Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 319 – M.M. Maffey & Lonati’s Show


Part 319: M.M. Maffey & Lonati’s Show

Robert Winter Jr. advertised that “Daguerre’s Grand Chemical Secret” was discovered and imitated in his own show of “Chemical Paintings” during 1843. In Cincinnati, Winter claimed that his exhibition not only imitated Daguerre’s originals, but also surpassed them. His backdrops were substantially bigger than their French counterparts, measuring 200 feet square each. I could envision a backdrop measuring approximately 10’-12’ in height by 16’-20’ in width– a good size for the end of a Concert Hall.

Winter’s advertisement also responded to M. M. Maffey’s proclamation that no one in American could imitate his exhibition of Daguerre’s magical paintings. Well, that certainly was drawing a line in the sand and challenging many American artist’s abilities. In general, I was curious about Maffey and Lonati’s management of Daguerre’s paintings, the tour of the show, and any technical information that might be gleamed from newspaper advertisements between 1840 and 1843. So I started to look for additional findings in newspapers and journals from the period.

Maffey and Lonati’s exhibition of Daguerre’s paintings first appeared in New York during 1840. It stayed in the city from October through December. From New York it went to Philadelphia where the proprietors explained that their compositions were true “dioramas.” On January 22, 1841, an advertisement appeared in the National Gazette for the exhibition of “Daguerre’s Dioramas from Paris” (page 3). The newspaper reported, “Among the many Exhibitions which have been seen in the United States up to the present time, several have taken the name Dioramas without being entitled to it. M. M. Maffey and Lonati respectfully inform the Ladies and Gentlemen of this city, that they have just arrived from Paris and New York with a Real Diorama, in every sense of the word, painted by Mons. Daguerre.” Their show included two tableaux depicting “the magnificent view of Venice, or a Festival Night,” and “the admired and unrivalled interior of the Church St. Etienne du Mont, at Paris, representing Midnight Mass!!” The exhibition was open from 11-2 and 5-9 daily. So this meant that they had multiple showings daily. It was obvioulsy a reversible effect with light that could be shown multiple times over the course of a day in specified time slots.

A possible validation of this appeared in the “Boston Weekly Magazine” further describing Maffey and Lonati’s exhibition (Vol. III, 1840-1841, page 263). An article reported “The reflection and refraction of light producing the most surprising effects in the picture, totally changing the scene.” Here is how I interpret this statement: The “reflection of light” on the surface means that front light is used on the painted scene – front light and there may also be some metallic areas or sections with “Dutch Metal” applied, such as in the water to create glistening areas of the Venice canals. The painted surface also reflects the light to make the canvas appear opaque – showing the first scene in daylight.

A scene that is partially backlit, allowing the translucent sky and lake to “glow” and create a picturesque realism on stage.

The “refraction of light” mentioned in the article means changing the direction of the light to illuminate the backside of the backdrop – showing the same scene at night. The gradual lowering of the front light and raising of the backlight would provide a smooth and picturesque transition for the audience. Bounce light would be used to illuminate broad areas on the backside of the drop – such as sunsets and seascapes.  This means projecting light away from the drop and allowing the light to bounce back to the translucent area.

Concentrated light in light boxes for the backdrop reveals smaller sections of a translucency, such as the words pictured below or illuminated windows. This would also allow any transparent sections of a drop to become illuminated, thus altering the appearance of the painted composition on the front.

Backlit section of a drop where a light box placed on the backside of a scene will illuminate a specific portion to reveal hidden words, objects and figures.
Backside of the translucent section, with back-painting to define the shapes and concentrate the light for the translucency.
Same section that is under front light. From the audience it appears uniform to the rest of the backdrop.

By the spring of 1841, a third painting was added to the show – Constantinople. However, this backdrop did not depict any transformation, only the two original pieces went from day to night. The Boston Post reported that only two scenes were “painted in that peculiar manner which causes them to change light.” The article continued, “The Church is first seen at mid-day, empty, the light gradually fades to twilight, and the moonlight is seen shining through the windows, and is reflected from the pillars on the opposite side. Presently the candles around the altar are lighted up, and then the seats (before vacant) seem filled with worshippers – the mass proceeds and ends – the lights are extinguished – day is seen to dawn – the moonlight disappears before the light of the sun, and the canvass which seemed crowded with objects, again becomes vacant” (13 May 1841, page 2). I believe that the people are a scenic effect that is similar to shadow puppets (more on that in tomorrow’s post).

As a scenic artist, it is hard not to read that description and envision a painted composition of an empty church – lit from the front. The front light goes down and the lights behind the backdrop go up, illuminating the backside of the drop and revealing a combination of translucent sections and opaque painting of another scene.   The scene for Venice also transitions from day to night, revealing gondolas and gay revelers at a hotel reception – all heading to a festival banquet at a hotel. Whenever, I have taken visitors into a historic auditorium and successfully backlit translucent drops that transform daylight scenes to color sunsets there is always that small gasp, followed by “Oh!” This transition never grows old, as even seasoned stagehands will stop to admire the stage effect; it is magical.

In Baltimore, Daguerre’s painted compositions started to add a new descriptor – “Magical Pictures.” Pretty smart as “magical pictures” are far more exciting and promise a surprise – the movement! The Baltimore Sun reported Daguerre’s Diorama’s represented “the wonderful effects of day and night” and were once again advertised to be “the only Original Dioramas ever presented to the American Public” (Baltimore Sun, 30 September 1841, page 3).

Notice the use of “Magical Pictures” for Daguerre’s dioramas. This is before the same show is advertised as “Chemical Paintings.” From the Madisonian (Washington, D.C.) 28 April 1842, page 2).

But wait, there’s more. After Baltimore, the show travels to Charleston and then Washington, D.C. By D.C. the “the charming Valley of Goldau (in Switzerland) and the crumbling of a mountain, a historical occurrence” replaced the static Constantinople scene. The crumbling mountain makes me think of the double-painted Scottish Rite drop where a temple crumbles. As the front panel is lowered to the floor, the back of it is revealed as temple ruins. What a thrilling and splendid effect! Then, a fourth scene is added – “the Remains of Napoleon in the Church des Invalides, Paris, on the 15th December 1840” (The Daily Madisonian, 18 April 1842, page 2).

Double-painted panels on a backdrop. This is before the volcano explodes and the buildings crumble.
Double-painted panels on a backdrop. This is after the volcano explodes and the buildings crumble.
Double painted panel attached to the front of a drop, before it is lowered.
Same panel being partially lowered to reveal that a scene is painted behind it.

The show undergoes further “rebranding,” and it is advertised under a new heading by the end of 1842 – “Chemical Pictures.” This is also when the first competition appeared for the French proprietors!  A second show appeared in New Orleans at the same time.

New branding of the M.M. Maffey and Lonati exhibition of Daguerre’s dioramas that were also called “magical paintings.” Here is a later ad for the same exhibition, but with the new title of “Chemical Pictures.” From The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) 29 Dec. 1842, page 3).

To be continued…

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