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Saving The ”IMAX Of Its Day”

June 2024
8min read

The 120-year-old Gettysburg cyclorama is again a work in progress

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.


The Boston Cyclorama was actually the second of four the artist produced. After churning out the canvases for Chicago and Boston, Philippoteaux went on to create replicas for both New York City and Philadelphia. Their success inevitably inspired imitations. Contemporaries created panoramic paintings of the Battles of Shiloh and of Atlanta (the latter is still on view there) and the duel between the ironclads Monitor and Merrimack , to name a few.

As for the popular Boston picture by Philippoteaux, it was taken down in 1891 and relegated to storage for 18 years, rolled up in a wooden crate on which fire, rain, and vandals all took a toll. Not until 1910 did a Newark, New Jersey, merchant rescue it for display in his department store—in sections. Two years later he shipped it to Gettysburg, in time for it to be restored and displayed during the golden anniversary of the battle in 1913. For the next 46 years the Cyclorama remained on view there in an unheated circular wooden building on Cemetery Hill. The remarkable thing is that it survived at all.


But the years of sloppy maintenance took their toll. During the picture’s half-century and more in storage, transit, or housed in its glorified shed on the battlefield, 15 feet of sky had been damaged and removed and one or two panels of battle action lost, comprising around 37 feet of detail. In 1962 the surviving elements of the Cyclorama were at last professionally restored and rehung in a modern new circular building in the Gettysburg National Military Park. There it has remained a tourist attraction for generations. But even in its new setting, this greatest surviving example of a once passionately admired form of military art suffered the effects of age, exposure, natural deterioration, and subsequent restorations that probably did more to damage than rehabilitate it.

Hoisted around the circumference of its huge drum-shaped building, but badly glued to a new backing, the three-ton painting later sagged and blistered alarmingly. Water leaks and imperfect climate control further violated the integrity of the fragile canvas, causing discoloration, blistering, buckling, and ruffling in spots, while its heft strained the seams holding it together in vertical strips every 11 or 19 feet. Fire and rot had left their marks earlier, and now some clumsily overpainted repairs began to flake away. Experts were brought in to analyze the picture.

In November 2003, after some 90 years on public view at Gettysburg, the Philippoteaux Cyclorama was temporarily closed to launch a desperately needed $9 million rehabilitation ($5 million of it federally funded). The painstaking project is scheduled to take three years. A team of restoration specialists went to work immediately on two representative panels and then reopened the Cyclorama to the public several months later (with the two treated sections temporarily masked under an opaque veil). Work will continue in incremental stages for the next few years, during which the public will occasionally get to observe some of the project in progress. Ultimately the new Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum Foundation, working with the National Park Service, will shut down and move the fully restored Cyclorama—panel by panel (27 in all)—and reassemble it inside a newly built state-of-the-art gallery by 2006. In its new setting, the Cyclorama will resume its place as the main attraction in an all-new visitors’ center.

On a recent visit to the site, I found the two most afflicted sections of the work obscured by newly erected scaffolding that contained work platforms at several different levels. The setup replicated precisely the kind of scaffold that Philippoteaux and his team of artists had employed to create the original. Perched like vertical assembly-line workers, specialists painted simultaneously at different levels to complete the sky, army, and underbrush (the original mammoth canvas was finished in less than a year).

Today’s workers could be observed carefully rubbing the picture with specially prepared chemical solvents, devised after substantial research and experimentation, to clean off nearly 40 years of grime and dust. The pungent smell of cleaning fluid filled the vast, quiet chamber.

All told, the project is nothing less than the American equivalent of the Sistine Chapel ceiling restoration.

Part of this expert team is Perry Huston, a noted conservator from Fort Worth, working with David Olin, a conservator from Great Falls, Virginia, with help from European panorama specialists. Slender, dapper, and soft-spoken, Huston guides me through my own personal, up-close inspection of the preliminary work, thoughtfully asking, as we ascend the rungs of each ladder on our way to the crest of the scaffolding, whether the height bothers me. I avoid answering—but mostly avoid looking down. Ultimately, however, the view is worth the vertigo. From the high vantage point, the canvas takes on a new dimension and depth that I would never have expected. I was seeing the panorama, at last, the way viewers did in Boston in 1884.

“Look at this,” Huston says en route, pointing to a fleck of off-color paint peeling from a soldier’s face midway up the scaffold. “We’re dealing with three generations of restorations good and bad.” He indicates additional problems: here, flaking paint that must be secured, or “consolidated”; there, a vignette showing a soldier hoisting a rope on a pulley supported by a two-legged tripod, the third leg having disappeared over the years. Huston glances next at the grim sky. “It’s totally gray, completely degraded,” he announces. To restore it, he vows, the artist will be his guide: “Philippoteaux can’t speak for himself. We’re here to defend the artist, to restore the painting to the way he first conceived it.” The rehabilitation team has been poring over surviving records of earlier displays, hoping to re-create Philippoteaux’s vision. It is even considering the placement of detritus—plants, discarded canteens and knapsacks, and other military hardware—at the base of the picture, just as had been done in Boston. “In its original incarnation,” Huston marvels, “it was hard for the spectator to know where the painting began or ended; there was a suspension of reality that took one’s breath away. We have to try to re-create that.”


That will mean adding some 15 feet of lost sky and making it look blue again—as well as placing the next generation of visitors not at the bottom of the Cyclorama looking up, as they have been compelled to do since 1962, but much higher, nearer the horizon, and looking across and down, as Philippoteaux intended. When rehung in its new home, the canvas should also assume its original shape, a hyperbola, wider at the top and bottom, a shift likely to cast long-unseen focus on the effects the artist intended to highlight.

And the repair work will not end with the rehabilitation of the face of the painting visible to the public. Much attention must be paid, too, to the reverse. “The other thing we have to do,” Huston reported after clambering up the scaffolding to the uppermost regions of the painting’s skyline, “is remove the old lining and either reline the thing entirely or mount it to a reversible support with an underleaf. One of the earlier mountings used animal-based glue that leached through and damaged the picture. And it didn’t even properly secure it.” As David Olin pointed out, the restoration team will try to understand not only the art but “the science of the painting and its mounting system.”

All told, the project constitutes nothing less than the American equivalent of the restoration of the Sistine Chapel ceiling—certainly one of the largest such projects ever attempted on this continent.

When it is all done, will twenty-first-century visitors experience the same awe that overwhelmed its admirers in Boston in the 1880s? Properly lit, evocatively restaged, and with its higher vantage point, the painting may well have the power, in its new home in a new Gettysburg Visitor Center, to transport modern viewers into the violent cacophony that soldiers experienced at the high-water mark of the Confederacy during the apex of Pickett’s Charge. Robert C. Wilburn, President of the Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum Foundation, likes to tell potential contributors that the cyclorama was the “IMAX of its day.” But he hopes that proves an understatement.

Vanished Heritage Restoring a Battlefield Do we really need to spend a lot of time, effort, and money saving this big old painting?



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