You can almost hear the barker now: Step right up and see the “Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ’Round the World,” billed as the largest painting in North America!
Long before movies, people were entertained by scrolling panoramas and panorama barkers, who narrated harrowing tales depicted by a large painting’s scrolling scenes.
One such panorama — painted by two Massachusetts artists circa 1848 — which details a whaling voyage from Massachusetts to the Azores, Cabo Verde, Rio de Janeiro, Polynesia, and beyond, has been brought back to life. And it’s some 1,275 feet long.
Standing 8 feet 6 inches tall and stretching out the length of 14 blue whales, “Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ’Round the World” is on display now through Oct. 8 at the Kilburn Mill in New Bedford.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum completed the conservation of the 170-year-old painting last year. It is believed to be the longest painting in North America.
Painted on cotton sheeting by Benjamin Russell of New Bedford and Caleb Purrington of Fairhaven, the panorama was last shown over half a century ago in New Bedford. A portion was shown at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
“As a document of maritime America, it’s unsurpassed,” said Michael P. Dyer, curator of Maritime History at the Whaling Museum, author of “O’er the Wide and Tractless Sea: Original Art of the Yankee Whale Hunt,” and a contributor to the exhibit’s two-volume companion book.
“Given its scale, level of detail, the fact it was done by people with intimate knowledge of what they were painting, that this thing was meant to go on the road, into the hinterland, into what would’ve been middle-America in the 1840s, to show them whaling life. . . . It’s a really dynamic way of looking at Yankee whaling,” said Dyer.
The exhibit is in two parts. “A Spectacle in Motion: The Original” is the 1848 painting itself at New Bedford’s Kilburn Mill, where visitors can examine the quarter-mile of intricately detailed whaling adventure.
Part two, at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, is called “A Spectacle in Motion: The Experience.” It’s the digitized version of the entire panorama scrolling as it would have before a 19th-century audience.
“We want people to know what it felt like to see this moving panorama in 1850,” said Dr. Christina Connett, chief curator at the Whaling Museum and a contributor to the exhibit’s companion book. “This is a way to walk through history.”
The museum exhibit includes other forms of 19th-century entertainment and artifacts, such as a Northern fur seal that belonged to P.T. Barnum, magic lanterns, broadsides, and the like.
A newspaper announcement from April 1849 proclaims a Boston showing at Amory Hall like a blockbuster movie advertisement, the artists billed like popular directors:
“PURRINGTON & RUSSELL’S ORIGINAL PANORAMA OF A WHALING VOYAGE ROUND THE WORLD.”
Admission: one quarter. Children, half price.
An 1849 audience likely would have seen the panorama mounted on a system of cranks and reels, playing across a theater stage as a narrator told stories of the hunt, the exhibit explains. The two-hour show was accompanied by music, lighting, and other theatrics.
Herman Melville was in Boston in 1849, and while it’s possible he may have taken in the show, Dyer emphasized that there is no direct “Moby-Dick” connection.
Russell (1804-85) was a whaler-artist who spent 42 months on a whaling voyage aboard the Kutusoff before he began his career as a commercial artist, according to museum material. He traveled the Indian and Pacific oceans and trained himself to paint landscapes, whaleships, and whaling scenes. According to Dyer, he was New Bedford’s foremost whaler-artist.
Sign painter Caleb Purrington (1812-76) was not a whaler, but both his sisters married whaling masters, Dyer said.
The mural was originally donated to the Whaling Museum in 1918 by Benjamin Cummings, “a local grocer and colorful character,” Dyer said, adding that no one knows how the grocer ended up with the massive painting.
The longest painting in the world, at 35,597 feet, is in Dubai, created by 20,000 students, according to Guinness World Records. The longest painting by an individual is just over 11,302 feet. Whaling Museum staffers believe this is the longest painting in North America, and are working on getting an official designation.
Regardless, it’s big.
The panorama “was in peril of being basically left to rot,” as conservators in the 1950s didn’t think there was a viable method to save it, said Jordan Berson, director of collections/conservator at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
“Conservation as a discipline was in its infancy then,” said Berson, who is a contributor to the exhibit’s companion book. “What we’ve done today was considered impossible in the 1950s. We’re pleased to present it to a new generation.”