An Amazing Piece of Art and History (11/16)

BY CHRIS BRENNEMEN / November 2016

The Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama that is on display at the Gettysburg National Military Park was painted in 1884 by the French artist Paul Philippoteaux. It opened in its current location in 2008 after years of extensive restoration work. In its newly restored condition, the cyclorama is one of the world’s most amazing works of art. Besides the painting’s value as art, it is also an important piece of history.

The cycloramas of the late 19th century were the first form of art for the masses, like the movies of today. With their giant round canvases (the Gettysburg Cyclorama is 42 feet tall and 377 feet in circumference), the cycloramas were the IMAX movies of their day. These paintings also include a foreground of real objects that help trick the viewer into believing that everything in the painting is real. With this illusion factored in, you could say that the cycloramas were like the 3D IMAX movies of today. Cycloramas were extremely popular in the late 19th century. Unfortunately, when motion pictures became popular in the early 20th century, the cycloramas stopped being profitable and most were neglected and abandoned. Today, there are only two of these massive paintings that have survived in the United States, The Battle of Gettysburg and the Battle of Atlanta which is currently being restored in Atlanta. We are truly lucky to have such an amazing work of art on display in Gettysburg.

The cycloramas are also important pieces of history for other reasons. The artist did months of extensive research during the creation of the painting. You could say that the cyclorama was the first documentary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Philippoteaux interviewed participants in the battle, toured the battlefield with a battlefield guide, and went to the War Department and looked at the records and maps of the battle. Finally, the artist hired a local photographer to take terrain photographs of the area of the High Water Mark. Using these pictures, Philippoteaux was able to make the terrain extremely accurate. These photographs were some of the first pictures taken at the High Water Mark. By comparing these photographs with historic maps and modern photographs, we can learn a lot about the way historic Cumberland Township has changed over the years.

Unfortunately, we do not know if Paul Philippoteaux kept a diary or journal while he was creating the painting. If such a journal exists, it is probably in some unknown location in France. We know that the artist snuck his own self-portrait into the painting. There are also several other individuals who were added into the scene by the artist. For many years, we have speculated that the artist’s assistants may also be depicted in the painting. By carefully studying the painting and making photographic comparisons with pictures of the artist and his team, I have been able to find a few of these assistants in the scene. What other mysteries are still left to be discovered in this amazing piece of art and history?

Learn more about the Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama at the Cumberland Township Historical Society quarterly meeting on Monday, Dec. 5, at 7 p.m. at the Church of the Brethren, 1710 Biglerville Road. This meeting is free of charge and open to the public. Refreshments will be served.

Chris Brenneman is a Licensed Battlefield Guide and an employee of the Gettysburg Foundation. Chris and his co-author Sue Boardman recently completed a book about the cyclorama titled: The Gettysburg Cyclorama: The Turning Point of the Civil War on Canvas.