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'Monumental Grandeur' being restored at Art Museum

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 13, 2011 - The new exhibit at the St. Louis Art Museum, "Restoring an American Treasure: The Panorama of the Monumental Grandeur of the Mississippi Valley," will show off an old treasure and demonstrate the work that must be done to bring it back.

The 25-scene panorama stands about 7.5 feet tall and totals 348 feet long. It was painted by John J. Egan, based on sketches from Dr. Montroville W. Dickeson's travels in the Mississippi River area around the 1850s, where he studied burial grounds and 19th century Native American life.

"For something from 1850, it's actually in pretty remarkable shape, when it's been rolled and unrolled," Museum painting conservator Paul Haner said.

Panoramas like Dickeson's were typically displayed while moving. As the museum explained, "Moving panoramas were mounted on two upright cylinders and then rolled from one cylinder to the other. As the scenes scrolled past, they offered the illusion of passing scenery." Because of the age and fragility of this piece, however, the Museum plans to display one scene at a time. Each scene will be displayed after it has been conserved from the damage the panorama has suffered over time.

Haner said the main things the conservators have been doing to salvage the scenes are touch-ups with special crayons and steaming parts of the fabric the scenes are painted on. Since the paints used in the 1800s were water soluble, the panorama has suffered water damage over the years, causing creases in some of the scenes.

"This artist was very adept at using (the paint)," Haner said. The panorama was painted on cotton Muslin fabric. This type of painting is meant to be viewed from standing further back, Haner said, and not scrutinized up close.

The Art Museum borrowed the panorama from the University of Pennsylvania's Art Museum to display it in 1950 and then bought it in 1953.

"The vast majority of the time, it has been in storage," Museum senior curatorial assistant Janeen Turk said.

Turk said the Museum probably purchased the panorama because of the city's proximity to the Mississippi River, which is depicted often in various scenes. During their time, panoramas would be displayed in different towns as forms of entertainment. Indeed, Dickeson traveled with this panorama and narrated the scenes.

Allison Prang, a student at the University of Missouri Columbia, is a Beacon intern.

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