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A panorama is a skillfullly created illusion, offering the viewer a chance to see something they otherwise might not. At their peak, panoramas were displayed in Europe, Canada and the US. In particular, panoramas were immensely popular in London and Paris. At its simplest, a panorama is a circular painting. But they were so much more!

The secret of the panorama picture lies in the elimination of the possibility to compare the work of art with the reality outside. The creators remove all boundaries which remind the spectator that he is observing a separate object within his total field of vision. In fact, panoramas used to be called "all-views" or "the picture without boundaries."

It works this way: The painting is completed on a circular canvas, which envelops the viewer like a cylinder. The observers stand on a raised platform in the middle of this cylinder. When they glance up, the light source and top edge of the picture remain hidden from view by an umbrella-type roof over the platform. The bottom too, is blocked from sight.
Actual objects which fit the scene are positioned in the foreground, adding to the illusion.

The painting itself is done in a special fashion to create an optical illusion. Important as the technique of presentation was, the quality of the painter (usually more then one individual) was of equal importance. Unfortunately, panorama painters were not always taken seriously in the art world.

The starting point of a panorama painting was to recreate reality as close as possible. Three aspects are: 1) great precision in true-to-nature rendering of the subject, 2) respecting the correct relative proportions, 3) applying to perfection the laws of perspective.

Popular panorama scenes often depicted foreign cities. Since few people, besides the wealthy, traveled before the turn of the last century, most average people were eager to see realistic images of distant lands. Like our modern day movie theaters, panoramas were a form of entertainment and people lined up to buy a ticket. Other scenes depicted were famous battles and biblical history, among others.

The panorama crossed the Atlantic from Europe to the US as early as 1794. These early examples were semi-circular in shape and probably produced in Britain. The fad caught on and special buildings, called rotunda, were
constructed to display the panoramas. Later, Civil War battles were popular panorama subjects in the states.

Several panoramas still exist today. In the Netherlands at The Hague, the Mesdag Panorama attracts many visitors. A beach and city scene with plenty of sand in the foreground adds to the illusion. Screaming sea gull sounds make one believe the ocean is just steps away. Masterfully done, you can stand and observe the completely life-like scene for quite some time.