"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Folly of John Banvard

History loves its rags-to-riches tales. The rags-to-riches-and-back-to-rags stories tend to get buried as general embarrassments. One of America's most striking examples of this is John Banvard, who went from the richest artist in the world to a largely-forgotten historical footnote.

Banvard was born in New York City in 1815. His father Daniel was a successful builder. The family was prosperous until 1831, when Daniel Banvard suddenly died. This tragedy was compounded when his business partner took advantage of the situation by fleeing with all the company's assets, leaving the Banvards poverty-stricken nearly overnight.

Young John, like many energetic but needy young men, left home in search of better opportunities. He found one in 1833, when the owner of a Louisville showboat gave him a job. He showed an aptitude for painting and sketching large canvases, which gave him the ambition of going into the showboat business for himself. The following year--through what was apparently a flat-out swindle--he and a few friends acquired enough capital to launch their own floating theater company. They would sail up and down the Mississippi in a converted flatboat, displaying Banvard's large landscape paintings and staging primitive performances of the popular plays of the time. It wasn't exactly the pinnacle of show business greatness, but it kept the boys alive until a stage manager decided he liked young Banvard's work enough to hire him as a scene painter. It was at this time that he began to get involved in the hottest entertainment trend of the day, the "Panorama."

"Panoramas" probably could best be described as a "Flintstones" version of motion pictures. They consisted of one very long loop of canvas with painted-on scenery, that was slowly wound from one spool to another around the audience, giving the impression of continuous movement. As in the later silent film era, the impression was enhanced by live musical accompaniment and clever lighting. Primitive though it may sound to us, audiences of that day had never seen anything like it, and the shows were wildly popular.

Banvard, who already had experience creating giant canvases, naturally gravitated to this new phenomenon. His first effort was a 100' long canvas he called "Infernal Regions." He sold it in 1841 for what was, to him at that time, a large amount of money. Banvard saw no reason why he could not become king of the panoramas. He decided he was going to present the biggest, most awe-inspiring canvas the world had yet seen.

He was going to paint the portrait of the entire Mississippi river.

In the spring of 1842, he set off in a skiff to capture on canvas some 1200 miles of river, from St. Louis to New Orleans. It took him two years of dealing with blistering heat and yellow fever in the summer, rain and cold in the winter. While he worked, he made a threadbare living by selling and trading whatever small items he could find. It was an arduous adventure, but he did it, and when he was finished, he knew that what he had was very, very good. It may not quite have been, as the advertisements boasted, three miles long, but it came damn close. It was the largest painting in the world.

1848 sketch of a panorama designed by Banvard

His next necessity was to create an entirely new system of spools and levers capable of handling this unprecedentedly huge canvas. He succeeded so well that he patented the device. Finally, in 1844, he was able to present his leviathan of a panorama in Louisville. He accompanied the exhibit with his own narration, giving highly-colored but immensely entertaining anecdotes about his travels down the river. He was not only a born panorama painter, but a natural showman. Within a few days, it was a huge success.

In December 1846, he brought his "Three-Mile Painting" to Boston, which was at that time America's biggest entertainment market. By this time, his now-practiced narration was enhanced by a classical concert pianist. It was considered an enthralling blend of visual, spoken, and musical art.

Banvard became the toast of Boston. It is estimated that some 250,000 people paid the fifty-cent admission to view this unprecedented spectacle, including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was inspired to write his epic poem "Evangeline." In less than a year, he made a profit of some $100,000. The former river rat was now the highest-paid artist in the country. He even gained a wife out of this show--Elizabeth Goodman, his pianist.

In 1847, he brought his show to New York, where the crowds were just as adulatory and even bigger than the Bostonians. It was hailed as "a monument of native talent and American genius." Money was coming in faster than he or anyone else could count it. He was basking in critical acclaim, as well. The intelligentsia saw his panorama not as meaningless entertainment for the masses, but as a landmark in America's educational and artistic development.

Banvard's "Journey to the Ohio River"

The following year, Banvard took his canvas to England, where it drew an estimated half-million visitors. He was canny enough to capitalize on his fame by producing a quickie autobiography, "Banvard, the Adventures of an Artist," which was also a huge success. He was even summoned to Windsor Castle to give a private performance for the queen. He always looked back on that as the greatest moment of his life.

Naturally, such immense critical and financial success brought him a host of imitators. By 1850, London had over fifty competing "panorama" shows. Banvard realized that it was time for him to present something new. What he came up with was, in effect, a sequel. His original panorama showed the eastern bank of the Mississippi. His new work showed the western bank. While his first panorama was still on display in London, Banvard brought out his new scene, which attracted some 100,000 customers. He then took it to Paris, where it drew huge crowds for the next two years.

His career next took a somewhat surprising turn. While in London, he became enthralled by the Egyptian artifacts he saw in the Royal Museum. He even learned how to read hieroglyphics--a skill even rarer in those times than it is today. He acquired so much knowledge about Egyptology that when he returned to America, he did a successful lecture tour on the subject.

He used his new skills to make a tour of the Middle East. He created two groundbreaking panoramas showing Palestine and the Nile river. These new paintings did decent business, but nothing like his original show. The public, predictable in its fickleness, was already getting bored with panoramas and glutted by the many imitators who had followed in Banvard's wake.

Banvard realized that it was time for him to retire. In 1852, he built a massive, lavish estate on Long Island. He patterned it after Windsor Castle, which was fitting for the Panorama King. He named it "Glenada," in honor of his daughter Ada. However, his neighbors, who found the mansion ridiculously showy, snidely nicknamed it "Banvard's Folly."

Banvard's sketch of Glenada

It mattered little to Banvard what the neighbors thought. He was one of the richest men in America, the most financially successful painter in history. He had a loving family, some incredible memories, and all the money anyone could ever want. He even wrote a play, "Amasis, or the Last of the Pharoahs," for which he also painted the sets. It was probably just as ridiculous as its title, but it proved to be a respectable critical and financial success.

If the artist had only been content to spend his life in luxurious rustication, we'd have here the perfect American fairy-tale. Unfortunately, Banvard blew it all through a combination of boredom, hubris, and a lack of awareness about his limitations.

The 1850s saw the rise of another showman who is far better remembered today: P.T. Barnum. As this rival huckster and his "American Museum" began to steal Banvard's limelight, the former Panorama King grew jealous of all the attention Barnum was getting. Besides, Banvard had led an active life ever since adolescence, and his quiet home life, no matter how comfortable, was beginning to grate on his nerves. He plotted a comeback. He decided that he would set himself up as a direct rival to Barnum. Banvard would use his knowledge of Egyptology to open his own museum, showcasing the collection of artifacts he had acquired during his trip to the Middle East.

It would not have been a bad idea, except that Banvard completely overlooked one crucial detail: He had no idea how to run anything approximating a business, and worse, seemed unaware of the necessity of surrounding himself with people who did. He and an old friend, William Lillienthal--who was as ignorant of managing such an enterprise as Banvard--began by offering stock options in the new Banvard Museum. Many of New York's elite bought this stock without bothering to check its legitimacy. Banvard's name still held a lot of glamor, and these financiers simply trusted his acumen. Banvard also paid for the building of the museum by giving workers and suppliers shares of this stock, instead of money.

There was just one problem. Banvard and Lillienthal had no idea that they were required to register his business with the state of New York. This meant that, in reality, these stock certificates were literally not worth the paper they were printed on.

The museum opened in Manhattan on June 1867. It was the brick-and-mortar equivalent of a panorama: A vast 40,000 square-foot building hosting lecture rooms, Banvard's collection of antiquities, and, taking pride of place in the center of the museum, his original Mississippi panorama. Banvard advertised the museum as the cultured, educational alternative to Barnum's gleefully tacky emporium.

Barnum, figuratively speaking at least, spat in his eye. This new rival may have had the culture, but Barnum had the PR genius. His spies made careful notes about all that was attractive about Banvard's Museum, and then Barnum put on his own cheap, cheesy, but brilliantly-advertised knock-offs of them. Banvard may have been a good showman, but Barnum was an epically great one. As always in show business, self-promotion is the only talent you really need.

Within weeks of his museum's grand opening, Banvard found himself in serious hot water. Barnum was outdrawing him. His creditors were beginning to scream for their payments. Worst of all, his shareholders were finally discovering that their stock certificates were good for nothing more than lighting cigarettes. In desperation, he reinvented the museum, now called "Banvard's Grand Opera House and Museum." In addition to the exhibits, it offered plays and dancing exhibitions. Sadly, this reboot was an even bigger flop.

Banvard now really had built his Folly. Thanks to a combination of the museum failure, the enormous expenses involved in running Glenada, and the financial panic of 1873, most of his fortune was gone. His name was now anathema in New York. He sold the museum building. The capable new owners renamed it "Daly's Theatre," and it became a great success.

Banvard retreated to Glenada rather in the manner of Napoleon retreating from Moscow. He tried to get other projects off the ground, but after the museum disaster, no investor in his right mind wanted anything to do with him.

His downward spiral continued when he tried turning author. In 1875, he published a book about England's George IV. It was soon revealed that his work plagiarized a book from the 1830s. He followed this up with a play called "Corrina, a Tale of Sicily." This proved to be a rip-off of someone else's work, as well. After this twin fiasco, Banvard was not just broke, he was a public laughingstock.

In 1883, he was forced to sell Glenada. The contents all went to paying off creditors. About the only possession Banvard had left was his Mississippi panorama--and that was simply because no one wanted it. At this point, the canvas must have been a bitterly painful reminder of long-lost glories. Banvard and his wife, having nowhere else to go, moved in with their son Eugene in Watertown, a village in what is now South Dakota. What finally became of his once-celebrated panorama is unknown. I wouldn't have blamed Banvard if he had burned it.

In 1886, Banvard made one last effort to recapture the past. He created a panorama depicting Sherman's 1865 destruction of the city of Columbia, South Carolina, complete with special effects of his own design. It apparently was a splendid show, and would have been a great success--forty years earlier. By the time he unveiled "The Burning of Columbia," panoramas were considered passe, and, in any case, the Dakota Territories were inauspicious places to launch a Hollywood-style extravaganza. Banvard spent most of his remaining years writing curious but sadly wretched poetry, dealing with everything from local Watertown events to such esoteric topics as Egyptology and Freemasonry:
And now pious men have the field in their care,
And good pilgrims from far go thither for prayer.
That perfume still ascends, and will ever ascend,
Ascend o'er the world with its aroma sweet
Where two Masons commune, there pervades that perfume,
And the sweetest of strains their fellowship greet;
Wherever two brothers in fellowship stand,
That field has an emblem in every land.

Banvard also authored a treatise on shorthand. He died in 1891, largely forgotten by the world.

Among Banvard's few remaining possessions was an aged little piece of paper. It was a bill for $15.51, the cost of his father's burial back in 1831. The Banvards had been too poor to ever pay it. For sixty years, through all his adventures and his incredible ups and downs, Daniel Banvard's son had kept this reminder of personal loss and humiliating poverty. Why did he so carefully preserve this paper? No one knows. It serves as this strange man's own "Rosebud."

As it happened, this old unpaid bill served as a mirror of John Banvard's own end. His surviving relatives did not have the money for a proper funeral, so he was buried in a pauper's grave.

Sic transit gloria mundi.


  1. A village? Watertown is the 5th largest city in South Dakota!

    1. In 1880, the population of Watertown SD was a whopping total of 746, which certainly qualified it as a village. Ten years later there were 2000+ inhabitants, promoting it to a "town." Definition of a "city" is minimum 100,000 residents. 5th largest perhaps, but not technically a "city" still. (However: Cities pretty much suck, so Watertown has it good.)

  2. A sad story. As much as Banvard should have been punished for plagiarism and, perhaps, for his initial showboat swindle, Banvard seems not to have been a bad man, and to have deserved a better end. His plagiarism looks to be the work of a desperate man, rather than a criminal. I suppose it’s a lesson in being thankful for what one has.

  3. A perfect example of someone who knows how to get on a horse and ride it but doesn't know when its time to get off.

    Wonder what he would have done had he not had the panorama craze to latch onto?

  4. More info on Banvard—as well as a dozen other folks who were once rich and famous but are now almost completely forgotten—can be found in Paul Collins' excellent book, "Banvard's Folly." It's a great collection of stories that convey some fascinating-though-forgotten history that I found wonderfully entertaining.

  5. This is my great great great grandfather and his story is very interesting to me... guess this is where I get my showmanship from lol


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