by Michael P. Dyer, Maritime Curator at the New Bedford Whaling Museum
This article, excerpted here, is published in full in The Panorama in the Old World and the New, copyright in 2010 by The International Panorama Council, edited by Gabriele Koller, and first published by Buro Wilhelm – Verag Koch – Schmidt – Wiilhelm GbR.
Between 1847 and 1848, Benjamin Russell (1804-1885), an erstwhile New Bedford, Massachusetts banker turned whaleman and artist, in collaboration with Caleb Pierce Purrington (1812-1876), a Fairhaven, Massachusetts, sign painter created a whaling panorama over 1,275-foot long [i]. They entitled their work Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World and over 1848-1851 took it on a tour of the mid-west and eastern United States. (fig. 1) No direct evidence exists defining exactly what each of the artists contributed to the painting. It appears that Russell was responsible for all of the content while Purrington was probably responsible for coloring everything but that is merely guesswork. In the absence of any marine painting or drawing directly attributed to Caleb Purrington and with a preponderance of ship portraits and whaling scenes executed and signed by Benjamin Russell, it would seem logical that Purrington was working under Russell’s direct tutelage as far as the marine scenes are concerned.
No matter who actually did what, in the New Bedford Mercury newspaper for December 12, 1848, Russell authorized the paper to emphasize
that he is very desirous that the public should understand that to Mr. Purrington’s skill and exertion full credit must be awarded for whatever of success may have or shall attend the painting now on exhibition. Mr. Russell desires no monopoly of credit and concedes to his friend more than he is willing to take to himself.
Russell’s declaration implies a stature or reputation on his own part as a marine painter that may not have been present on the part of Caleb Purrington. Russell first appears formally listed as an artist in the New Bedford Directory for 1867. His earliest dated whaling scenes, however, date from 1848.[ii] He had presumably developed a reputation as a competent artist of whale ships and whaling scenes in the late 1840s. The finished quality of his work attributed to this period suggests that his reputation was not undeserved. The Panorama would certainly have been an enormous undertaking for one artist but as yet little is known of his working relationship with Caleb Purrington.
In and of itself the panorama is interesting. Panoramas like this one were popular at the time, and their very advent is a subject of considerable study. As an art object and an historical document though, the ‘Grand Panorama’ is equally interesting and potentially even more important. It is probably the largest surviving painting in North America. While it is currently in a somewhat fragile condition due to its age and use over the years (albeit now safely and responsibly stored in the New Bedford Whaling Museum), it is quite capable of being stabilized, conserved and exhibited for popular scrutiny.[iii] It is one of the last remaining examples of the phenomenon of panoramas that swept Europe and the United States between the 1790s and the 1880s. The New Bedford Whaling Museum acquired it in 1918.
This panorama, however, is unique for two reasons. The first is that it is the only surviving large-scale panorama of the American whale fishery and the second is its importance as an historical document. It illustrates better than any other American whaling illustration key elements of the impact of the Yankee whale fishery, including its role in the expanding hegemony of the United States through the intersection and injection of American commerce into ports and landfalls the world around. Locations such as the Azores Islands in the Atlantic Ocean and the Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific came to be major centers of whaling activity and trade, and they are portrayed that way by Russell and Purrington.
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Avery, Kevin J. “Whaling voyage round the world: Russell and Purrington’s moving panorama and Herman Melville’s mighty book,” American Art Journal, vol. XXII, No. 1 (Spring, 1990), 50-78.
Carothers, Robert L., and John L. Marsh. “The whale and the panorama,” Nineteenth-century fiction, 26 (1971-1972), 319-328.
“The case of the swollen painting,” The bulletin: Old Dartmouth Historical Society and Whaling Museum (Fall, 1960), 1-4.
Goode, George Brown. The fisheries and fishery industries of the United States. Section V, History and methods of the fisheries (Washington, 1887).
Hall, Elton W. Panoramic views of whaling by Benjamin Russell. Old Dartmouth Historical Sketch Number 80. (New Bedford, MA, 1981).
Ingalls, Elizabeth. Whaling prints in the Francis B. Lothrop collection (Salem, MA, 1987).
Lund, Judith N. “Panorama of a whaling voyage around the world,” Early American Homes (October, 1996), 52-57.
Morison, Samuel Eliot. An introduction to whaler out of New Bedford, a film based on the Purrington-Russell panorama of a whaling voyage round the world, 1841-1845. (New Bedford, MA, 1962).
New Bedford and Old Dartmouth: A portrait of a region’s past. A bicentennial exhibition of the Old Dartmouth Historical Society at the Whaling Museum in New Bedford, December 4, 1975-April 18, 1976 (New Bedford, MA, 1975).
“Notes on an exhibition,” The bulletin: Old Dartmouth Historical Society and Whaling Museum (Summer, 1958), 1-4.
[i] The exact length of the original panorama is not known as its final sequence was missing at the time of its gift to the New Bedford Whaling Museum in 1918.
[ii] One of his earliest dated works is A Ship on the North-West Coast Cutting in her Last Right Whale, lithograph by Auguste Etienne Francois Mayer, printed by Lemercier, Paris, 1848. Ingalls 269. Ingalls notes that “Russell sent his design to the prestigious Parisian firm of Lemercier, thus insuring high quality and a certain credibility.” He would include very similar scenes in the panorama.
[iii] As it exists, the panorama is on four rolls in various sized sections. The paint is an aqueous opaque paint on a base consisting of two widths of canvas sheeting sewn together. It has various patches throughout. It is damp stained in places. The paint is powdered and flaking from the surface in places, faded in spots and wrinkled. A conservation survey of the entire painting was conducted in 2000-2001 with the documentation running to four volumes.
[iv] Americans began hunting right whales in the seventeenth century, sperm whales in the eighteenth century and Arctic bowhead whales by the mid-nineteenth century. The commercial products derived from these animals brought great wealth to several New England towns. American expertise in the prosecution of this industry outstripped international competition and greatly reduced certain stocks of migratory animals.
[v] While a complete list of the cities visited by the panorama does not yet exist a compilation from press reviews, scholarly articles and manuscript correspondence indicates that the following at least were visited: Fairhaven, MA, December 1848; New Bedford, MA, December 1848; Boston, MA, April 1849; Cincinnati, OH, December 1849; Louisville, KY, March 1850; St. Louis, MO, April 1850; Detroit, MI, May 1850; Buffalo, NY [1850?]; Baltimore, MD, March 1851; New York, NY, Sept., 1851.
[vi] Old Dartmouth Historical Society MSS 69, Ser. A. Folder 1.
[vii] ODHS MSS 69, Ser. A Folder 1
[viii] ODHS MSS 69, Ser. A Folder 2
[ix] In the New Bedford Free Public Library Crew List Database, Russell is listed as “boatsteerer” on the 1841 voyage of the Kutusoff. It is difficult to actually imagine him in the extremely athletic role of boatsteerer with all the grueling work that such a position required. Boatsteerers were usually highly experienced whalemen and there is no evidence that Russell had ever sailed on another voyage.