Before Movies, People Went to See Moving Paintings


Six rolls of vibrant, exotic style wallpaper totaling 190 feet, 3 1/2 inches once wowed 19th-century Europeans, but not as wallpaper. When the Rijks Museum’s curators began searching their collections of large works on paper for the museum’s “XXL Paper—Big, Bigger, Biggest!” exhibition, they discovered that those six rolls were part of one work of moving images, titled the “Giant-Cyclorama” (giant cyclorama).

Before movies, people paid to see moving panoramic paintings (called moving cycloramas in some parts of the world). A wooden frame held the long roll of painted paper that was wrapped between two wooden poles, allowing the scenes to be slowly revealed within the frame. Small holes at the top of the paper show how the museum’s painting once hung on a wooden frame. Even though the Rijks Museum’s painting is huge, it’s just one small fragment of the nearly one-mile-long moving cyclorama.

Rijksmuseum
Conservators at the Rijks Museum prepare part of the “Giant-Cyclorama” for the “XXL Paper—Big, Bigger, Biggest!” exhibition. (Bibi Veth/Rijksmuseum)

The idea of ​​the cyclorama came from the theater, where huge vertical or horizontal painted backdrops set the scene onstage.

Of the few moving cycloramas that survive today, the majority are in America. (They can be found listed on the International Panorama Council’s website.) Subjects of moving cycloramas vary from geographical tours of foreign lands, to historic themes of great battles or world-changing events, to religious themes such as scenes from the life of Christ.

A Discovery in Motion

In the article “From Wallpaper to Moving Panorama: The Discovery of Fragments of the Cyclorama Reichardt,” in the peer-reviewed journal “The Rijks Museum Bulletin,” experts describe how they preserved the painting and how they learned more about its history.

In the article, a distinction is made between panorama paintings and moving cycloramas. The former were historically and geographically accurate, and normally created under the guidance of an academically trained painter. while moving cycloramas could be fantastical and were normally created by craftsmen and stage painters.

Just like painted ceilings or stage backdrops, the cyclorama’s audience never saw the moving paintings up close. As opposed to the accurate details in the static panoramic painting, the moving cyclorama didn’t need to be perfect; its aim was to give audience members the feeling of being on a boat, a train, or a carriage, and enable them to enjoy the landscapes that went by.

The moving cyclorama took audience members on a journey through landscapes (sometimes imaginary) that they may never have had the chance to visit. A narrator or a guidebook often accompanied the show, as did music and sometimes other entertainers such as magicians and ventriloquists.

Perhaps confusingly, the round buildings that once displayed static panoramic paintings are also called cycloramas. Many of these buildings sprang up across America and Europe, and some still exist.

German publisher Ferdinand Reichardt commissioned three Berlin artists—painter Heinrich Heyl and decorative painters the Borgmann brothers—to paint him a moving cyclorama that takes in the landscapes of the Tyrol region (now a part of northern Italy and northern Austria), the Styria region of southeast Austria, then Switzerland, and Italy.

Rijksmuseum
Fragment of the “Giant-Cyclorama,” circa 1853, attributed to decorative painters the Borgmann brothers and painter Heinrich Heyl; 5 feet, 10 inches by 75 feet, 9 inches. The conservation of the cyclorama is made possible by the Bank ten Cate & Cie fund/Rijksmuseum fund. (public domain)

In the 19th century, hikes and European Grand Tours were popular pastimes. Ads declared that moving cyclorama were a cheap and safe way to “travel” and “go on a hike without the risks of falling off the mountains or being buried under snow,” as one advertisement wrote.

The “Giant-Cyclorama” took audiences through 500 miles of scenery condensed into nearly one mile or hand-painted vistas. The Rijks Museum holds a mere 190 feet, 3 1/2 inches of the painting. Reichardt’s “Reuzen-Cyclorama” toured across the Netherlands, Antwerp in Belgium, and London, where even Queen Victoria watched it.

Experts assume that most of the cyclorama deteriorated over time from the extensive touring. They believe that parts of the painting containing identifiable landmarks, such as Lucerne in Switzerland, and Milan and Lake Como in Italy, may have been reused or stored for protection. The missing segments could be rolled up in storage somewhere, believed to be wallpaper and waiting to be rediscovered once again as moving paintings.

Visitors can surround themselves with 75 feet, 5 1/2 inches of the cyclorama in a specially designed room at the Rijks Museum’s “XXL Paper—Big, Bigger, Biggest!” exhibition. The scenic painting is one of the museum’s huge paper works on show, many of which have never been displayed before.

The exhibition’s large paper works have been produced from around 1500 to today, and include an interesting variety of works from preparatory cartoons for tapestries or stained-glass windows (a practice still used in stained-glass window design today), to a giant paper altarpiece.

Rijksmuseum
Detail of “One Hundred Children,” circa 1700–1799, by Xu Yanghong. Ink on paper; 1 foot, 1/2 inch by 22 feet, 6 1/4 inches. Purchased with the support of Rituals. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. (public domain)
Rijksmuseum
“One Hundred Children,” c. 1700–1799 by Xu Yanghong. Hanging scroll, ink on paper. Painting: Around one foot by 17 feet, 3 1/8 inches. Purchased with the support of Rituals. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. (public domain)

Among the exhibition highlights are a woodcut (circa 1535) by Robert Peril, which is nearly 22 feet, 11 5/8 inches tall, of the family tree of Emperor Charles V; and the 18th-century scroll titled “One Hundred Children,” by Xu Yanghong. The charming scroll contains 12 scenes of children playing in a Chinese garden. The children’s activities exemplify the four gentlemanly accomplishments of music, painting, calligraphy, and the game Go. Viewers would roll out the scroll a scene at a time to contemplate them at their own pace.

The “XXL Paper—Big, Bigger, Biggest!” exhibition at the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam runs until Sept. 4. To find out more, visit RijksMuseum.nl

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