Cycloramas were the I-Max of the nineteenth century. Viewers stood in the center of a specially constructed auditorium, surrounded by a huge cylindrical oil painting of an exciting historic event or dramatic scene. Sometimes the exhibit included music or a narration of the events. With or without a soundtrack, when you went to see a cyclorama, you were right in the center of the action.
Hundreds of cycloramas were painted and exhibited in the 1800s. Almost every major city in the United States had a circular or hexagonal building specially designed to house the exhibits. The most popular traveled from town to town: not the ideal way to keep an enormous painting in good repair. Over time, most were lost or destroyed. The art form only lost its popularity with the arrival of motion pictures in the 1890s.
One cyclorama that survived is The Battle of Gettysburg, painted by Paul Philippoteaux, a professional cyclorama artist, in 1883. A group of business men hired the French artist to create a cyclorama depicting Pickett’s Charge, the final Confederate attack at the battle of Gettysburg, for a special display in Chicago.
Philippoteaux arrived in Gettysburg in 1882 with a sketchpad, a guidebook and a team of assistants. He spent several weeks on the battlefield, studying the terrain. He made hundreds of sketches and hired a local photographer to take panoramic photographs of the landscape. He also interviewed veterans of the battle to be sure his painting was as accurate as possible.
The Battle of Gettysburg opened in Chicago in 1883. The painting was 359 feet long and 27 feet high. The impact of the painting was increased by a landscaped foreground that included battle debris, stone walls, shattered trees and broken wooden fences. The effect was so realistic that Major General John Gibbon, who commanded the unit that drove back Pickett’s division in the battle, wrote “…I say nothing more than the truth when I tell you it was difficult to abuse my mind of the impression that I was actually on the [battle]ground.” High praise indeed for three tons of canvas and paint.
The cyclorama was so popular that Philippoteaux was commissioned to make three more copies. One was exhibited in Boston for almost twenty years. When the theater finally closed its doors, a Gettysburg businessman bought it and brought the battle home.
The cyclorama was a popular tourist attraction in Gettysburg from 1913 to 2005, first as a private concern and later as the star turn at the Gettysburg National Military Park. After more than a hundred years of active use, the painting had begun to show its age. In 2005, conservation specialists went to work on the painting, repairing unstable portions of the canvas and restoring sections that were badly faded by sunlight. Three years and $13 million later, the cyclorama’s facelift was complete. Installed in a specially designed visitor center and museum, the cyclorama is ready to make visitors feel like “they were there” for another 120 years.