A Spectacle in Motion:
The Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World
Open May 29, 2021 to March 27, 2022
In 1848, New Bedford artists Benjamin Russell and Caleb Purrington announced to the world they had completed their Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World. Russell was an emerging artist and bankrupt whaling investor who had just spent 42 months (1841-1844) on a whaling voyage to the Indian Ocean and North Pacific aboard the ship Kutusoff. When he returned, Purrington joined him in creating this massive painting as a commercial enterprise for public entertainment. Performed as a moving panorama, this 1,275-foot long and 8-foot high painting was separated onto four alternating spools, which were mounted in a theater or public hall for a paid performance. It toured the East, transported by train, ship, and wagon to Boston, New York and as far West as St. Louis.
In an era before the age of cinema, the Panorama is a rare extant example of commercial enterprise, designed to exploit the panorama craze of the 19th century with tales of the high seas. This era’s popular entertainment was dominated by illusion and spectacle, the exotic and the unknown. This was the age of the traveling circus, public theater, pantomimes, the height of popularity of the curiosities sideshow, and the birth of grand World’s Fairs.
The Panorama, which is owned and preserved by the New Bedford Whaling Museum, depicts in fascinating detail the voyage of a typical mid-19th century New Bedford whaleship on its journey ‘round the world’ in pursuit of whales. Along the way, it depicts scenes (some from Russell’s experience, some historic, and some imagined) in such far-flung places as the Azores, Cape Verde, Brazil, Tahiti, and Hawaii. People, places, vessels, wildlife, and events spring to life as they were seen from a 19th-century perspective.
During the conservation of the artifact in 2017, the entire painting was digitized for reproduction and then exhibited in New Bedford. It now appears at Mystic Seaport Museum, one 30-foot scene at a time, in companion with a 34-minute narrated digital film that depicts the entire painting much as it would have been seen in 1848.
Making a cameo appearance is the last wooden whaleship in the world — the Museum’s Charles W. Morgan. The Morgan is one of more than 100 vessels to appear in this painting, and most likely the only one still afloat. Its first voyage coincided with the time that Russell was on the Kutusoff, and he probably saw it in the Azores, where it appears in the Panorama.
Visitors are encouraged to pick up their free Grand Panorama Passport. The Museum will be issuing stamps for each port of call and each scene — there are 15 over the course of the exhibition. Awards will be given to those with multiple stamps and a special prize for those who collect all 15.
Don’t miss this opportunity to join a whaling voyage “’round the world” through the eyes of a Yankee whaler!
Scene Change Schedule
New Bedford (May 29)
New Bedford East (June 17)
Azores (July 8)
Fayal, Azores (July 29)
Cidade Velha, Cape Verde (August 19)
Fogo, Cape Verde (September 9)
Rio de Janeiro (September 30)
Rio de Janeiro (October 21)
Cape Horn (November 11)
Juan Fernandez Island (December 2)
Society Islands and the Essex (December 16)
Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii (January 6, 2022)
Lahaina, Maui (January 27, 2022)
Northwest Pacific Whaling (February 17, 2022)
Fiji (March 10, 2022)