The Panorama as Propaganda

Thus far in my series on the panorama, I have concentrated on the entertainment and technological aspects of that art form. But as with other forms of mass media, even in the early nineteenth century, there were some who hoped to harness the use of the panorama for their own purposes. Not the least of those was the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte himself.

The development of the concept of the panorama as a form of propaganda …

The all-embracing views of various scenes which Robert Barker presented in his Leicester Square Panorama were a great thrill for nearly all who saw one. Barker took out a patent on his invention in 1787, intending to open panoramas in other cities across Britain and on the Continent. However, he found the management of his London panorama so labor-intensive that it was all he could handle, even with the assistance of his son, Henry Aston Barker. Instead, Barker realized that he could increase his income with minimal effort by sending his panorama paintings on tour once they had completed their London run. Within a few years, Barker was even sending some of his panorama paintings across the Atlantic. In 1794, his Panorama of London and Westminster went on display in New York City and was a tremendous success.

For those of us living in the twenty-first century, who expect our entertainment viewing to move at ever increasing speeds, it is nearly impossible to imagine the profound effect which the static, painted images of a panorama had on audiences two centuries ago. However, these enormous, colorful, realistic paintings gave those viewers a strong sensation of actually being in the scene, unlike any experience they had ever had before. This sensation was further enhanced by the use of faux-terrain and other props arranged on the viewing platform which complemented the scene in the painting. Music and/or sound effects were also employed to further intensify the all-encompassing panorama experience. Panoramas appealed to a very broad audience which cut across all social classes. This art form was the first true visual mass medium, and in commercial terms, it can be considered nearer to the modern-day movie industry than it was to the traditional fine art market of the time.

Panoramas quickly became a sensation in the major cities of the Continent, most especially in Paris. The French capital was the second most powerful financial center in Europe, after London, as the eighteenth century came to a close. This regularly drew many people to the city and most of them were eager for sophisticated entertainment. The American, Robert Fulton, the inventor who would later design a submarine for Bonaparte, navel torpedoes for the British Navy and the first successful steamboat in America, was living and working in Paris in the late 1790s. Fulton saw the financial potential of Barker’s panorama and in 1799, on a trip to London, he negotiated with Barker for the rights to exhibit panoramas in France. When Fulton returned to Paris, he went into partnership with a fellow American living there, James W. Thayer. Their rotunda was constructed in the French capital and their first panorama, Vue de Paris depuis les Tuilerie (View of Paris from the Tuileries), went on display in 1800. Fulton and Thayer modelled the operation of their Paris panorama on that of Robert Barker’s London panorama. Within a couple of years, Robert Fulton decided to move to England and he sold his share of the Paris panorama to his partner. James Thayer continued to operate the Paris panorama for many years, right through the Regency and into the reign of William IV.

In 1799, even before the first panorama painting went on display in Paris, the Institut de France set up a commission to study this new art form. The Institut de France had been founded in 1795 and was the premier academic organization which reviewed and studied questions of French culture. Chaired by Antoine Dufourny, the commission of the Institut de France issued their report in September of 1800. This report praised the panorama as an ingenious application of the principles of optics and perspective they felt held important new concepts which could improve the creation and display of conventional landscape paintings. They also noted in their report that the panorama had come very close to its goal of a perfect illusion through its alliance with science so that the length of time spent in a panorama display noticeably deepened the perception of the illusion presented. The commission unanimously lauded the immersive "illusion totale" of this new art form and its powerful potential as an instrument of education for the masses. The fact that such a study was made clearly indicates how seriously the panorama was taken when it was introduced into France. One of the first members of the Institut de France to read this report was the new First Consul of France, Napoleon Bonaparte.

The panorama phenomenon took the Continent by storm, and by 1803 the panorama was all the rage in the capital cities of Europe. It was even becoming popular in the provinces as first-run panoramas from the capitals went out on tour. Unlike fine paintings displayed in art galleries, the panorama experience appealed to a much wider audience across both the upper and the middle classes. During the Regency, the most popular panoramas were those which depicted major battles of the Napoleonic wars. Typically, the battle panoramas which went on display in each country were of the battles in which that country’s army or navy had been victorious. These panoramas were precursors to the newsreels of the early twentieth century. They drew large numbers of visitors, many eager to see the nation’s armed forces victorious, but there were also those who had brothers, fathers, sons and husbands who had fought in those battles. For the families, it often helped them to feel closer to their loved ones to see representations of their life abroad, especially the moments of their victories.

In Great Britain, there was no "official" governmental interest in the panorama. There, it was seen as a popular art form which amused and informed the masses in a family-friendly environment. The panorama paintings of the battles in which British troops had been victorious were the general rule in the London panoramas because they were the most well-attended and thus the most profitable. Admiral Lord Nelson personally thanked Robert Barker for producing and displaying a panorama of the Battle of the Nile in his Leicester Square Rotunda. When they were introduced, some years later, Barker wrote that Nelson took him by the hand and thanked him for keeping his victory in the public eye for at least a year longer than it might have lasted in the public imagination otherwise. Nelson was personally pleased, because the Battle of the Nile panorama had significantly added to his own fame, but he also felt it helped to build morale on the home front and ensured lasting and enthusiastic public support for the struggle against France.

The British government respected the autonomy of the panorama, and did not interfere with the management of the London panoramas, or even their choice of subjects. However, there were other countries where the government felt much like Lord Nelson, that the depiction of battles in which their national forces had been victorious were an important component by which to help build and maintain the morale of its citizens. Some governments simply subsidized some of the panoramas which were put on display in their countries. However, in other countries, government officials actually directed which subjects were to be displayed in the panoramas which were put on view there, in an attempt to sway the views of the public, and to garner their support for their military actions. By 1803, nearly all battle panoramas were presented with musical accompaniment, typically martial music, which helped to more intensely draw the viewers into the excitement of the scene.

The most ambitious use of the panorama as a form of propaganda was planned by certainly the most ambitious man in all Europe, the Emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte himself. Bonaparte had been aware of the panorama concept almost as soon as it was imported into France from England, since he was one of the first to read the report produced by the commission appointed by the Institut de France. At the time, it was hailed as a radical breakthrough in the art of landscape painting and a powerful and immersive educational tool. Then, in 1810, Napoleon went to view one of the panoramas on display at James Thayer’s rotunda in Paris. It was then that he realized that this art form could be exploited as a potent method of propaganda by which he could strengthen his grip on his empire. He had recently divorced Joséphine and then married the Austrian Archduchess, Marie Louise. Even before that, he was holding the Pope, who had been abducted by French soldiers, as a political prisoner. Bonaparte had also imprisoned more than a dozen cardinals who had refused to attend his wedding. These actions had severely strained Napoleon’s relations with the Vatican and the Catholic countries he controled, including France.

By 1811, Napoleon was aware that there were factions forming against him in France, but he believed the majority of the populace was still loyal to him. Bonaparte was of the opinion that the foundation of the public’s loyalty rested on his important military victories. He saw the panorama as the best way to keep his great battles regularly in the public eye, and he intended that these reminders should be presented in the most positive light. Napoleon decided that he would have eight panorama rotundas built throughout the extensive grounds of the park at Versailles. These rotundas were intended to be permanent, in each of which would be displayed a panorama of one of Bonaparte’s most glorious victories. He would be portrayed in each battle scene as completely in control and fully responsible for each victory. Napoleon informed those who would be working on this project that he was willing to spend four or five thousand francs on each rotunda and accompanying panorama painting, which was a very substantial sum of money at that time. This would have been the first time that panoramas would have been used as permanent monuments to military actions, if the rotundas had been built.

Unfortunately for Napoleon, both political and military problems were besetting his growing empire and those demands distracted his attention from his plans for his grand battle panoramas. By 1812, the treaty with Russia was unravelling and Napoleon was focused on his plans to invade and punish the Russians for their disobedience. But his Russian invasion was a disaster and he lost nearly all of the army which had accompanied him. Wellington and the allied army was putting increasing pressure on the French forces in the Peninsula. Inside France, the anti-Bonaparte factions were becoming more bold, forcing Napoleon to be especially vigilant in order to maintain his power and position. All thought of his battle panorama propaganda program was forgotten.

Though Napoleon Bonaparte was never able to achieve his goal of erecting those eight panorama rotundas in the great park of Versailles to glorify his military victories, other countries on the Continent did use panoramas for propaganda. In general, this was a more subtle method of propaganda, in which panorama proprietors would receive financial incentives to exhibit panorama paintings which depicted that country’s military in a positive light. It should be noted that during the Napoleonic Wars, panoramas in Britain and across the Continent thrived on military actions. In fact, it is estimated that panoramas which displayed dramatic recreations of major battles made up over thirty percent of all panorama subjects during those years. Even so, there is also the suggestion that, in a few cases, some panorama owners were pressured by government officials to exhibit panoramas showing specific events which they believed would help raise public morale and support for the government’s policies. However, there is no evidence of these practices in Great Britain. Though the British government did monitor many newspapers and other publications, as well as the theatre, they seem to have ignored the panoramas, even though they were routinely on display in the metropolis as well as touring throughout the countryside.

Dear Regency Authors, might the idea of a panorama as propaganda become part of the plot of one of your stories? Might the hero be on a mission to one of the countries under Bonaparte’s control to influence the production of a new panorama in the capitol or a major city? Does he have a plan by which to subtly show Napoleon in a pejorative light in a new panorama? Or, could it be the other way around? Is a French agent trying to force one of the London panorama proprietors to mount a panorama which will throw Wellington or the British government in a bad light? Does the heroine discover the plot and enlist the assistance of the hero in order to foil the French plan? How else might a propagandistic panorama serve the plot of one of your stories?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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8 Responses to The Panorama as Propaganda

  1. Hmm, no immediate plot bunnies yet [though I haven’t forgotten the plot bunny about the female artist] but maybe one will start when least expected… maybe allied with that frisky snuff box and its other secrets… fascinating as always

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Glad you liked it. And also relieved to know you are keeping a lid on the breeding of those plot bunnies! We don’t want to be overrun by them. 😉


  2. Hm, the Panorama as propaganda… – a plot bunny might well be about a propaganda-panorama with regard to foreign affairs. But could a panorama have been used as a tool to influence domestic policies as well – or at least attempting to do so?

    An example:
    1806: In the endless struggle for the abolition of the slave trade, a main supporter of the grisly trade, wealthy and influential Member of Parliament Mr T., tries to

    a) blackmail a panorama painter into drawing a panorama depicting the dreadful poverty England would face when her economy had collapsed due to the abolition of the slave trade, including a scene that shamefully humiliates William Wilberforce , and

    b) bribe the manager of the panorama to display it to influence public opinion on the matter.

    Little does Mr T. know that the painter and his family are pro-slavery-abolition. The blackmailing is dangerous though, as Mr T. owes critical knowledge about the painter’s radical past. Thus, the painter’s tomboy daughter, S., decides to steal the proof from Mr T.

    In doing so, she is caught by young and handsome Mr. W., who is staying for a business visit at Mr T.’s. He first believes her to be Mr T.s mistress, but finds her secretive behavior a bit strange. It occurs to him she must be a thief. He is, however, captured by her innocent charms and lets S. get away with the proof against her father.

    Mr T. is not as stupid as his political opinions. He quickly gathers what happened. W. has made himself a powerful enemy: Mr T. schemes his total downfall. W. soon notices how things turn bad for him.

    When W. meets S. again, he unwisely lays the blame for his bad situation at her door. S., who had fallen in love with him, is annoyed. They quarrel and W. leaves, slamming the door.
    S.’s anger cools down, and W. comes round to apologize. Romance starts to bloom again. S. decides to help W. Her father’s radical past comes in handy: He still has excellent connections to radical circles. Also, some of the rich customers he had painted for are ready to lend a hand against terrible Mr T.

    Will S. succeed in saving W.? And can the couple turn the tables on Mr T., so that he loses his seat in Parliament, thus managing to have one vote less against abolition – just in time for Mr. Wilberforce’s petition of spring 1807?

  3. Stephen Atkinson says:

    Surprised you didnt mention Girtins panorama of London which was shown in Paris beginning of 18thC

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I wrote an entire article on Thomas Girtin’s Eidometropolis a couple of years ago. That painting of London was not shown in Paris at the beginning of the 18th century for several reasons. The panorama concept was not invented until the 1780s, by Robert Barker, barely ten years after Girtin’s birth. Barker held a patent on the panorama concept until 1802. Girtin did not paint his Eidometropolis until 1802, after Barker’s patent had expired. Girtin died later that same year, and any hopes he might have had to send the panorama painting to Paris came to nothing. The Eidometropolis was never seen in Paris, during either the early 18th or the early 19th century.



      • Stephen Atkinson says:

        Thank you for your reply although a bit condescending to say the least.It has been argued by myself ,Greg Smith (Girtin exhibitionTate 2002) and my good friend Stephan Oettermann that in fact the said panorama left London in 1804-1805 and was shown in Paris at the Blvd Montmatre .It returned for a further showing in 1807 reviews show that. .James Thayer (google him)at that time had built 2 rotundas(in Paris) with a specific purpose of showing panoramas which were all the rage at that time. Extensive reviews in the journal “London und Paris” support this theory ,although vague could not be confused with any other . Girtins letters to his brother from Paris mention the fact the “panorama here doesnt answer” but he was referring to his Paris views and not the London Panorama. A advert in Oct 1802 said in fact that Paris was always to be the destination ,although when shown was very poorly received ,not surprising as Girtins style was always to cloak in atmosphere rather than truth and this probably compared to the panoramas at the time was confusing to a public used to more precise forms.In “Notes and Queries” dated 28/6/1851 No 87 page 526 there is an interesting passage written by E.N.W were he says that and I quote” It was exhibited in St Martin’s Lane,where ,not many years back,I saw it,it having been found rolled up in a loft over a carpenter’s shop.It was painted about 1793 or 1794 ,and my father has some of the original sketches” Of course the dating of the painting is far too early therefore it does present some problems and also as to when he saw the said panorama rolled up.Most of the sketches in the British Museum came from ,if I am not mistaken , the Chambers Hall collection so who E.N.W is remains a mystery. Had the panorama remained in London it would have surely been discovered well before now, Girtins brother John(Jack in the Paris correspondance) lost his invalid wife in a fire plus many of his deceased brothers finest watercolours, probably Girtins only painting in oils also but no mention of the panorama is discussed in the said list of lost works . Girtins brother ,who was the black sheep of the family ,would have surely kept the panorama for his own ends after the exhibition seeing it as a potential money maker. It is therefore to be assumed it did leave London and after ,who knows ,perhaps to be found in some dark attic in Paris ,I am still looking. Look to Robert Ker Porter for the answer to everything.

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