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Dead medium: the Panorama
From: Bruce Sterling
Source(s): he Panorama Phenomenon: Mesdag Panorama 1881- 1981
Published by the Foundation for the Preservation of the
Centenarian Mesdag Panorama (September 1981)
Den Haag, Holland
editor Evelyn J. Fruitema
written by Paul A. Zoetmulder
Mesdag Panorama, Zeestraat 65b, 2518AA The Hague

pages 18-19

"Quite simply, the secret of the panorama lies in the

elimination of the possibility to compare the work of art

with the reality outside, by taking away *all* boundaries

which remind the spectator that he is observing a separate

object within his total visual field. Not without reason

the panorama used to be called the 'all-view' or 'the

picture without boundaries.' Barker's patent achieved

this effect by incapsulating the spectator inside a *total


"The circular canvas envelops him like a cylinder.

When he glances upward, the light source and the top edge

of the picture remain hidden from view by an umbrella-

like roof over the platform (the so-called *velum*), and

at the bottom of the picture his view is blocked by a

cloth or another kind of foreground, placed between the

balustrade and the lower edge of the painting.

"By means of these provisions the spectator is

deprived of the possibility of comparison. He can no

longer correctly judge size and distance. He only sees

the objects on the painting surrounding him in their

relative proportions (...) and all this lead the spectator

to experience his fictitious surroundings as a reality.

This technique, invented by Barker, was a complete novelty

at the time, and its amazing effect was the cause of the

enormous success scored by the panorama during more than a

hundred years.

"It goes without saying that in the course of time

the optical effects have been further doctored. (...) The

corridor leading from below to the platform was therefore

darkened, so that the visitor, whose eye had been adapted

to this darkness, gets caught unprepared by the fully lit

panorama picture (...) A winding staircase was mostly

chosen for entering the higher situated platform with the

preconceived intention of making the visitor lose his


"Numerous experiments were necessary to establish how

the spectator should be fitted into the whole,. and the

distance to be allowed between the platform and the

canvas. The lighting of the canvas via the roof dome = an

essential element of panorama technique = was no simple

matter. (...) Experiments were made with smoked glass,

with 'skirts' of cloth encircling the light dome, with

transversely screened sheets, all this with the aim of

making the light from above shine *from* the picture by

reflection. (...)

"It was a certain Colonely Langlois who broke new

ground by using the horizontal space between the platform

and canvas to perfect still further the optical illusion.

He 'filled' this space with a setting of tri-dimensional

objects which constituted integrating parts of the

display. Without this '*faux-terrain*,' the foreground-

setting, including the objects, the so-called '*attrapes*'

(hoaxes), a panorama later on was no longer a real

panorama. Gradually this technique was further refined to

the extent that the tri-dimensional attrapes faded

perfectly into the bi-dimensional canvas, thus creating a

very realistic effect."