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• A long island: Manhattan – 3000 feet by six feet.

Fig 1 – Click to enlarge.

By PETER WEST [Common-Place] – On November 15, 1850, at the American Hall in Hartford, Connecticut, Otis Bullard debuted his “Panorama of New York City,” a 3,000-foot-long painting depicting the streets, residents, and sights of lower Manhattan. The exhibition’s six-foot-high canvas was rolled, in several sections, onto cylinders, and then slowly unfurled before an audience who had paid twenty-five cents each for a two-hour presentation. Like other moving panoramas, Bullard’s transformed its subject into a pictorial narrative: from the corner of West Street and Cortlandt Street, the panorama’s virtual stroll took viewers down to the Battery, then east to Broadway, and then back uptown along the city’s most famous thoroughfare to Union Square, where the exhibition concluded. Starting his panoramic tour at the island’s westernmost edge, where disembarking ferry and steamboat passengers encountered the waterfront hotels of West Street, Bullard placed his viewer in the position of a visitor arriving from the mainland United States.

This was no accident, for the panorama’s virtual tourism was carefully marketed to viewers in small cities and towns far enough away from New York that they would be willing to pay to “see the elephant” in painted form at their local concert hall or church. Over the course of the work’s seventeen-year career, during which time it was seen by hundreds of thousands of Americans, Bullard’s panorama was never exhibited anywhere in or near New York City itself. While residents of cities such as St. Louis delighted in seeing their streets and buildings represented in the many Mississippi River panoramas of the late 1840s—stories circulated of people gleefully recognizing their homes up on the canvas—the “Panorama of New York City” was made for a distinctly nonurban audience.

Bullard’s panorama, originally a visual medium, exists today only as the elusive object of written texts: promotional materials, newspaper testimonials, a descriptive pamphlet, and a few other scattered documents (fig. 1).

Continued at Common-Place | More Chronicle & Notices.

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