Immersed in the past

Visitors viewing the Gettysburg Cyclorama, from

A step back from the silent film to one of its antecedents. On 26 September the Battle of Gettysburg cyclorama opens to the public at the new Gettysburg visitor centre after a five-year, $15 million restoration, contained within its own rotunda. The cyclorama is a 337ft x 42ft panoramic painting of the Battle of Gettysburg, painted by Frenchman Paul Philippoteaux (with twenty assistants) and first exhibited in 1884.

The painting (which weighs some three tons) is a 360-degree oil painting depicting “Pickett’s Charge,” a Confederate attack that took place on 3 July 1863. It was commissioned as a commercial venture by Chicago businessman Charles Louis Willoughby. Philippoteaux, an experience panoramic painter, began work in 1882, making hundreds of sketches of the Gettyburg battlefield and hiring a photographer to produce panoramic photographs of the site. He interviewed veterans to help him with the details, then spent eighteen months producing the painting, hiring assistants to work on specialised features such as horses, soldiers and landscape. The finished work was not just the panoramic painting but included three-dimensional features coming out of the painting, such as trees, walls and fences, which, when added to the tricks in perspective employed by the panorama painters, gave viewers a greater sense of the physical ‘reality’ of the experience. The 3-D aspects are recreated in the restored version.

The panorama was a patented invention, created by the Irishman Robert Barker in 1787. Giant panoramic paintings, known as cycloramas in their 360-degree form, became hugely popular visitor attractions throughout the nineteenth century, inviting audiences to lose themselves in historical scenes, Biblical scenes and exotic journeys, generally with a lecturer to guide them to the highlights to be seen along the way. The form therefore anticipated much of the spectacular and immersive qualities of cinema, and is seen as one of the ‘pre-cinema’ antecedents of motion picture films. Both are imaginatively constructed journeys through time and space.

View a QuickTime panorama of the top half of the pre-restored painting.

The Battle of Gettysburg was so successful following its Chicago debut that Philippoteaux produced a second version for exhibition in Boston, then two further copies (surely painting at its most mechanical and soulless). It is the Boston version, which later moved to the Gettysburg National Military Park, which has been restored. One other copy survives.

There are some thirty or so cycloramas in existence today, in one form or other. Information on these, with links to those with a web presence of some kind, can be found on the Visions & Illusions site. The International Panorama Council’s describes and illustrates panoramas of all kinds to be found worldwide.

There is information on the restoration of the cyclorama from the National Park Service site. The Washington Post reviews the restoration with a somewhat jaundiced eye, looking at its propagandist qualities and its relationship to virtual reality, echoing the need for realistic thrills in modern museum installations. The report also has a short video on the Gettysburg panorama.

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