How The Cyclorama Was Painted

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The Atlanta Cyclorama is the best surviving example in America of an art form which flourished in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. The huge canvas was a project of William Wehner, a German who established studios in Milwaukee in 1883 and set out to create a series of “spectacle paintings” for display in the large cities of the U.S. From Germany Wehner imported a staff of twelve artists, many of whom had worked on cycloramas glorifying the German victories in the Franco-Prussian War.

To ensure historical accuracy, Wehner engaged Theodore Davis, a staff artist for Harper’s Weekly who had been at Shcrman’s field headquarters on the afternoon of July 22, 1864, and who had witnessed much of the battle. As a vantage point from which to plot the action on the terrain, a wooden tower was erected at the center of the battle scene. Here the artists planned and sketched through the summer of 1885, while Confederate veterans and neighbors helped them out with information and reminiscences.

The actual painting was done in the Milwaukee studio. With Teutonic efficiency, three artists worked on the landscapes while five others painted figures and two did the animals. Early in 1887 the huge canvas had its first exhibition in Detroit, moving on to Minneapolis and then to Indianapolis, where it was stranded in 1888 by Wehner’s financial difficulties. After passing through several hands the painting reached Atlanta, where George V. Gress bought it and presented it to the city. In 1921 a building was erected in Grant Park to give it a permanent home.