The Atlanta History Center (Atlanta, Georgia, USA) has opened Cyclorama: The Big Picture, the fully restored The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama painting.
The 360° cyclorama is one of the world’s largest oil paintings, standing 49 feet (14.9m) tall, stretching longer than a football field and weighing 10,000 pounds (4,530 kg). It depicts the Battle of Atlanta in 1864 — a major turning point in the Civil War — and is one of only two cycloramas in the United States, the other being The Battle of Gettysburg cyclorama.
In the 1880s cycloramas were the IMAX of their time, created as commercial attractions providing astounded viewers with immersive experiences just like VR today. This one was painted by 17 German artists at the American Panorama Company in Milwaukee in 1866 – 22 years after the Battle of Atlanta.
The restored painting is housed in the Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building at the Atlanta History Center, a new custom-built space created to give visitors an experience similar to the one offered when the cyclorama was created 133 yrs ago. Restoration highlights include:
- Re-creation of three missing sections, adding 2,908 square feet to the painting to return it to its original size.
- Erection of a 15ft (4.6m) stationary viewing platform in the middle, from where visitors can see the composition at eye-level.
- Re-creation of a 120-foot, custom-made diorama landscape, including 128 original restored diorama figures from 1936
- Corrected hyperbolic shape through re-tensioning, conveying the originally intended 3D effect
What’s interesting, besides its sheer size and 19th century ingenuity, is the interpretation.
The painting originally depicted the battle from a Northern perspective, as a heroic Union victory, to appeal to Northern audiences. When the painting relocated to Atlanta in 1892, it was slightly modified and advertised as “the only Confederate victory ever painted” to appeal to Southern audiences with Confederate sympathies.
The Battle of Atlanta was not a Confederate victory, and those 1892 changes (like repainting fleeing Confederates in gray uniforms to depict fleeing Union soldiers in blue uniforms) were repainted yet again in the 1930s to accurately portray the original design.
Throughout the 127 years that the cyclorama has been on display in Atlanta, it has been the subject of periodic interpretation. At times, it was seen as a proud symbol of the New South’s capital, rising from the ashes left by General William T. Sherman. It has also been criticised as an anachronism meant to glorify the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. Perceptions of history, and the painting itself, have depended on the eye of the beholder, as audiences have viewed it in different times and places throughout the years.
With this new exhibit, which opened this weekend, the Atlanta History Center intends to channel these varying viewpoints into a deeper conversation, about the “big picture.”
“History is messy, but it has a lot to teach us—if we let it,” says Sheffield Hale, president and chief executive officer of the Atlanta History Center. “What makes Cyclorama: The Big Picture so cool is the surprise factor of the painting’s history; the ‘how and why’ it was created, and its various interpretations over time. We are challenging visitors to explore their own perceptions and misperceptions of history. Facts are facts, but the way we view the past varies widely.”
Through exhibitions, rare artifacts, historic images, immersive technology, digital resources, videos and museum theater, visitors are encouraged to look critically at a range of Civil War imagery and consider how images and entertainment can influence how we perceive history.
“These shifting viewpoints are precisely what make The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama such a distinctive and important artifact,” says Atlanta History Center Senior Military Historian Gordon Jones. “No other object can so vividly tell the story of how attitudes toward the Civil War have been shaped and reshaped over the past 150 years. In fact, it is the largest single artifact in existence to demonstrate the power of the use and misuse of historical memory.”
Two levels of exhibitions detail truths and myths of the Civil War, explore the untold stories of the painting, examine the role movies and visual entertainment have on shaping perspectives of the Civil War and provide a look at the fleeting entertainment sensation of cycloramas.
Guests enter the painting rotunda through a tunnel, passing underneath the diorama before ascending an escalator to the 15-foot stationary viewing platform. Here, visitors immediately experience a full 360-degree view of the painting, enhanced by a 12-minute, larger-than-life theatrical presentation projected onto the painting. In addition, visitors can use handheld tablets to point at various scenes on the painting which offer more detailed information.
Photos: Courtesy Atlanta History Center