Saving The ”IMAX Of Its Day”

The advertisements in the original souvenir program ran the gamut from pianos and diamonds to accident-insurance, carriages, and a Seminole Indian potion to cure catarrh, eczema, and cancer. The common denominator: the opportunity to reach the vast numbers and wide variety of patrons paying 50 cents each, 14 hours a day, seven days a week, to throng a newly opened attraction on Tremont Street in Boston. There, in a fireproof brick-and-iron circular fortress, veterans, tourists, art aficionados, history enthusiasts, and the just plain curious stared in wonder at the artistic sensation of the day: Paul Philippoteaux’s colossal Cyclorama of the Battle of Gettysburg .

Only the cover of the program hinted at the emotions that the spectacular painting-in-the-round, 365 by 42 feet, was designed to evoke when it was unveiled in late 1884, commemorating the biggest, bloodiest battle of the Civil War, 21 years earlier. This quaint brochure illustration showed a Union and a Confederate soldier shaking hands in friendship beneath the billowing flags of the once-warring sections. This message was clear: Though the mammoth panoramic painting portrayed war at its fiercest, its display was meant to promote sectional reconciliation—at least among the white soldiers North and South who had fought so bitterly over the issues of Union and slavery. (All too typically, African-Americans were left out of the celebration.)

The promoters guessed right with this approach combining spectacle and sentiment. The press and public responded with the kind of enthusiasm reserved today for Lord of the Rings movies and Harry Potter books. In Boston alone tens of thousands of spectators poured in to see it.

Art critics and ex-soldiers alike hailed the experience that greeted visitors who climbed a “winding passageway” up to an “elevated platform” to view the Cyclorama. A Boston critic marveled: The Gettysburg Cyclorama, he said, awoke “a feeling of grandeur.” To another, it was “as if the laws of this world were suspended,” rendering the spectator “dazed and helpless, feeling much like the little girl in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ when told that she was but a thing in the dream of the sleeping king.” Added a Boston journalist: “The effect … is simply astounding. [The viewer] finds himself upon a high hill, with a stretch of forty miles of country all around him and everywhere within range of his vision, on the hills, in the valleys, in the woods, on the open fields, in ditches and behind stone walls, and in shot-shattered shanties he beholds the soldiers of the blue and gray engaged in the awful struggle for the supremacy… . It must be seen to be fully appreciated.”

Such appreciation is likely lost on most modern Americans. In today’s age of computerized wide-screen movies and action-packed video games, the popular taste for static visual wonders is long gone, helped along by the introduction of silent films like The Birth of a Nation , Civil War “art” that not only dazzled but moved. During the late nineteenth century, however, battlefield cycloramas, which ushered their patrons into eerie darkness, then mesmerized them with monumental, light-suffused panoramas of soldiers and horses, smoke and fury, brought war to vivid life. And now that the relic is facing a do-or-die restoration to save it from destruction and preserve it for a new generation of admirers, the Gettysburg Cyclorama is enjoying a surge in recognition and appreciation.

Philippoteaux visited the battlefield, took panoramic photos, interviewed veterans, then hired 20 artists to help him.

The vast painting was the work of an enterprising second-generation French military artist. Paul Dominique Philippoteaux visited the battlefield personally, made sketches, took panoramic photographs to record his impressions, interviewed veterans, and then employed 20 artists to help him produce his monumental canvas, using specialists in figure, equestrian, and landscape painting.

The result was a vigorous, fluent battlefield painting that re-created the climactic moments of Pickett’s Charge of July 3, 1863, with breathtaking grandeur and was immediately, deservedly, praised as “a marvel of artistic learning and sentiment.” From the topography (the looming Round Tops bathed in haze and the famous copse of trees near the so-called Confederate high-water mark) to the portraiture (Winfield Scott Hancock in full magnificence, Lewis Armistead falling dead) to the ancillary incidents of war (mangled casualties, broken fieldpieces, and a military hospital trying desperately to function in a shed amidst the horror), the Cyclorama brilliantly evoked not only the drama but the sheer confusion of the battle. To be sure, the canvas suffered its share of errors: a cluster of haystacks straight out of Holland, not Pennsylvania, and the martyred Armistead shown falling from his horse (he was actually on foot when he was shot down). But one can only admire the research and talent the artist summoned for the enterprise. No wonder he boldly “signed” the virtuoso result with a self-portrait, casting himself as an officer leaning casually against a tree, as if the better to observe the carnage he would one day imagine.