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Learn the Mysteries of the Gettysburg Cyclorama

Nov 19, 2014 09:22AM ● Published by Erica Shames

Gallery: Gettysburg Cyclorama - Winter 2014 [14 Images] Click any image to expand.

The “Evening with the Painting” sessions, conducted by Sue Boardman, licensed battlefield guide and research historian for the Gettysburg Foundation, take Gettysburg National Military Museum visitors behind the scenes of the Gettysburg Cyclorama. The famous painting—one of the few that still exist—depicts the Confederate attack on the Union forces known as Pickett’s Charge. The canvas measures 377 feet in circumference and is 42 feet high. Longer than a football field and as tall as a four-story structure, the Gettysburg Cyclorama oil painting immerses visitors in the fury during the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

“We hold these special ‘Evening with the Painting’ events because we recognize the incredible impact the cyclorama has on museum visitors, some of whom seek more in-depth information about it and the desire to take more time to admire it,” said Boardman. 

A Short Shelf Life

Larry Alexander, president of the Cumberland Valley Civil War Roundtable, attended a recent session with members of the group, which studies the history of the Civil War. They were eager to collect new nuggets of information from the two-hour presentation, which is held monthly through May.

“Not only is the cyclorama painting a true canvas documentary, the battlefield landscape it depicts has been preserved so that both the painting and the battlefield can be used to visually understand what happened here,” said Boardman, as she addressed the audience.

Alexander, who arranged the visit, said he was especially interested in the history of the panoramic paintings known as cycloramas. Boardman, a wealth of knowledge on the topic, informed the crowd that cycloramas originated in Europe and were displayed in special standardized auditoriums. The paintings, rendered on parabolic canvas, give the illusion of 3-D and usually depict historic events, religious themes or scenes from literature. Known as “entertainment for the masses,” cycloramas enjoyed a rather short shelf life of popularity ranging from 1883-1889, after which the public’s fixation turned to moving pictures. 

French artist Paul Philippoteaux painted four versions of the Gettysburg cyclorama and only two are known to have survived through the years. The first version, completed in 1883, was purchased for an undisclosed amount of money by North Carolina investors. The other version, which opened in Boston in 1884, now hangs at the Gettysburg National Military Museum and Visitors center after a massive, multi-year conservation effort.

What to Expect

Event attendees will learn details about how Philippoteaux prepared to paint the masterpiece after spending time on the Gettysburg battlefield with a guide and a photographer, to consulting official maps from Washington D.C. and obtaining battle details from Gens. Hancock, Doubleday and others before returning to France to begin work.

Boardman illustrates her lecture with accompanying pictures, some depicting work scenes, including one where Philloppoteaux oversees a team of 20 artists from an elevated viewing platform. Guests will learn that the artists also made mistakes and Boardman will point out the outlines of a few colorless “ghost” soldiers whose features were never completed.

Visitors  hear about the painstaking care taken to restore the Gettysburg Cyclorama as well. Boardman explains how restorers used infra-red photography to find original gridlines to piece together missing gaps in the painting. (A jaw-dropping fact: some of the cycloramas were cut down to fit in smaller buildings like department stores.) 

Boardman explains how those who worked on the painting to restore it to its original glory discovered other elusive details, including the precise color of the sky on that fateful day in 1863, thanks to Pennsylvania College professor Michael Jacobs, who just happened to keep daily records in a weather journal.

Up Close and Personal

After the lecture, guests are escorted to the main platform where they view the painting up close. Boardman points to authentic artifacts and details mentioned in the presentation, like the form of the soldiers who neglected to be “painted in” due to an oversight and Lincoln portrayed as a wounded soldier being carried off the field, along with other interesting tidbits.

Observers are shown instances where some of the artists used themselves as models for the soldiers they painted.

Patrons are invited to take pictures while up on the platform and have the opportunity to climb the stairs behind the painting to observe the work from a different perspective. 

“I remember as a young boy seeing the cyclorama in Gettysburg and I thought it was interesting, but since they did the renovation to restore it and display it again, it is so much better than ever before,” said Alexander. “You can even see how the artifacts in the front blend in with the painting. I was so impressed with how realistic everything looked.”

If You Go

There’s still time to experience this after-hours program. More sessions will be held on  Nov. 14 at 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. and Dec. 6 at 5:00 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for children ages 6-12. Reserve your seat by visiting GettysburgFoundation.org/18 or calling (877) 874-2478.

Stephanie Kalina-Metzger is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer whose work has appeared online and in print in numerous newspapers and magazines around the state.

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