Southeast Missouri State University Press

Painting the River: Henry Lewis’s Great National Work

Lisa Knopp

I don’t remember where I first saw Henry Lewis’s lithograph of Burlington, Iowa, and the Mississippi as they appeared in 1848 when my hometown was a little over one-tenth of its present size. Perhaps it was on display at the public library or the county historical society museum, at the hospital or depot, or in some old volume of local history. Lewis shows Burlington from the vantage point of South Hill, where my family lived when I was in middle school and high school. In Lewis’s painting, the lowlands below South Hill are broken into farms and pastures where cattle graze. On the low shelf encircling a meander in the river are many, many-windowed buildings and several churches. In the distance, black smoke rises from a tall smokestack. North Hill, which I remember as a place of beautiful Late Victorian-, Italian Villa-, and Queen Anne-style houses, many of which were torn down for the freeway that cut a wide gash through the city, is grassy and tree-topped in Lewis’s painting. West Hill, the old Swedish neighborhood where my paternal grandmother grew up, is crowned by a tall church steeple. Lewis described my hometown as an amphitheater, with the river as the stage and the hills as the tiers of seats. On “stage” in Lewis’s day were flatboats, keelboats, log rafts, and steamboats. In my childhood, it was the depot, the railroad tracks near the river, the railroad bridge, and MacArthur Bridge, a cantilever truss bridge, since torn down and replaced. Lewis concluded that Burlington was a “fine thriving town, beautifully situated on a gradually rising slope surrounded by very picturesque hills.”

Recently, I discovered the context for this painting of my stretch of Catfish Bend. In 1848, Lewis spent five weeks drifting down river from the falls of St. Anthony to St. Louis in a houseboat, sketching what he saw on the shores. While he failed to create a complete, detailed, and unbiased portrayal of the river, as has anyone else who has tried, he did succeed in capturing his impressions of the river as it appeared during a few summers in the mid-nineteenth century.


Henry Lewis saw the Mississippi River for the first time in 1835, when he was sixteen years old. He had never seen anything like it either in Newport, England, where he was born and lived until he was ten, or in Boston, where his family lived for a few years before settling in St. Louis. Surely Lewis was impressed by the great river that watered the fast-growing city; that flooded frequently, sometimes violently, as it did in 1844; that brought legions of immigrants to its banks (the population of St. Louis jumped from almost 7,000 in 1830 to 75,000 in 1850, due mostly to a huge influx of German and Irish immigrants); that was a superhighway busy with traffic (in 1839, about 1,476 steamboats arrived at the wharf in St. Louis). By the 1840s, St. Louis, which shipped locally grown hemp, cotton, wheat, corn, and flax to other parts of the country, was surpassed only by New Orleans in river traffic. By the 1850s, St. Louis was the largest U.S. city west of Pittsburgh and the second largest port, with a commercial tonnage exceeded only by New York.

In 1836, Lewis took a job building stage sets for an opera house in St. Louis. Just blocks from his workplace was the cobblestone landing, levee, and wharf. John Casper Wild’s 1840 lithograph of Front Street shows little of the river but a lot of riverfront activity: a line of docked steamboats leads far into the distance; several people, including a black man pushing a hand cart, appear on the smooth, sloping levee; a long row of buildings, one with an open air dining or viewing area that’s filled with people. What Wild’s view doesn’t show is the great drama occurring within the river. Then, the Illinois shore was caving in, which widened and deepened the chute between that shore and Bloody Island, so called because of the duels fought there. As the current shifted toward the widening channel, the river deposited silt near the Missouri shore. By 1837, the silt deposits had so accumulated that Bloody Island was one-mile long and thick with cottonwood trees. Only a trickle of water flowed between Duncan Island, southwest of Bloody Island, and the Missouri shore, which denied steamboats and other river traffic access to the river south of Market Street. In 1838, Congress funded the construction of two dykes to divert the current from the Illinois shore past Bloody Island, and to direct water toward Duncan’s Island and the shoals below St. Louis. Once again, boats docked at St. Louis.

At the Opera House, Lewis met the artists who painted the stage sets—British drawing rooms and dungeons; mountains, forests, and oceans—and studied their works. Though he had no formal art training and claimed that he couldn’t find anyone to teach him, Lewis took up painting. In 1845, he opened a studio that he shared with James F. Wilkins, a formally trained painter who also came from England. Among Lewis’s early subjects were the suburban estates of the wealthy and a panoramic view of St. Louis from the Illinois side of the river, which he entitled, “Western Metropolis.” On April 6, 1846, Lewis shipped the painting with the following note to the prestigious American Art Union in New York: “I send you a view of St. Louis the ‘Western Metropolis.’ This view is taken from the Illinois shore, and you may rely on it being a correct one of our City as I took great pains in making the sketches. . . . The foreground is to a certain extent my own Composition, but it still preserves all the characteristics of the American bottom lands on this river.” There are no copies of the painting, so I have never seen it. But I suspect that it is similar to Lewis’s 1848 oil painting of St. Louis, which shows a distant riverfront crowded with white buildings, including the Catholic cathedral, the dome of the courthouse, and the Planter’s Hotel. There are no trees or vegetation in the city. Several steamboats and a large raft with a sail and four passengers seem suspended on the placid surface of the river. In the foreground on Bloody Island are a woman, a man, a covered wagon, and a horse. Though the Union didn’t buy “Western Metropolis,” Lewis’s painting did win first prize in the Mechanics Fair in St. Louis.

Throughout the mid-1840s, Lewis received glowing reviews of his work from the local press and he was in demand locally as a landscape painter. But Lewis wasn’t satisfied. He had something bigger in mind: he would paint a panorama of the entire Mississippi River.


 Panorama, from the Greek pan (all) and horama (view), refers to a large painting or a connected series of paintings that present a wide, comprehensive view of a landscape or event. During the first half of the nineteenth century, panoramic paintings were the rage in Europe and the United States.

In Europe, the panorama was mounted on the walls of a rotunda. Viewers sat or stood on a platform that moved them around the still canvas that encircled them, as if they were traveling past the landscape on a train. American audiences, however, wanted to sit still while the scenes moved past them, just as one does in a movie theater. Thus, the enormous canvas was fastened between two rollers. The audience watched as it was gradually and steadily unwound from one roller and wound onto another. As the scene glided before the audience’s eyes, a stage crew manipulated the lighting to simulate sunrises and sunsets, daylight and darkness; a lecturer delivered a didactic, episodic commentary; and a pianist played. The moving panoramas that Americans preferred could be shown almost anywhere—in theaters, church halls, on riverboats, and outdoors—so it was a more democratic art form than its European counterpart.

While Europeans wanted to see Old World cityscapes, ancient and contemporary battles, and coronations, Americans craved contemporary landscapes, especially of their own western frontier, which was quickly opening to Euro-American settlement. In River of Dreams: Imagining the Mississippi Before Mark Twain, Thomas Ruys Smith observes that during the 1840s, a time of aggressive U.S. expansion, the moving panoramas were “emblems of the American belief in progress and expansion,” and were strongly associated with Manifest Destiny, the belief that the U.S. had the right and the duty to expand from “sea to shining sea.”

For a few years in the late 1840s, it was the Mississippi River more than any other subject that sold tickets. It offered audiences romanticized scenes of Indian wars and ceremonies on the wilder upper reaches of the river; tidy, thriving cities, towns, and farms on the rapidly changing middle river; well-established cities and seemingly peaceful plantations on the lower river. Between 1846 and 1849, six moving panoramas of the Mississippi were exhibited in St. Louis and other cities. The panoramists competed for the public’s attention in terms of artistic ability, veracity, accuracy, and most importantly, size. In 1846, John Banvard claimed that at three miles, his 1846 panorama was “by far the Largest Picture ever executed by Man.” (Actually, Banvard’s canvas was a half-mile long.) Two years later, John Rowson Smith claimed that the canvas of his “Leviathan Panorama” was four miles long, also an exaggeration. While none of the Mississippi River panoramas are known to exist, having been lost, worn-out, or cut up and sold, piece by piece, newspaper reports, journal entries, and testimonies by spectators, suggest that the most artistic of the Mississippi River panoramas was Lewis’s Great National Work.


Lewis made two preliminary expeditions to the Upper Mississippi in 1846 and 1847 to determine which views he wanted “to take” for his monumental work. On the first journey, he explored the upper river between Fort Snelling and Prairie du Chien, making side trips on tributaries of the Mississippi. On the second trip, he had the great good fortune of meeting knowledgeable traveling companions who helped him see, what was for Lewis, an unfamiliar landscape. In 1847, he explored the St. Croix Valley, a tributary of the Mississippi that forms the state line between what is now Minnesota and Wisconsin, with the geologist David Dale Owen, who may have piqued Lewis’s interest in geological formations. Lewis also met soldier-artist Captain Seth Eastman, who commanded Fort Snelling at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Minnesota Rivers, then the western reach of U.S. power. Eastman had been assigned to Fort Snelling to do topographic studies of the terrain, which brought him into contact with the Indians. By the time Lewis met Eastman, the Captain had about four hundred sketches, mostly of the Sioux and Chippewa. Lewis purchased seventy-nine of the sketches of Indians and miscellaneous river scenes and based several scenes in his panorama upon them. Lewis remained at Fort Snelling with Eastman, working on sketches of the area until he returned to St. Louis in November of 1847.

In the spring of 1848, just prior to Lewis’s departure for his grand sketching expedition, his project received attention from the Missouri Republican:

It seems that the rich materials of the Upper Mississippi have suggested an enterprize [sic] of some considerable magnitude, in which Mr. Lewis, with two other accomplished artists, are about to engage. His is the idea of a gigantic and continuous painting of the Mississippi river, from the Falls of St. Anthony to where it empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It is to be painted on one hundred thousand feet of canvass [sic]—and is designed to represent the geological formations along the river,  the landscapes, the islands, and, in fact, a truthful view of the river and all the principal objects on its shores the whole distance.

The actual panorama would be seventy-five thousand square feet, so either Lewis scaled back his plans or the reporter erred. The article reported that the “materials” for the project had already been purchased and the sketches of the river about Prairie du Chien “already taken.” “From the evidences of energy, taste, and talent which Mr. Lewis has given us in the paintings alluded to . . . we have reason to expect that the contemplated work will prove worthy of the Great West,” the article concludes.

At St. Louis on June 14, 1848, Lewis boarded the Senator, a side-wheel, wooden hull steamboat, and chugged 741 miles upriver to Fort Snelling, in what is now St. Paul, the starting point for his journey. Then, steamboats traveled seven to eight miles per hour and often stopped for the night. At Galena, Henry H. Sibley boarded the boat. He spoke at length with Lewis about his experiences as a hunter and a trader with the “Sioux Outfit” of the American Fur Company at Mendota, Minnesota. The voyage took six days. It was Lewis’s third and final trip upriver.

As Lewis ascended the river, the composition of his staff may have been a nagging worry. Shortly before he boarded the Senator, his assistant sketcher, Leon Pomerade, resigned and left for New York and began work on his own Mississippi River panorama. Lewis tried to recruit Samuel B. Stockwell, but he, too, had plans to paint a panorama. Lewis got word to Henry Skaggs, his business manager in St. Louis, to send Charles Rogers to the Upper Mississippi as soon as possible. Rogers, who had completed sketches for Lewis’s panorama of the Lower Mississippi, was working for Stockwell, so there was secrecy surrounding Lewis’s efforts to recruit him. Roger’s role in creating the panorama of the Upper Mississippi was great and some of the sketches bear his signature.

At Fort Snelling, Lewis set out to construct a floating studio. Since he couldn’t find any carpenters or laborers at the fort, he did the work himself. Lewis secured two of the largest Indian canoes he could find, each fifty feet in length. He attached the two canoes with short beams, forming an eight-by-eleven-foot platform on which he built a cabin. Within the cabin he built bunks where he stored books, weapons, a tent, and food for the long voyage. Lewis christened what he described as this “most odd looking but complete craft,” the Mene-ha-hah, the Dakota name for the waterfall at St. Anthony, which means “rapid water.” Lewis noted that the Mene-ha-hahwas “admirably adapted to my purpose as it was quite steady and from the top of the cabin, I could sketch with care and see over the country on both sides of the river.” Lewis called the Mene-ha-hah his “floating curiosity shop,” because when he stopped along the river, people gathered to look it over and ask questions.

In addition to Rogers, Lewis’s crew included John Powers and Francois Chenevert, who navigated the boat, and John S. (“Solitaire”) Robb, a correspondent with the St. Louis Reveille, who rode along to dispatch reports about the journey in order to promote Lewis’s panorama in advance of the actual showing. Lewis, Powers, and Chenevert arrived at Forth Snelling on June 21. Robb arrived on July 1. Rogers would meet the crew at Galena on July 21. Lewis and his crew waited several days for a favorable wind, and then, on Monday, July 10, 1848, left the fort in the recently completed Mene-ha-hah. Lewis was ready to sketch the scenes that would delight audiences across the U.S., Canada, and Europe.

The little boat traveled three to four miles per hour in a regular current, a little faster with a fair wind, and a little slower when the crew had to row against a head wind. The sketching was done from the boat, with Lewis and Rogers viewing the scene either through the open sides or from the flat top of the cabin. I imagine twenty-nine-year-old Lewis, with no wife or children or pressing business concerns in St. Louis to divide his attentions, sitting atop the roof of Mene-ha-hah, sketchbook on his knees, and nothing to obstruct his view as he drifted down the great river. Lewis said that for him and his crew, the five-week painting expedition from Fort Snelling to St. Louis was “the happiest days of our lives.”


In 1848, the Upper Mississippi River was still relatively untamed and freeflowing, since it hadn’t yet been straightened and controlled by the twenty-nine locks and dams and many hundreds of miles of levees. In Life on the Mississippi, Mark Twain writes about the dangers of this wild river to the uninitiated, including rising and falling water, snags, woodpiles near shore, and the treacherous rapids near Keokuk, Iowa, and Rock Island, Illinois, the two main obstacles to navigation on the Upper Mississippi. Lewis mentions the two rapids and sketched the ones near Rock Island, but other than that, he says or shows relatively little about the nature of mid-nineteenth-century river travel.

But he does record details about what he found on shore in his journal and in The Valley of the Mississippi Illustrated, the book that he would produce several years later about his experience. For instance, at Lake Pepin the swarms of “the settlers of that region (the Mosquitos)” forced the sketching party to move camp. At Little Crow’s Village, they not only encountered mosquitos but rattlesnakes. At Bad Axe, Lewis did the baking since he felt that none of the Indians were capable of it, which caused a late start that day. Near Prairie du Chien, Lewis and his crew etched their names in what Lewis called “The Alter [sic] bluff, [because] you can see the pulpit the reading desk and the baptismal font.” Near Clinton, Iowa, they holed up in an old cabin during a heavy rain. But before they could enter, Lewis had to scare off the owner’s dogs by opening his umbrella in their faces. Near Rock Island and Moline, Illinois, Lewis hunted, though he doesn’t say what. At the home of postmaster and town founder, Antoine La Claire, in Davenport, Iowa, the crew dined with a visitor from St. Louis. At Nauvoo, Illinois, Lewis toured the grand Temple on the bluff and visited Emma Smith Bideman, widow of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith who had been assassinated in 1844. Lewis stayed long enough to complete several sketches of the place, then practically a ghost town, since the non-Mormon neighbors had driven out 18,000 of Nauvoo’s Mormon residents. Near Clarkesville, about eighty miles north of St. Louis, Lewis reports that men were “singing at their oars” and that Rogers was “devouring” Dickens’s newest book, Dombey and Son. Closer to St. Louis, the crew met James F. Wilkens, the artist with whom Lewis had shared a studio for several years, and George I. Barnett, a St. Louis architect, at the home of “Poppleton.” Lewis recounted to them his river adventures over eggnog. Apparently, Lewis’s river journey was as much about crafting and telling stories, as it was about sketching.


Because at 2,300-plus miles the Mississippi flows through a variety of physiographic regions, provides various habitats to diverse populations of flora and fauna, contains numerous cultural resources, and supports a variety of human uses, and because most panorama exhibitions ran about two hours, Lewis had to be highly selective in his subject matter. How did he decide which of the many thousands of scenes to sketch? Did he try to find a scene to represent every x-number of river miles? Did he, for the sake of geographic diversity, search for the setting of representative pieces of American history? Did he sketch far more than he’d ever need and make the final cut later? Did he sketch what was easiest or most challenging? Or was it delight that guided him and if so, whose—the audience’s or his own?

Historian Joseph Earl Arrington writes that Lewis had three principles that guided his scene selection. First, he chose a scene for its grand and picturesque qualities. To that end, Lewis painted imposing bluffs, several with lover’s leaps; vast, undulating prairies; the Upper and Lower Rapids; the Falls of St. Anthony and Little (Minnehaha) Falls in what is now Minneapolis; the Piasa bird painted on a limestone bluff near Grafton and Alton, Illinois; a prairie fire; and various river confluences.

Second, he sought incidents that were currently in the national news or were well-known historical events. Lewis painted the scene of the Battle of Bad Axe in 1832, which ended the Black Hawk War; the ruins of the Mormon settlement at Nauvoo, once the second largest city in Illinois; the Great St. Louis Fire of 1849; the devastating series of earthquakes in 1811 that split the earth at New Madrid, Missouri, and caused the river to rise like a tidal wave; the explosion of the Mississippi Steam Clipper in 1843 at the mouth of the Red River; the plantation of then-president Zachary Taylor between Vicksburg and Natchez, with none of his one-hundred-plus slaves visible.

A final and most impelling motive in Lewis’s scene selection was to depict thriving settlements and regions with abundant resources in order to draw immigrants. To that end, he presents Savannah, Illinois, a town built on a low shelf of land near the river. Beyond the town were trees and steep, tawny bluffs; in the foreground on an island or the Iowa shore, dense vegetation. The small steamboat belching black smoke from two towering chimneys connects Savannahians to Galena, St. Louis, and New Orleans. The audience might conclude that this brave little town was conquering the wilderness. “In 1832 there were not more than three or four such small towns [as Savannah] above St. Louis,” Lewis write in The Valley of the Mississippi Illustrated. “Now there are more than 30, among them a few places of 14,000 and over.” He reminds readers that “tradesmen, and especially small capitalists, will find more opportunity for advancement in such towns than in the larger cities where more money is required to set up a business because of the competition.”

The villages that Lewis depicts are appealing at first glance, and a glance was all that the viewer of the panorama got. But if one studies the scenes in The Valley of the Mississippi Illustrated, he or she might find the little towns eerie, since they are too tidy, too idyllic, and too empty of people. The few people who do appear in Lewis’s portrayal of Savannah are mere dots, dwarfed by the tall bluffs. Where are the crowds that gathered to see the steamboats or the Mene-ha-hah? Where are the children playing in the streets or yards or along the water’s edge? What about the inevitable spring rises that inundated towns like Savannah that were built too near the river? Where are the people fishing and the ferries that linked the two shores? Where are the minks, weasels, muskrats, snakes, and turtles that lived and fed near the water’s edge; the bison that grazed on the nearby prairie; the waterfowl, shorebirds, and songbirds that flew, swam, waded, or roosted near the river? John James Audubon would have drawn a very different scene there on the Mississippi Flyway.

I am as interested in what Lewis left out of his drawings as what he put in. Consider his sketch of Fort Madison, Iowa, a town in southeastern Iowa. Whenever I rode through that town with my grandmother, she complained that it was the longest little town she’d ever seen. Apparently, Lewis agreed with that assessment, since he used four double (5 x 15 3/4 inch) pages to capture the entire length of this sprawling river town. McDermott notes that Lewis used a pinkish wash for the red brick buildings and a gray wash for stone buildings. On the first left page, signed ‘V Rogers,’ a note mentioned “rafts,” and on the right were indicated “the Eagle Hotel and the Courthouse”—notes intended for the lecturer who would narrate the panorama. The sketch of the town continued onto the next double page. The Madison House was labeled on the right-hand page, and at the top of this section was a garbled historical note: “The old fort with a small garrison was here surrounded —by the Indians—and being closely pressed had to mine [sic] himself out to the bank of the river and left in the night in his boats.” The fort was abandoned in 1813. The third double showed the few buildings on the outskirts of town. On the fourth double, there are no buildings, yet Lewis has labeled this, too, as Fort Madison. The left side of the fourth double presented what Lewis has labeled “Hog back bluff.” In the town portion, Lewis includes the Greek Revival courthouse that was built in 1840 and is now Iowa’s oldest courthouse in continuous use. But Lewis didn’t depict the prison, conspicuously nestled into the side of a large hill west of town. Built in 1839, it was one of the first prisons established west of the Mississippi. Perhaps the presence of a prison was at odds with the image of the town that Lewis was trying to create for prospective settlers.

Lewis also left out such essential events as the Great Flood of 1844; slaves working in the hemp fields of Missouri; the mob murder of abolitionist newspaperman, Elijah P. Lovejoy, in an Alton warehouse; the reconstruction of the clogged river harbor near St. Louis in the mid-1830s. And too, there are tantalizing encounters that Lewis couldn’t have known about. Perhaps thirteen-year-old Samuel Clemens was one of those who drew near to see Lewis’s houseboat when it stopped in Hannibal, and thereafter dreamed of a downriver raft journey,

Parts of the trip must have been intensely pleasurable for Lewis. At Lake Pepin, Robb wrote that he sailed away to pitch the tent, leaving Lewis at the summit of a Maiden’s Rock, “working away with his pencil, completely wrapped up in the beauty of the scene before him.” After the crew made camp, cooked and ate dinner, smoked their pipes and went over the events of the day, Lewis observed that “we turn in and sleep such sleep as is not even dreamt of beneath city shingles.” From the top of Mount Trempealeau, “the mountain which steeps in the water” between Winona and Lacrosse, Lewis wrote that he had “a birds eye view of as grand a scene as ever eye rested upon . . . As I looked I felt how hopeless art was to convey the soul of such a scene as this.” Of Muscatine, he wrote that “The place was so picturesque that I was induc’d to take three views of it, one from above, one panoramic view and a view over looking it from the bluffs by which it is back’d.” Did Lewis ever want to settle down in these places or was it enough to turn them into art?

On August 5, Lewis and his crew arrived in St. Louis. How good “this glorious city of the west,” the point of departure and return, must have looked to Lewis and his crew.


Once back in St. Louis, Lewis completed several local sketches, including the Jefferson Barracks where the Sauk Chief Black Hawk had been imprisoned. He also sketched several steamboats that he would later insert into the river scenes on the panorama, which reminds us that like “Western Metropolis,” his river scenes are both representations and fabrications.

On September 11, 1848, six weeks after arriving in St. Louis, Lewis moved to Cincinnati for the actual production of the panorama. He chose this city where so many other panoramas had been produced, because according to one source, there was a shortage of artists for hire in St. Louis and according to another, he’d had disagreements with the other scenic artists in his hometown. But, too, in Cincinnati, he could hire such artists as John R. Johnson, who had worked on Stockwell’s panorama; Edwin F. Durang, who would become a renowned Philadelphia architect of churches; John Leslie, a scene painter with the National Theater in Cincinnati; and James B. Laidlow, a scene painter from Scotland. So in the city on the Ohio River, Lewis went to work painting the Mississippi.

On September 20, 1848, Lewis and his team began transferring the sketches onto the large canvas. The goal was to make it look as if the canvas had been painted by one instead of five artists, with their different and perhaps competing styles, technical proficiencies, and visions. Though they had no choice about the sequencing or procession of scenes, they, or perhaps Lewis alone, decided whether a scene would be bright or dark, which colors would dominate, what to emphasize in each scene (i.e., landscape, buildings, human activity on the river or shore), and how these scenes would look next to each other. I imagine frequent discussions between the artists running long into the night.

Scenes for a panorama were viewed quickly, as if one were gliding past the landscape in a boat or on a train,  and so the artist didn’t have to provide much more than the broad outlines of a scene. Nonetheless, some of Lewis’s drawings are remarkably detailed. “The Camp of the Indians,” about a stand-off between the Winnebago and U.S. soldiers at Wabashaw’s Prairie near present-day Winona, is depicted in neutral colors, except for the red blankets, loin cloths, headdresses, and the red decorations on the dozens of Winnebago, their thirty-three tepees, and ten canoes. The details of the scene in “The Camp of the Troops”—dozens of tents, some so far away that I can’t count them; several dozen wagons parked in a semicircle; an indistinct but impressive number of soldiers in the distance; several armed guards in the foreground; rugged, mountain-like bluffs in the background; the Mene-ha-hah anchored near the shore; and five Indians lounging in the foreground—are done in subdued blues, grays, and blue-greens, with the exception of the red blankets that two of the Indians wear. The dominant impression that the viewer of the moving canvas would be left with is the contrast between the geometry and industry of the soldier camp and the slapdash arrangement of the smaller, fewer, more closely set tents of the Winnebago.

The painter of a Mississippi River panorama had to find a way to keep the bluffs, lowlands, islands, and towns from looking alike. Lewis’s solution was to create variety through contrasting images. The lithograph of the gentle, verdant valley of the St. Peter’s (Minnesota) River, is filled with a soft, blue-pink sky and gently sweeping prairie; on the left is part of a bright blue meander of the low-banked river. In the foreground are two Indians chatting. One is dressed in red and sits on a rock; one sits on a fallen branch. This pastoral scene is followed by the rocky grandeur of the Little Falls. The dark and green scene of Indians hunting deer by moonlight is followed by the bright and violent “Scalping Scene of the Mississippi.” Galena, viewed not from the river but from a high spot, allows one to see the many crowded gold and brown rooftops of this city, then the busiest river port between St. Paul and St. Louis and the principal city in the lead mining district of northwestern Illinois. Beyond are the pale-blue river and the green-gray bluff on the western shore. This scene is followed by a placid view of the Fever (Galena) River. The Mene-ha-hah is anchored at shore; the sketching party’s camp with a table set for five is in the right foreground; in the left foreground are red, cone-shaped flowers on the shore and lily pads floating on the water; in the distance is a single house. The point of confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri, a place prone to severe flooding, is a peaceful scene in blues, greens, and yellow-browns, with geese taking off from the water, a couple of rafts, a couple of steamboats, and no human habitations. This is juxtaposed with Lewis’s bold red, yellow, and orange painting of the Great St. Louis Fire of May 17, 1849, which killed three people and destroyed 430 buildings, 23 steamboats, 9 flat boats, several barges, and one floating curiosity shop, the Mene-ha-hah.

The viewer of the panorama was probably impressed by the power of humans to remake the river valley as he or she watched the rough frontier settlements, Indian villages, and the rugged scenery of the upper river give way to more settled, densely populated places—Galena, Burlington, Quincy, St. Louis—which in turn gave way to plantations on the lower river and the great city of New Orleans. On the three hundred feet of canvas that Lewis devoted to the Crescent City, he painted the Spanish cathedral, the dome of the St. Charles Hotel, the French Market, the street on the levee, ships, and steamboats.

Lewis and his team finished painting the Upper Mississippi on June 20, 1849, nine months to the day after they began. The canvas for that part of the river was twelve feet high, 3,500 feet long, and covered 45,000 square feet. The canvas for the lower river, which Lewis’s crew worked on from May through August of 1849, covered a little less than half of a mile. Together, the two presented well over a mile of river scenes.


Lewis’s efforts to profit from his Mississippi River sketches were plagued with bad luck. In May of 1849, he exhibited a section of the painting at the Apollo Hall in Cincinnati. Because of the competition from other panoramists, his shows weren’t well attended. Likewise he didn’t sell many tickets at the June exhibition in Louisville because of a cholera epidemic sweeping the country. In Louisville, Lewis made $429 in ticket sales—hardly enough to cover payroll, which included $12.50 per week for each of the two carpenters; $6 per week for each of the door-keepers; $16 per week for the other three assistants; and $20 per week for the lecturer, Charles Gayler. Lewis received nothing for himself or his traveling expenses, discouraging, given the years of work that went into this production. After the disappointing turn out in Louisville, Lewis returned to Cincinnati to work on the scenes of the Lower Mississippi with Leslie and Rogers. There on August 18, he displayed the Lower Mississippi for the first time.

The one bright spot on Lewis’s tour was in his hometown. He arrived in St. Louis on August 27. Four days later, he arranged a preview for newspaper reporters and for “those who are most familiar with the scenes, and are likely to be the best judges of its fedillty [sic].” The panorama opened to the public on Saturday, September 1, at half-past seven in Concert Hall. The admission price for the almost two-hour program was fifty cents for adults and twenty-five cents for children. The guide book that accompanied the showing of the Upper Mississippi, A Description of Lewis Mammoth Panorama of the Mississippi River, from the Falls of St. Anthony to the City of St. Louis; Containing an Account of the Distances, And Settlements of the Country; the Names and Population of the Various Cities, Towns and Villages on the River, with Historical Remarks, &c. Compiled from Various Authentic Sources, was edited by Gayler, the former editor of the Cincinnati Evening Dispatch, and sold for ten cents. What impressed many was that unlike other panoramas that only showed one side of the river, Lewis showed both. “By an almost magic power,” the New Era wrote on September 3, Lewis has “drawn before you both banks, and you have, at a single glance, the enchanting and life-like scenery as it appears on both sides.” Lewis exhibited the panorama before “very full rooms” in “the city where he first applied pencil to canvas” until September 26. Ticket sales were good. As soon as Lewis’s show ended, Pomerade, Lewis’s former assistant, began the St. Louis showing of his Mississippi River panorama.

From there, Lewis exhibited his Great National Work in several cities and towns in New York, Massachusetts, Maine, and Canada, as well as Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Richmond, Virginia, Washington D.C., and Boston. He chose this itinerary in order to avoid appearing in the same cities and at the same times as the other Mississippi River panoramas. He never displayed the canvases of both the upper and the lower river on the same night. Instead, he displayed one view in one town; his partner, Washington King, displayed the other view in a nearby town. Sometimes George Stanley, a man quite knowledgeable about the river, delivered the lecture; sometimes Lewis did it himself. Even so, he continued to have problems meeting payroll.

In a letter to his brother George on July 11, 1849, Lewis wrote that by the time he arrived in Bangor, Maine, he was wishing he “could find someone who would buy us out. . . . We have been to every place we can think of in the States, where our exhibition would be likely to pay and we have no alternative but to go abroad.” Lewis arrived too late in England since John Banvard and John Rowson Smith had already shown their Mississippi River panoramas there. Ticket sales were better in Holland. But by the time Lewis arrived in Germany, Smith and Samuel A. Hudson had already saturated the market with their Mississippi River Scenes. By 1853, the public had lost its appetite for moving panoramas.

That year, Lewis settled in Dusseldorf, Germany, a lively, international art center. Apparently, Lewis’s move to this city on the Rhine was the result of a long-planned business endeavor with Arnz and Company, the prestigious producer of art books in Dusseldorf. In his journal in 1848, Lewis noted: “Arrangment [sic] with Mr Arnst [sic] for a work on the Mississippi.” This note is followed by a plan outlining what would become the first twenty-four pages of Das Illustrirte Mississippithal (The Valley of the Mississippi Illustrated). In the early 1850s, several American artists were studying at Dusseldorf’s famous art school, Staatliche Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, including Albert Bierstadt and two Missourians, George Caleb Bingham and Charles Wimar. In that fertile climate, Lewis worked on his book, which included excerpts from his journals—long, unattributed, and in some cases inaccurate quotations from other writers about the geography and history of the Mississippi, and seventy-eight lithographs based on the sketches.

Numerous problems, what Lewis called “rascally delays,” surrounded the publication. First, Heinrich Arnz, the head of the company, died. Then in 1854, Arnz and Company was found guilty of fraud and its creditors took over. Though Lewis’s book was published in German in twenty installments between 1854 and 1857, the English version was never completed. Bertha Heilbron, who wrote the introduction to the 1967 edition of The Valley of the Mississippi Illustrated, says that after the Arnz company failed, an antique book and art dealer bought the remaining copies of Lewis’s book and stored them in a warehouse. Eventually the dealer sold the text as “waste paper” and gave the lithographic plates to students and customers. Many of the copies preserved in libraries were destroyed by the World War II bombings. Fortunately in 1923, a company located in Leipzig and Florence reissued Das Illustrirte Mississippithal.

In 1856, Lewis sought a buyer for his panorama. His asking price was $4,000, the equivalent of almost $100,000 in 2009. His one serious offer came from a man he referred to as Hermens or Hermans and who he described as “a wealthy planter from the island of Java, a Hollander by birth.” Hermens, whose intent wasn’t to exhibit but sell the panorama, made a $500 down payment on it. Though Lewis tried to collect on the debt, it appears never to have been paid. Nor was Lewis any more successful at selling his paintings of European landscapes.

But he was lucky in love. In 1859, he married Marie Jones, a British woman who had worked for the Hermens family as a governess. “My life glides on in such [a] quiet stream of tranquil happiness, that my dear wife and myself ask ourselves every day, if we are not too happy!” Lewis wrote to George in 1864. From 1867 to 1884, Lewis was the American consular agent in Dusseldorf, a position that gave him the steady income that his art could not, so the Lewises lived comfortably. The two were together until she died in 1891. Lewis died in Dusseldorf in 1904.

After Lewis left the U.S., he saw the Mississippi only one more time when he returned to St. Louis for a wedding in the 1880s. Neither the panorama nor the original English version of The Valley of the Mississippi Illustrated have ever been found. One expert recently estimated that only forty of the copies published by Arnz still exist. But if one takes a drive along the Mississippi, Henry Lewis’s views of the river, taken during three summers in the late 1840s, can be found on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Muscatine Art Center, the St. Louis Art Museum, and other museums and galleries or hidden away in depots, court houses, libraries, and old books. Lewis was the great preserver, and he captured for us Mississippi River cities and towns when they were rough and hopeful settlements, hugging the banks of a once wild and western river.

Works Cited

Arrington, Joseph Earl. “Henry Lewis’ Moving Panorama of the Mississippi River.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 6.3 (Summer 1965): 239-272.

Lewis, Henry. “Making a Motion Picture in 1848: Henry Lewis’s Journal of a Canoe Voyage from the Falls of St. Anthony to St. Louis.” Introduction and notes by Bertha L. Heilbron. Minnesota History 17.2 (June 1936). St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1936.

Lewis, Henry. The Valley of the Mississippi Illustrated. Ed. Bertha Heilbron. Trans. Hermina Poatgieter. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 1967.

McDermott, John Francis. The Lost Panoramas of the Mississippi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.

Smith, Thomas Ruys. River of Dreams: Imagining the Mississippi Before Mark Twain. Louisiana State University Press, 2007.


Lisa Knopp is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Omaha where she teaches courses in creative nonfiction, and is a visiting faculty member at Goucher College’s low residency MFA Program in Creative Nonfiction in Baltimore, Maryland. She is the author of four collections of essays. Her essays have appeared in Prairie Schoonerand Shenandoah, as well as many others. Five of her essays have been listed as “notable essays” in Best American Essays.


© Lisa Knopp