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: A Painting of Saint Anthony Falls


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Through the generosity of Edward C. Gale, a painting of St. Anthony Falls by Henry Lewis has recently been added to the collection of the Institute. It was lent by a private collector for the exhibition of Minnesotiana organized by the Friends of the Institute last summer, at which time it attracted considerable attention, not only for its documentary value, but for the charm of its color and its treatment.This canvas, signed "H. Lewis" and dated 1855, shows the falls as they appeared in 1848, five years before Minneapolis was born. The spectator stands on the West bank looking straight toward the falls with Spirit and Hennepin Islands in the middle distance. The sky is clear blue with white clouds rolling towards the West.Lewis's career, if only because of its picturesqueness, does not deserve the oblivion into which it has fallen. It was only after his death in 1904 that bibliophiles rediscovered that curious book, Das Illustrierte Mississippithal, in which Lewis told the story of his great pictorial pilgrimage down the Father of Waters. And as for his stupendous panoramic painting of the Mississippi, probably the "longest" picture every painted—no one knows its fate.Henry Lewis was born in Scarborough, Kent, England, in 1819 and emigrated to the United States about 1836, settling in St. Louis. There he became a stage carpenter in the Ben de Bar Opera House, rendezvous of such men of arts and letters as the metropolis of the Middle West then afforded. Soon, however, the profession of painting began to supersede the trade of carpentry, and Lewis spent more and more of his spare time at his easel.He was the first to conceive the idea of a panoramic painting of the entire Mississippi River, but not the first to attempt it. He talked it over with an artist named Banvard, who, while Lewis was still dreaming, produced a canvas 440 yards long. It toured the country with enormous success. Another painter, Stockwell, outdid Banvard with a picture 625 yards in length, and still another, Pomarede, covered hundreds of yards of canvas before his strength gave out. In some fashion the mighty length of the river seemed to inspire these ambitious early painters with a longing for just as lengthy artistic labors.Unable longer to watch others reap the rewards of his idea, Lewis determined to outstrip them all. In May, 1846, he set out to make his preliminary sketches. Beginning at Fort Snelling, he floated down stream in an improvised houseboat to Prairie du Chien, sketching as he went. When winter set in he returned to his carpentry at the Opera House in St. Louis.Lewis apparently realized that he must sketch faster or the painting itself would never be begun. According he finished up the remainder of the river, from Prairie du Chien to New Orleans, the following summer and returned to St. Louis early in the fall, impatient to tackle canvas and paint. The first half of the panorama, from Fort Snelling to St. Louis, was started on September 20, 1847, and completed on June 20, 1848, exactly nine months later. It was 825 yards long. The second half, 500 yards from St. Louis to New Orleans, was finished a year later. Combined they made a continuous picture measuring 1,325 yards.In nine months this extraordinary artist had covered a canvas over three-quarters of a mile in length and twelve feet wide, a feat which would have put even Rubens to shame. Had Lewis worked every day including Sundays and holidays, he would have had to cover an average of over nine square yards of canvas every twenty-four hours.The painting was taken on tour with great success. It was presented in regular theaters, passing slowly across the stage between the two great spools operated by windlasses. Running comment was supplied from the platform by the artist himself.When the tour of America was done, Lewis took his panorama to Europe, where it was shown in the principal cities. He never returned again to see the changes time wrought on the banks of his beloved river. In 1851 he settled in Dusseldorf, where he married, pursued an obscure but apparently happy career as a portrait and landscape painter. He died at the age of eighty-five. For many years he acted as American consul in that city.In Dusseldorf, however, Lewis again put the sketches for his encyclopedic painting to use. He prepared a volume entitled "Das Illustrierte Mississippithal," with text by George B. Douglas, his companion on the sketching voyage. Lewis translated the text into German and provided some seventy-odd illustrations.Shortly after the first copies were issued, the publishers failed in business. A few were sold in Germany, the rest remained in storage and were finally sold as waste paper. The volume is now considered so valuable a rarity in the field of Americana that it was reprinted for collectors in 1923.The fate of the great panorama is still in doubt. Tradition has it in the Lewis family that it was sold to an Englishman and taken to India.Our painting was probably executed in Dusseldorf in 1855 from sketches made about 1848. One quails a little at the thought of the quality of the craftsmanship in that panorama. But this little landscape is a thing of much beauty, both of color and quality. Its early history is unknown, but for many years it appears to have been in the possession of a family by the name of Koehne in Indianapolis, where it was purchased a few years ago by a Minneapolis collector. Mr. Gale's recent gift brings it at last to its rightful home.Referenced Work of Art
  1. St. Anthony Falls as they appeared in 1848, by Henry Lewis. American, XIX century. Gift of Edward Gale
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Source: "A Painting of Saint Anthony Falls," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 18, no. 9 (March, 1929): 46-47.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009