Today, August 15th, 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal. Shortly before the completion of the canal in 1914, Joseph Pennell, an American printmaker and writer, created a portfolio in 1912 titled Building of the Panama Canal. Four prints from the series belong to the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.
For those of you less familiar with the history of the Panama Canal, it is important to note that the desire for a waterway between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans dates to the era of European exploration and colonization in the Americas. (You may remember early explorers like Henry Hudson who tirelessly sought a waterway through the expansive American continents). It wasn’t until January 1, 1881 (coincidentally, the same year the St. Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts – a predecessor of the Kemper – was founded) that the French company La Société internationale du Canal interocéanique began work on the Panama Canal. Mounting death tolls from disease, environmental issues, and bankruptcy forced the French company to end construction in May of 1889 with the canal only two-fifths completed. Eventually, under the leadership of Theodore Roosevelt, the United States government took over where the French had left off. After purchasing the canal from the French and assisting the Panamanians in a rebellion against Columbia, the U.S. had full control of the Panama Canal Zone. The Army Corps of Engineers started construction in 1904 and ten years later the canal was complete. The first official traversing of the canal took place on August 15, 1914 by the Panama Railway steamship SS Ancon.
In the four prints by Joseph Pennell, I am struck by the monumentality of the canal. The massive lock system used to traverse the mountainous isthmus dwarfs construction works in The Piedro Miguel Lock and The End of the Day. Even the train in Cajella Cut appears small from our perspective high above the canal. The production itself is notable, as well. The subtle gradients and expressive line (among other dramatic effects) achievable in lithography contributed to Joseph Pennell’s leadership in the resurgence of printmaking around the turn of the century.
Joseph Pennell, born July 4, 1857 in Philadelphia, is best known for his prints of historic landmarks used in books and travel articles. He and his wife, writer Elizabeth Robins Pennell, published numerous books including The Life of James McNeill Whistler (1908), a particular friend of the couple. During the time of the creation of the four prints of the Panama Canal in the Kemper’s collection, Pennell was living in London and traveling extensively. These four lithographs are just several of the hundreds of etchings, mezzotints, and lithographs “of architectural and landscape subjects ranging from the Panama Canal and Yosemite Park to the factories of England and the Temples of Greece” created by the artist.
The four prints of the Panama Canal construction were given to the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum (then known as the Washington University Gallery of Art) in May 1967 by J. Lionberger Davis, a Saint Louis native, businessman, philanthropist, lawyer, and passionate supporter of the arts.
For a closer look at these prints, feel free to arrange a Study Room visit with Kemper staff or examine the entire portfolio reproduced in Joseph Pennell’s Pictures of the Panama Canal, available at the Washington University Libraries.
By Allison Fricke (Friday, August 15, 2014)