Nobody knew where the six enormous landscapes in the depot of the Rijksmuseum came from. To now it turns out, they were part of a life-sized moving panaroma of no less than a mile long.
It was one of the fascinating cold cases in the Rijksmuseum’s collection: the six colossal 19th-century landscapes on paper in psychedelic tones that the museum had owned since at least the early 1960s, probably longer. Nobody knew where they came from; no one knew exactly what they represented. No one, either, knew what they had been for – though some believed by their size that they had once functioned as “room wallpaper.” Recently, the largest of the six (23 meters long) was restored and during the accompanying archive research their original function came to light.
The landscapes, as revealed by Idelette van Leeuwen and Maud van Suylen, respectively head of the restoration studio of paper and photos, and scientific assistant at the Rijksmuseum on Thursday during a mini-symposium there, are fragments of the Cyclorama Reichardt, a moving panorama of no less than a mile long . It was made around 1853 and was one of the largest cycloramas of the period, which is another way of saying it was one of the greatest cycloramas of all time, perhaps the largest.
Those who sat down in front of it saw views of Salzburg, Innsbruck, Lausanne, Geneva, Mont Blanc, Lake Como, Milan, Florence, Rome and Naples, a journey of about 800 kilometers. This road movie was often accompanied by orchestral music avant la lettre. There was probably also a ‘guide’ who explained what was shown.
The Cyclorama Reichardt was the brainchild of the German publisher and entrepreneur Ferdinand Reichardt, who had it produced by the Borgmann brothers, set builders in Berlin, among others, and who traveled with it through Germany, England and Belgium in the 1950s. In 1853 he visited the Netherlands. His ‘great, extraordinary performance’, as the attraction was praised in newspaper advertisements, and about which famous painters such as Pieneman, Kruseman and Rochussen expressed their appreciation in those same advertisements, settled in Amsterdam, Breda, Leeuwarden and Zwolle. Entrance fees for the ‘Romanesque journey through Tyrol, Styria, Switzerland and Italy’ ranged from 99 cents in the ringside to 10 cents in the gallery – children under 10 paid half for the first three grades. Those who wanted more afterwards could buy a brochure (20 cents).
The cyclorama was popular with the press. An enthusiastic reporter said of ‘the most striking natural scenes:’ This cyclorama makes the visitor to a certain extent part of the pleasure, which the traveler can only experience through great sacrifices. […] can provide.
That the paintings of the Rijks can indeed be linked to this acclaimed attraction is not 100 percent certain. Well for 99 percent. The arguments are strong, says Van Leeuwen. For example, holes in the top of the paintings indicate that they were once attached to a rail and at the ends of one of the landscapes a stick was found, which was probably once inserted into the turning mechanism of the cyclorama.
The performance itself also contains indications that this specifically concerns parts of the Cyclorama Reichardt, says Van Suylen: ‘In the background of the landscape you can see an active Vesuvius, for example, and that is described in the advertisements. In the foreground you see a sign with the text Route du Rocher, a route where the journey of the Cyclorama Reichardt passed. ‘
But the most important argument, says Van Leeuwen, is based on the question: if the paintings are not a fragment of the Cyclorama Reichardt, what are they? There are few options. They are too large for a wallpaper in a private house or public building, but they seem too small for the background of a theater or opera performance. ‘ And they are not good enough for an autonomous work of art. Van Suylen: ‘You can see clearly: it is not high art of painting.’
No, the experts have no doubt that these are the remains of a cyclorama.
How those fragments ended up in the Rijksmuseum is another question. In terms of dimensions, they are fremdkörper: they are too large to hang in the auditorium (in comparison, The Night Watch is 4.53). Van Leeuwen: ‘They were brought in for the same money because of their gross material. It is a beautiful, large piece of paper, you can imagine that people wanted to use it as a decorative back wall for a display case, or as an example for the drawing school. ‘
The 23-meter long section has now been restored, an enormous job that took a team of four restorers busy for months. Dirt was removed, mold consolidated. However, the major damage was left behind. If you are going to retouch it on one painting, says Van Leeuwen, then you have to do it with all the paintings, an operation that requires more man hours than the museum could afford at the moment. Moreover: it is hardly worth the effort: ‘You can see the work from many meters away. At that length, the damage is barely noticeable. ‘
Next July, the public can test it with their own eyes, when the cleaned landscape can be seen in XXL Papier, an exhibition about large works on paper produced in-house. It hangs next to other colossal prints, drawings and designs, such as the cartons in front of the windows of the Sint-Bavo in Haarlem. To ensure the true panoramic feeling, the landscape is shown in a 360-degree arrangement. This curved way of presentation also has a practical reason: in its spread-out form, the landscape does not fit into the room.