By Sophie Kroft
Title: The Panoramic View of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles
Artist: John Vanderlyn (American, Kingston, New York 1775–1852 Kingston, New York)
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 12 x 165 ft.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Credit Line: Gift of the Senate House Association, Kingston, N.Y., 1952
MMA Accession Number: 52.184
John Vanderlyn was born in Kingston, N.Y. in 1775. In 1796, after studying with the American painter Gilbert Stuart, he traveled to Paris and became the first American painter to study at the École des Beaux Arts. There he cultivated his strong draftsmanship, refined his artistic abilities, and integrated the French neoclassical aesthetic into his work.
Vanderlyn’s background in academic art greatly influenced his lifelong aspiration to bring the refined genre of history painting to America. Yet he equally recognized the merits and possibilities of the panorama form, a new medium introduced to America in 1795. The rise of the panorama’s prominence was concomitant with America’s period of nationalism and expansionism. The panorama in America was a “nomadic medium” that traveled from town to town, functioning as a “portable, mobile form of early mass culture.” Panorama exhibitions encouraged visitors to conceive of themselves as part of a larger community with a shared national culture by presenting spectators with scenes of recognizable, national locations. For this reason, the most popular American panoramas presented subjects such as the Mississippi River, the Hudson River, and New York City.
In September 1814, Vanderlyn chose Versailles as the subject for the first and only panorama he would create. He had already ruminated on its splendor in 1797 when he wrote, “Here are a thousand statues at least of marble scattered about in groves, gardens avenues, and labyrinths which are formed of boskets [sic] or thickets and the beauty and grandeur I cannot describe [to] you, the imagination cannot conceive any thing so Inchanting [sic], surrounded by so many gods and goddesses though of marble that one expects nothing else but to see Nymphs sporting every minute.” After Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette left Versailles in 1789, the building and its grounds were plowed and planted with crops, and the château was used as a museum and as a sanitarium for invalid soldiers. In 1814, the Bourbon King Louis XVIII restored the palace and reestablished it as a residence during the summer months. To Vanderlyn, this restoration brought the palace and its grounds back into the public interest.
From autumn 1814 into 1815, Vanderlyn made sketches on the spot with a camera obscura in order to maintain the accuracy of proportion and perspective. Notes on the sketches, many of which survive to this day, reveal that Vanderlyn also indicated the hour of the day in which the sketch was completed in order to capture correctly the shadows and even the conditions of light and atmosphere. While the sketches indicate that the gardens were almost empty when Vanderlyn was there, recognizable figures populate the panorama, carefully placed in their specific locations by the artist. Most notably, Louis XVIII appears in a ceremonial blue jacket with gold epaulets in the “window of appearance” above a small crowd gathered below the palace balcony. By including the French king, Vanderlyn acknowledged his role in restoring the palace’s grandeur, thereby emphasizing how France supported and promoted the arts and advocating that same relationship in America as well.
When he arrived back in New York in 1816, Vanderlyn set out to build his own rotunda for displaying his panoramas. Vanderlyn’s Rotunda, completed in 1818 on the corner of Cross and Chambers Streets, is considered to be the first public art museum building in New York City. While its construction was underway, Vanderlyn worked on painting the panorama in a large barn in Kingston. He constructed a curved wall 40 feet in length, worked on the panorama in quadrants, and planned to sew the entire thing together to reach a total size of 18 feet by 165 feet. The skill and patience with which he had to work is impressive, as he needed to carefully transfer all the grid drawings he made with the camera obscura onto the immense canvases. In January 1819, the quadrants were rolled up and sailed down to New York City. Interestingly, since the figures are all painted over the background, they were most likely added by the artist after the panorama arrived in New York, and there is even evidence that Vanderlyn continued to add figures after the panorama exhibition was opened to the public!
The way in which the panorama is exhibited today, with two doorways in an elliptical space, is quite different than it would have appeared to visitors in 1819. The original panorama would have been round, with only one entrance, so that the viewer was fully encompassed by the painting on all sides. Additionally, there would have been a program for purchase that provided the visitor with a historical background of Versailles and a circular plan with a list of all the sculptures, architectural elements, and even the identification of the trees. The panorama opened on June 29, 1819 and was lauded by the press for its attempt to introduce the American public to higher forms of art. However, even after two years, it was apparent that the New York public was not connecting with the Versailles panorama. The panorama had marginal success in other American cities, but Vanderlyn never achieved the success he had always envisioned. Regardless, he traveled relentlessly with his creation, and it seemed that “the more stunning his defeats, the more resolved he became to succeed.”
Although, during his lifetime, Vanderlyn’s indefatigable perseverance may have seemed misguided to others, in the end, his Versailles panorama would be among the few surviving examples of nineteenth-century American panoramas today. It has been suggested that the lackluster response to Vanderlyn’s panorama was the result of his lack of attendance at the exhibitions, his inability to finish one project before starting another, and the way in which he overextended himself financially with each endeavor. However, the subject matter was really the exhibition’s greatest misstep. In addition to the fragile economic tenor in New York the year the Rotunda opened, the political climate of the young nation was defined by skepticism toward European ideas and influences. As American artists focused introspectively on American subjects, styles, and values, movements such as the Hudson River School of painting and Emersonian Transcendentalism were born. Vanderlyn, on the other hand, presented this inward-looking American public with a “highly balanced, Neoclassical representation of a locale associated more than any other with pre-democratic Europe,” built by a king who wished to uphold the institution of monarchy boastfully above the common people. Using his panorama as a way to educate and expose visitors to a classically beautiful example of high art and architecture, Vanderlyn attempted to elevate the taste of his countrymen to match his own. Instead, however, the subject of a traditional European institution alienated the American public at a time when uncertainty and instability regarding American identity necessitated the heralding of domestic locations and national historic events.
 Kevin J. Avery and Peter L. Fodera, John Vanderlyn’s Panoramic View of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988), 13.
 Erkki Huhtamo in Peter West, ed., Panoramas, 1787-1900: Texts and Contexts, (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2013), vii-viii.
 West, Panoramas, viii.
 Avery and Fodera, Vanderlyn’s Panoramic View, 15.
 Avery and Fodera, Vanderlyn’s Panoramic View, 16-17.
 Avery and Fodera, Vanderlyn’s Panoramic View, 20.
 Avery and Fodera, Vanderlyn’s Panoramic View, 26.
 West, Panoramas, 2.
 West, Panoramas.