“What a wonderful panorama!” Lou Henry Hoover’s idea for picturing America.

By Thomas F. Schwartz

Before the invention of IMAX projection and Circle Vision 360, the viewing public was dazzled by panoramic paintings called cycloramas.  Dating from 1787 and reaching its height of popularity by 1900, cycloramas depicted beautiful landscapes or great historic events.  Created by producing multiple oil paintings that could be assembled in the round,

Credit: National Park Service. This photo shows a close-up of Union and Confederate soldiers engaged in hand to hand combat. Gettysburg Cyclorama Painting

cycloramas appeared in major cities throughout the United States and Europe.  One of the most celebrated still can be viewed today at the Gettysburg National Military Park.  Paul Philippoteaux, a French-born artist, was commissioned in 1882 by Chicago merchant Charles Louis Willoughby for the princely sum of $50,000 to paint events of July 3, 1863 at the Battle of Gettysburg.  This day, the third day of intense fighting in the rural Pennsylvania town, is best known for the gallant but failed Pickett’s Charge.  The work was completed the following year and toured major cities with great acclaim.  The cyclorama eventually found a permanent home at Gettysburg National Military Park and underwent a major restoration for its re-installation in the new museum and theater in 2008.

Lou Henry Hoover
Lou Henry Hoover, 1932

Lou Henry Hoover was familiar with Philippoteaux’s work.  In a series of folders containing both fragments of ideas for speeches as well as portions of speeches she reworked is found a typed fragment urging the creation of a panoramic painting, similar to the one for the Battle of Gettysburg.  Lou muses:

“I wish someone would paint a picture of the whole United States.  Showing all the kinds of people that embrace it, and what they are doing.  It would take a panorama.  What a wonderful panorama!  Like the old Battle of Gettysburg.

I wish someone would write a book.  Not a learned treatise on economics, with big words, and (resonant) phrases.  But a simple, almost one-syllable book about our country.  Just a narrative of it.  What is it geographically?  What does it furnish in living possibilities?  In working possibilities?  In recreational, educational and saving possibilities—for relaxation in old age, and for the helpless.”

Like many of Lou’s ideas, these were never realized.  But it does illustrate the creativeness, diversity, and inclusiveness of her thinking on what constitutes a national portrait and narrative.


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