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Restoring A Mississippi River Panorama

Public restoration of massive painting underway at Saint Louis Art Museum

Paul Haner, director of conservation for the Saint Louis Art Museum, with restoration interns Heather White, Rossella Fevola and Nicole Pizzini, working on a scene from John J. Egan’s panorama of the Mississippi Valley.
Photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
July 13, 2011
The painstaking work of conservators at the Saint Louis Art Museum is usually done behind closed doors. Not so this summer, as restoration of an immense panoramic painting featuring the Mississippi Valley unfolds in the museum's main exhibition gallery.

"Restoring an American Treasure: The Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley" opened in June to the public, and will be on display through Aug. 21. Museum patrons can visit the free exhibition and watch as restoration experts work their magic on a unique piece of art.

The star of the show is "The Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley," a painting by John J. Egan, an American artist of Irish birth. The work of art was commissioned in 1850 by Dr. Montroville W. Dickeson, a medical doctor and amateur archaeologist.

The immense painting spans 348 feet in width and 92 inches in height. It is a series of 25 panels, almost seamlessly woven to form one continuous panorama.

Dickeson commissioned the painting so he could take it on the road. He would lecture to the public while the massive panorama scrolled in the background. Although cumbersome to transport, it was an ingenious 19th century version of today's motion pictures.

"There were at least six, maybe more panoramas made of the Mississippi River, but this is the only one left," said Janeen Turk, senior curatorial assistant at the Saint Louis Art Museum.

The panorama was the property of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology from about 1900 until 1953. The Saint Louis Art Museum, under the guidance of then-museum director Perry Rathbone, borrowed the panorama from 1949 to 1950. The museum eventually purchased the work in 1953. With the exception of one show in the 1970s and a loan to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, it has been in storage ever since.

Janeen Turk, senior curatorial assistant at the Saint Louis Art Museum, surrounded by the display: “Scenes From Montroville W. Dickeson’s Panorama.”
Photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
Montroville W. Dickeson

"Dickeson was born in Philadelphia, and from childhood had an interest in the natural sciences," said Turk. "While still in his 20s, he would travel all over the Ohio and Mississippi valleys."

Dickeson would often stop to explore Native American burial mounds, said Turk.

"A lot of the mounds he excavated were on plantations," she said. "He and the plantation owner would have breakfast, then they'd take their horses out to the mound. He'd make his drawings and notes, and have the mounds excavated. The plantation slaves were enlisted to do the actual excavating.

"If the artifact was of interest, he'd purchase it," said Turk. "The University of Pennsylvania acquired those items from his brother, William J. Wilson Dickeson, after Dr. Dickeson's death."

Joyful Sounds
Dickeson's travels prompted his commission of the panorama, which depicts burial mounds, Native American tribes and unique natural wonders. The artist was permitted much artistic license with his work.

"They were very interested in being willing to make it sensationalized and more dramatic," said Turk. "There are scenes coming down the Ohio River, with detours up to St. Louis and the Missouri River, with the Rocky Mountains in the background. That's one of those moments of imagination."

Turk said from what little is known about Dickeson, she finds him to be a very interesting character.

"He had a passion for something and the means to pursue it," she said. "He tried to make notes. Of course, what he did didn't come close to the records archaeologists keep today.

"I don't think he's seen as a hero or a villain – just a product of his time," said Turk. "Because of his interest we have a fascinating record of his remembrances."

Paul Haner, director of conservation for the Saint Louis Art Museum.
Photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
Restoring an American Treasure

For Paul Haner, director of conservation for the Saint Louis Art Museum, the restoration of the panorama is all in a day's work – which is not to say it doesn't pose its own unique challenges.

"The reason it's never been on view is we never had a way to display it, and a gallery space for it, and the money to do the treatment," he said.

A new scrolling mechanism was fabricated by Laciny Brothers Inc., a St. Louis-based metal fabrication company. There are two cylinders, one on either side, and the painting scrolls from one to the other.

"When we change scenes we lay the whole apparatus down," said Haner. "Then we just hand roll it over to the scene we want to display or work on. We lay it flat for certain procedures, that's why we had it designed so it could be made vertical or horizontal."

Because of the scrolling nature of the panorama, creases and folds have taken their toll. The resulting paint loss is what Haner and his team are restoring.

"The original paint was distemper; it's animal glue – hide glue – with dried pigment mixed in," he said. "It's water soluble and remains water soluble. That's one of the challenges with this thing."

Unlike with smaller conservation projects, the goal with the panorama restoration is to bring it to the point where, from five or 10 feet away, the viewer is not distracted by creases and small white lines.

"We stay within the loss when we do the in-painting; we don't go over the original paint at all," said Haner. "That's the number one rule in conservation: don't alter the original surface."

Haner is assisted in the project by three college students – Heather White, Nicole Pizzini and Rossella Fevola – who had completed undergraduate work and were looking for pre-graduate school, hands-on experience. Private conservator Mark Bockrath from the Philadelphia area is spending six weeks in St. Louis to help oversee the work.

"This project runs 10 weeks this summer, and it will be the summer exhibit next summer as well for 10 weeks," said Haner. "There are 25 scenes, and we are only on number four. We hope we can get to the halfway point this summer, and over the winter get it to a point where we can finish it next summer."

In 2014, the painting will go on permanent exhibition at the museum.

Haner and his restoration team hold daily question and answer sessions for the public at the following times: Tuesday through Thursday, 2:30 to 3 p.m.; Friday, 2:30 to 3 p.m. and 7 to 7:30 p.m.; and Saturday from 1 to 1:30 p.m.

Curator Janeen Turk will hold a free lecture and PowerPoint presentation about Dickeson and the painting on Wednesday, July 20, 7 p.m., at the Schlafly Branch of the St. Louis Public Library, 225 N. Euclid Ave. in the Central West End. For more details, visit www.slam.org.

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