Matt Jaeger | 10 May, 2017
Murals…Paducah has a long history with them. The timeline, working backwards, includes…
Current Day – Murals are popping up all over the place, like inside Mellow Mushroom and on the side of Make, as well as the upcoming Quilt City USA murals which will debut in September 2017.
Spring of 1996 – Robert Dafford and his team of artists began designing and painting our floodwall murals. To date, the floodwall showcases more than 50 life-size murals that tell a near comprehensive history of the city, from the pioneer days, to the transportation boom, to the Atomic Age and beyond.
Fall of 1961- A team of artists, organized by Admiral E.E. Paro, created twelve wooden panels to hang in the post office section of the Federal Building at the corner of 5th and Broadway. The murals, which relay the early history of Paducah, were painted with an egg tempura that took more than 1200 egg yolks to create. The murals still hang above the old post office windows. One is pictured below.
Fall of 1938-39 – As part of the New Deal and commissioned by the Section of Fine Arts under the U.S. Treasury Department, renowned New York artist John Folinsbee (and his son-in-law Peter Cook) painted a pair of 6.5 x 10.5 murals to hang in Paducah’s Federal Building at 5th and Broadway. Still visible today in the federal courtroom, one mural called "The River" depicts a river scene at the foot of Broadway with Owen’s Island visible in the background, and the other, called "Early Town," depicts a street scene with two men (reportedly George Rogers Clark and Meriwether Lewis) chatting in front of Paducah’s old courthouse. Folinsbee’s work immediately met with controversy. Many Paducahans were upset (most notably Irvin Cobb and the Women’s Club of Paducah) that a Northerner had been sent down to evaluate and depict life in a Southern town. The controversy likely led to the citizens of Paducah creating their own mural in 1961. Pictured is Folinsbee's work "Early Town.
But who was Paducah’s first muralist? Of course, we can’t ever really know for sure. There have likely been painters as long as there have been residents. But one of the earliest, and potentially the most famous in his time, was a man named John Banvard (1815-1891).
Never heard of him? Not surprising. Today, Banvard has nearly been forgotten. But in the mid-19th century, John Banvard was among the most recognized artists in the world. He’s credited with being our nation’s first artist millionaire, and he traveled the globe to showcase his work, commanding huge, and sometimes royal, audiences.
Banvard was a painter of panoramas, the most famous of which was his “Three Mile Painting” of the Mississippi River, a painting on a rolling scroll (comprised of three “square” miles of canvas) which depicted the life and scenery up and down the entire length of the mighty river. Though not originally from Paducah, the brief time he did spend here prompted the panoramic work that would make him his fortune.
Born in New York in 1815, Banvard left his home and family at the age of 15 to seek his own path in life. He traveled the rivers, finding work on showboats as an entertainer and teaching himself to paint and draw at the time.
Malarial sickness aboard one of the boats landed Banvard in Paducah around 1834/35. Reduced to near bones and left begging on the street, Banvard was taken in by a Paducah resident named John Betts. Betts was the head of Paducah’s board of health, ironically charged with keeping sick people out of Paducah. But Betts was also a fledging theater owner (his theater somewhere between First and Second Street in Paducah), and so in exchange for room and board, Banvard painted agreed to paint the sets and scenery at the Betts’ theater.
Banvard honed his painting skills at Betts’ theater, and while still in Paducah, developed his idea for his scrolling panoramas, first painting scenes of Venice and Jerusalem. Stretched on rollers, the long canvas scrolled by, giving audiences a glimpse of exotic scenery and locales they wouldn’t otherwise have been privy to in those days. In essence, his work was a predecessor to motion pictures.
Banvard left Paducah in the late 1930s and headed to Louisville where he painted a panorama of Dante’s Inferno, and then ultimately returned to rivers to paint his crowning achievement, the entire 3000 mile length of Mississippi River. Ever the showman, Banvard perfected a lecture that accompanied his scrolling painting of the Mississippi. In 1946, he took his act on the road and was met with near immediate success. In the subsequent years, he performed across the U.S. and throughout Europe, which included an audience of Queen Victoria. In eight years, he amassed such a fortune that he is considered America’s (and quite possibly the world’s) first millionaire artist.
Partly due to P.T. Barnum, Banvard would ultimately lose his fortune and die virtually destitute in South Dakota. Nearly all of his work has been lost. If interested in learning more, you can read a whole lot more about his rise and fall at http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/foer-files-banvard-s-folly.
But for our purposes, we’ll simply remember John Banvard on his way up…a brilliant muralist who developed his skill and artistic talent right here in Paducah.
Image from the Paducah Convention & Visitors Bureau