Loomis's Panorama of Cuba

On October 19, 1850, Loomis’s Panorama of Cuba made its debut at the Minerva Rooms on Broadway in New York City. Described in a New York Daily Tribune advertisement as “a most splendid work of art, exhibiting most beautifully and faithfully the cities, countries, mountains, and luxurious tropical vegetation,” it offered nightly audience members the opportunity to “travel” to a place that would perhaps otherwise live only in their imaginations.  For a ticket price of 25 cents—the equivalent of about eight dollars in today’s money—viewers took in the 700 feet long and 7 feet wide panorama from their theater seats. Held at either end by two large spools, the painted canvas scrolled horizontally across a frame set upon the stage. Spoken narration probably accompanied the moving image, providing cultural, historical, and geographical information. After six weeks in New York, Loomis’s panorama journeyed to showings over the next year in Savannah and Macon, Georgia; Montgomery, Alabama; New Orleans; Natchez, Mississippi; and Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio. A letter written in 1850 by P.T. Barnum to merchants in Sacramento suggests that Loomis also considered bringing his canvas to California.

Panoramas were big business in mid-nineteenth-century America. Loomis’s was but one of many touring the United States. Popular as entertainment and educational, they presented a variety of themes. Just a handful of the documented panoramas from 1846-1851 demonstrate this range: scenes from a whaling vessel’s journey around the world; a voyage to Europe; a trade ship’s sail around Cape Horn to California; a river boat’s trip up the Mississippi River; John Bunyan’s 17th century novel, Pilgrim’s Progress.

A series of pencil sketches drawn on thin strips of white paper--labeled with section letters and numbers—and glued together to form continuous views from the waters surrounding Cuba reside in the school’s Archives collection.  Artist and Loomis Institute Founder Osbert Burr Loomis created these drawings as he designed the panorama, recording details of his adopted home’s natural landscape, the built environment, and aspects of the Cuban economy. Recent research by Dr. Nalleli Guillen of the Brooklyn Historical Society uncovered Loomis’s hiring of New York based theater painter John Evers for five weeks during the fall of 1850. Evers assisted in painting the sketched landscapes onto the long canvas, earning 25 dollars per week. The project was completed just a week before its opening at the Minerva Rooms.

Loomis’s painted Panorama of Cuba does not survive. Like most of its moving panorama counterparts from the mid-nineteenth century, it was created mostly as a business venture, taking advantage of American curiosity and improved transportation routes making it easier to reach more paying audiences. Osbert never intended this to be lasting art.  When Osbert returned to his home in Cuba after the panorama’s American tour, he wasn’t finished making large scale images. Less than a decade later, and this time through the lens of his camera, Loomis created a series of early panoramic photographs of Havana. These images can now be viewed in the 2013 publication of La Habana: Imagen De Una Cuidad Colonial by authors Zola Lapique Becali and Julio A. Larramendi Joa.