Oh Panama!: Jonas Lie Paints the Panama Canal
One hundred years ago the Panama Canal linked east to west, opening for the first time in history a water passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Oh Panama! looks back to the determined and spirited efforts of the architects and crews who accomplished the 1914 canal that was captured in paintings by Jonas Lie from the West Point Museum Collection, United States Military Academy. Lie’s paintings continue today to impress viewers as a sublime and beautiful document of man’s relentless quest to conquer nature and harness its riches.
Norwegian-born painter Jonas Lie (1880–1940) inspired by a motion picture documentary of the construction of the canal visited the Panama Canal Zone for three months in 1913. He was enthralled by the feats of engineering required to dig the Culebra Cut, as well as the sublime visual qualities of the massive trench being carved across the Isthmus of Panama. Working tirelessly in the intense tropical heat, he produced oil sketches and drawings and took careful notes on the technical aspects of the canal construction.
Recognized by his peers as a scientist and a poet for his depictions of New York City, Lie’s canvasses were both historical documents of technological progress and dramatic interpretations of the urban environment. The thirty known pictures he made of Panama are lively and colorful, capturing the spirit of that endeavor as well as its heroic quality and monumental scale. Lie recalled the Panama experience as a pivotal moment in his career, one from which he received national recognition for his work and also developed the aesthetic and technical strategies that influenced his landscape compositions from that point forward.
When Lie returned to New York, he exhibited twenty-eight paintings from the Panama cycle at the Knoedler Gallery; two—The Conquerors and Culebra Cut—were purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Detroit Institute of Arts before the exhibition embarked on a national tour in 1914. The exhibition was very popular with broad interest in Lie’s paintings fueled by publicity photographs, news reports, and the release of documentary films following the canal’s progress, such as the Edison Company’s The Joining of the Two Oceans, The Panama Canal.