for the making. At its most elemental and perhaps gnomic, the panorama was “the pictorial expression or ‘symbolic form’ of a specifically modern, bourgeois view of nature and the world,” argued Oetterman, drawing on art historian Erwin Panofsky’s Perspective as Symbolic Form.


In 1791 Barker unveiled a sequel to his Edinburgh panorama, according to scholar Markman Ellis, in a temporary building at 28 Castle Street off Leicester Square in London. It featured a view of the city as seen from the roof of Albion Mills—the first steam-powered flour mill in the United Kingdom—on the southern bank of the Thames. Barker consciously framed his achievement as not only a testament to British engineering prowess but to Enlightenment notions of progress in the arts and sciences: “the greatest improvement to the art of painting that has ever been discovered.” Measuring 1,479 square feet and spanning some 270 degrees, the painting offered observers a spectral view of the cityscape from the top of the mill, deemed a “patriotic pile of building” by the Times. In the painting, steam billows from the Falcon Coal Wharf, more than one hundred boats crowd the Thames, and workmen repair a road near the London Bridge. Somerset House, considered by the English painter Thomas Malton to be “the greatest national structure of the present century,” features in the distance.

Cross section of the panorama building in Leicester Square, by Robert Mitchell, 1801.

Barker’s ambitions were truly realized in 1793. With the help of new investors and the Scottish architect Robert Mitchell, Barker erected a six-story building on the north end of Leicester Square, purpose-built to enact the experience imagined in his patent. The building housed a rotunda ninety feet in diameter and fifty-seven feet high, allowing for the observation of a 360-degree painted surface of more than ten thousand square feet. Rendered in rich oils, Barker’s new painting, a view of the Grand Fleet moored at Spithead, showed the Royal Navy threatening to mobilize against Russia, then engaged in a geopolitical confrontation with the Ottoman Empire. Barker modified the wooden rotunda handrails so that observers would feel as if they were bracing themselves on a wartime frigate. The Times reported that during a preview on May 24, 1793, King George III and Queen Charlotte “expressed the highest approbation of this singular production of genius and art.”

This was a painting—an experience—replete with British naval triumphalism at the dawn of the Napoleonic Wars. The drama of military conflict became the focus of countless panoramas shown in Europe and America (where they mostly dealt with Civil War battles) throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. French painter and colonel Jean-Charles Langlois’ The Fire of Moscow (1839) was celebrated in Paris; Russian painter Franz Roubaud’s Battle of Borodino (1912), commissioned by Emperor Nicolas II, has been preserved in Moscow. In her 2011 book The First Panoramas: Visions of British Imperialism, art historian Denise Blake Oleksijczuk argued that English panorama-goers “saw themselves as national subjects within an imperialist culture”; Altick called panoramas “the newsreels of the Napoleonic era.” Panoramas shown at Leicester Square during the Regency era alone include depictions of the Bombardment of Algiers, the Battle of Vittoria, and the siege of Flushing. For Altick, even the topographical panorama paintings exhibited at Leicester Square—some portraying scenic views of colonial outposts like Calcutta in 1830, Bombay in 1831, and Delhi in 1857—tended to confirm for British audiences the sense that the “sources of the nation’s present and prospective supremacy, economic as well as geopolitical, lay overseas.”

A Morning Chronicle review of Robert Barker’s 1799 Battle of the Nile testifies to the power of what literary scholar Thomas Weiskel called “the grand confidence of a heady imperialism”:

Nothing can be more perfect or more sublime than the illusion which this painting of the Battle of the Nile possesses…It is actually magical…the spectators are surrounded on all sides with the flames of the engagement, and they shrink from the explosions that threaten to cover them with the burning fragments of the ship blown up.

Henry Aston Barker—who took over operations at Leicester Square after his father’s passing in 1806—retired from the business of panorama painting altogether after the tremendous success of his 1822 Procession of the Coronation of His Majesty George the Fourth and his panorama of Waterloo, which drew viewers from 1816 to 1821. In a memorandum, Barker mentions that Lord Nelson, the consummate nineteenth-century British naval hero, once “took me by the hand and said he was indebted to me for keeping up the fame of his victory in the Battle of the Nile for a year longer than it would have lasted in the public estimation.”


Although these themes are transatlantic—remember Philippoteaux’s Battle of Gettysburg—the American case is slightly different. Panoramas dealing with scenic topography tended to correspond with the pioneering American sense of a vast wilderness beyond, brimming with providential promise. In his 1862 essay “Walking,” Henry David Thoreau reflected on Samuel B. Stockwell’s Colossal Moving Panorama of the Upper and Lower Mississippi Rivers, first shown in 1848:

I worked my way up the river in the light of today, and saw the steamboats wooding up, counted the rising cities…thinking more of the future than of the past or present…I felt that this was the heroic age itself.

Here the panorama could be viewed as a symbolic manifestation of Manifest Destiny. The budding nation also had a hunger for illustrations of antiquarian ruins. In the same essay, Thoreau reflects on Benjamin Champney’s 1848 panorama of the Rhine: “It was like a dream of the Middle Ages. I floated down its historic stream in something more than imagination…I floated along under the spell of enchantment.” Panoramas of the Old World functioned as gateways to an ancient past Americans did not share. Structures dedicated to exhibiting panoramas appeared in major U.S. cities including Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York, and individual panorama paintings were among the spectacles at the various world’s fairs in Europe and America that took place well into the twentieth century.

Yet, judging from the record, Leicester Square remained the best place to experience panoramas throughout the nineteenth century. Operations at Leicester were taken over in the mid-1820s by Robert Burford, an English painter praised by John Ruskin. Henry Aston Barker’s brother Thomas had a hand in managing the family business as well, while also operating a competing venue at the Strand in London—a venture duly supported by his brother. But by the mid- to late nineteenth century, the panorama faced stiff competition from the dizzying array of visual and commercial attractions that came to dominate modern urban life—museums of natural history and industry, arcades and shopping malls, and the stereoscope and the daguerreotype. Above all was the cinema, which inspired its own innovation that explicitly mentions its forebear. In the 1950s Fred Waller invented an immersive movie production method—involving three projectors and a curved screen that seemed to envelop those sitting in the theater—he named Cinerama after blending cinema and panorama into a catchy new portmanteau. A New York Times critic who screened the first Cinerama film in 1952 said that viewers gazed in “pop-eyed amazement” and “spellbound wonder as the scenic program flowed across the scene”: soaring views of American landscapes and skylines and a tumble down a roller coaster. It might have been an overwhelming moment for the audience, but it definitely wasn’t a novel one.