At the Paris Exposition Universelle (World's Fair) of 1889, the newly constructed Eiffel Tower was one of the top attractions. The Exposition was a showcase of France's manufacturing industries and of her place in the world. La Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, owners of La Touraine, was one of the French manufacturing and service companies with its own pavilion, on the bank of the Seine at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.
|Extract from the map of the 1889 Exposition Universelle. The CGT panorama is the circular building top right|
"Higher up, at the level of the avenue de La Bourdonnais, we find the Panorama of the Compagnie Transatlantique. It is a polygonal construction, raised on piles, the exterior of which is decorated with immense maps representing all the countries of the world linked to the various French ports by the Company's liners.
"On entry, you find yourself on the staircase of a great steamer, whose two principal decks you visit in sequence. It is the exact reproduction, life size, of the steamship la Touraine which is under construction. Eleven dioramas, the work of Messieurs Poilpot, Hoffbauer, Montenard and Motte, display to you the luxurious accommodation of a great Transatlantic liner, the salons, the smoking room, the passenger cabins. To one side are reproduced several fascinating scenes: the arrival of a steamer in New York, views of the principal ports used by the Compagnie Transatlantique, their immense dockyards.
Figure 3 - La Nature, 1889 - cross-section through the Panorama
"You finally come out on the bridge of the ship, and there, the illusion is such that, almost by the movement, that you believe youself to be out at sea. In the distance the port of Le Havre can be seen and the nearby cliffs beaten by the waves. If you look around, you can see the complete superstructure of a ship with her masts and all their ropes; and all of it is extended and finished so well on painted canvases that you cannot truly say where the actual ship on which you are walking ends and where the artist's work finishes. All around, the fleet of the Compagnie Transatlantique appears in ranks, formed by steamers of all tonnages, from the enormous liners of the New York line to the more modest vessels of the Algeria lines."
|Original poster, recently changed hands for over €3,000|
The Panorama is described in splendidly florid detail detail in "L'Exposition Universelle de 1889" by Louis Rousselet (published in 1890).
"You have no sooner entered the Champ de Mars panorama, than you find yourself transported right to the heart of a ship. Dark, narrow corridors lit to left and right by portholes represent, with a good degree of fidelity, the outlines of a boat. An odour of pitch, suffusing pretty well everywhere, finishes off the local colour, I had better say… local aroma. You pass through travellers’ cabins, outfitted in great luxury. A little staircase comes in sight. You climb it and suddenly you are transported to the bridge of an immense liner, la Touraine, such as she will be in days to come. In reality, la Touraine rests still on the stocks in the construction yard. This little subterfuge, by placing the spectator on a liner which does not yet exist, has the advantage of letting you see the entire existing fleet.
"On this bridge, tackle is hanging, ropes unroll on the floor, the steersman turns the wheel, the compass needle trembles in the binnacle, the captain, leaning on the railing, gives the last orders. The ship is ready to depart. Foredeck passengers, after deck passengers, crowd on the gangplanks, glancing one last time at the dry land of France, which, in a few minutes’ time, will be slipping little by little into the distance and will sink suddenly below the sea’s horizon. All along the davits of the Touraine the sea slaps, shimmers, gleams. Sailing yachts, to see her closer, veer and tack in her stream, with a swirling as of great sea birds with white wings. Light skiffs, carrying overdue passengers, turn back towards the port, spotted with smoke, the bow white with foam, leaving behind them a deep wake, whose undulations ruffle the surface of the waters.
"We also, interested visitor, we must leave. An impression, at least, has been given to us. And what a departure! The sun’s rays sparkle out of sight, drowning in their gilded waves the immense horizon of the mouth of the Seine, which acts as the roadstead of le Havre whose white houses rise in rows on the flanks of the hillside. Down there, the abrupt spine of the point of La Hève; here, the hillsides slipping past which border the Seine, on this side, the green, dark slopes of Ronfleur and Trouville, on the other, the infinite horizon hiding the English coast. In this giant picture frame, the sea calm, peaceful, the sea in multiple tones, and on it, proud of their strength and majesty, all the ships of the Company, crowing with joy, present for the departure of their youngest sister. It is la Gascogne, la Champagne, la Normandie, it is la Bretagne. In the luminous air which surrounds them, one can see the specific details which give them their own individuality. Those who know them cannot mistake them and give one the name of another.
"The tour of the bridge completed, you go back down to the between-decks. A new spectacle waits for us there. In place of the cabins aligned the length of her sides, there are dioramas, that is to say huge paintings on vast canvases and which, instead of being circular like those of the panorama, are laid out on a vertical plan. The lighting, cunningly placed, varies the general and the local tones in such a way as to produce, be it on several points, be it on the entire picture, all possible natural or artificial luminous effects.
Figure 1 - La Nature, 1889 - View towards the bow. Watch out for crowing ships
"The Transatlantic Company’s dioramas each represent a distinct part of the ship: the saloon, the dining room, the smoking room, cabins of the different classes, boarding, etc. etc. Others show different ports more particularly frequented by the liners of the Company. Here is Marseilles with its old city walls, their heights reddened by the light of the setting sun, darkened at the foot by the waves of the Mediterranean. There is Algiers with its ranks of white houses, exploding in the dark greenery of exotic plants. Here is New York with the grandiose, luminous panorama of her harbour."
|Figure 2 - La Nature, 1889 - View towards the stern|
The Exposition Universelle attracted visitors in their millions, from Parisian factory workers and shop girls to official visitors from all over the world. The lifelike interior of the Panorama gave the impression of rubbing shoulders with the nobs in First Class. It proved so popular that the CGT revived and revised it for the 1900 Exposition Universelle, featuring all their ships, including La Touraine (12,000 bhp!) on a Mediterranean voyage.
This exhibit, called the Maréorama, intrigued Finnish-American Professor of Media Studies Erkki Huhtamo at the beginning of the 21st Century to such an extent that he lectured on the subject extensively under the headline "Mareorama Resurrected". His story of how he became interested in the Maréorama echoes our own. The spirit of La Touraine lives on.