A Battle Scene's Full Circle
Torched, Torn, Tattered and Trimmed, Massive Painting of Gettysburg Enjoys Restoration and Return to Prominence

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 12, 2007

GETTYSBURG, Pa. "Everybody ready?" asks the chief art conservator, David L. Olin.

He pauses for a second, then starts the hoist. With the drone of machinery, a segment of the legendary Gettysburg cyclorama, four stories tall, begins to rise up the wall and back to life.

There, in a corner of the painting, is the famous black dog howling eternally over the body of a slain soldier. Nearby, two men with a stretcher again carry a wounded comrade, whose right arm dangles over the side. In the center, horsemen gallop in the perpetual shadow of battle smoke.

As the canvas clears the floor, it falls into place with a soft whoosh. Applause breaks out among the art conservators and bystanders. There are tears, hugs, whoops and handshakes.

"It's up," says senior conservator Debra Selden of this Gilded Age wonder, an Imax of its time.

At last.

The depiction of the Battle of Gettysburg's climactic moment has begun the final stages of its return. The circular oil painting survived 124 years of use and abuse. It has been restored in an $11.2 million, four-year conservation program and will be the showpiece of a new $7.5 million building at Gettysburg National Military Park.

Last week, a Great Falls-based firm, Olin Conservation Inc., assisted by a team of Polish cyclorama experts, raised the first of 14 sections of the painting inside the huge new circular structure that will house it.

A gang of conservators -- shoeless to avoid damaging the canvas -- spent all day Wednesday preparing and maneuvering the 26-foot-wide, 950-pound section into place.

At one point, it had to be flipped from its face-down position with a big aluminum roller. It was then hauled up a kind of launching ramp and clamped into the curved steel and oak bracket, or cornice, from which it would hang. Bracket and painting were hoisted to the ceiling with cables and chains.

The project is the work of a partnership between the National Park Service, which oversees the battlefield, and a private, nonprofit fundraising organization called the Gettysburg Foundation. The aim is to build a modern museum and visitor complex, restore and re-house the cyclorama, tear down the old visitor buildings nearby and return that landscape to its Civil War-era appearance.

The new $103 million, barn-red visitor complex, designed to suggest a Pennsylvania farm, is scheduled to open next spring, project officials said.

Work on the cyclorama, including preparation, hanging and assembly of the remaining 13 segments, will keep the roughly 377-foot-long canvas closed to the public until fall 2008.

The 1884 painting, executed by French artist Paul Philippoteaux, once hung in pieces in a Newark department store. And until 2005, when it was closed to the public, it had been on display for more than 40 years in the old 1960s-era cyclorama building here.

Last week was a milestone in its often hazardous journey across history.

"This is absolutely incredible," senior paintings conservator Maura Duffy said as the first section was readied for its resurrection. "It's a dream come true."

Cyclorama paintings were the rage in the mid- to late 1800s, a kind of mass entertainment of their time. They required special buildings to display them in all their majesty. Many cities in the United States and Europe had cyclorama or panorama buildings, and the huge paintings, often of epic battles, made the rounds like blockbuster movies.

The paintings were big moneymakers and so popular that season tickets were available.

Washington had at least two panorama buildings. One, a round structure about five stories tall, was on 15th Street NW, two blocks south of the Treasury Building. In the 1880s and '90s, crowds gathered there to visit cycloramas of the battles of Gettysburg and Shiloh and the Second Battle of Bull Run.

An old photograph of the building, with the Washington Monument in the distance, shows it emblazoned with advertisements for the Bull Run painting.

Nine "Gettysburgs" once were on the cyclorama circuit, according to Susan Boardman, museum coordinator for the Gettysburg Foundation and historical consultant on the cyclorama project.

Four were executed by Philippoteaux, she said. The first was installed in Chicago. The one now at Gettysburg was his second and was originally created for Boston.

Philippoteaux did others in 1886 for New York and Philadelphia. The New York version was displayed in Washington's panorama building, according to Boardman.

Philippoteaux's cycloramas were considered fairly accurate and emotionally effective at the time.

"It is simply wonderful," Union Gen. John Gibbon, who had fought in the battle, wrote after seeing the one in Chicago in 1884. "I never before had an idea that the eye could be so deceived by paint (and) canvas."

The cyclorama in Gettysburg includes several historical figures, along with a self-portrait of Philippoteaux, who is shown leaning against a tree with a saber in his hand.

The artist was first hired to produce a Gettysburg cyclorama by Chicago businessman Charles Willoughby, Boardman said. Such paintings were usually executed by teams of artists with certain specialties. One, for example, might be good at painting horses, Boardman said. Another might excel at landscapes or people or faces.

She said in 1881 and 1882, Philippoteaux, then in his mid-30s, visited Gettysburg and hired local photographer William H. Tipton to take pictures of the battlefield. Many of the photographs survive, she said, and depict a pristine battlefield before "the monumentation craze" of a few years later.

Philippoteaux also came to Washington to research the battle and examine maps.

He returned to France to start work. Philippoteaux painted a small version of the painting, which shows Pickett's Charge, the m ain Confederate attack on the last day of the battle, July 3, 1863. Then he set his team to painting a hugely expanded copy.

Boardman said the version now in Gettysburg might have been painted, or at least completed, inside the Boston building where it was to be displayed. "No one knows for sure," she said. His remaining two were painted in the United States.

Only two of the Gettysburg cycloramas are believed to still exist. Besides the one at the battle site, Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., recently announced the sale to anonymous buyers of what it said was Philippoteaux's first "Gettysburg." The university said a local artist left it to the school when he died in 1996. The artist, Joseph Wallace King, said he had found the painting in 1965 behind a wall in a burned-out Chicago warehouse.

The painting now in Gettysburg has a tangled history. It was taken off exhibit in Boston in 1890. Later it fell on hard times, doomed by the arrival of movies.

It was cut into 27 sections and placed in a 50-foot-long wooden crate in a vacant lot in Boston. There, vandals twice set it afire, and it was exposed to the elements, Boardman said.

In the early 1900s, Albert Hahne, the Newark department store owner, acquired the painting and displayed much of it in his store. Then came the move to Pennsylvania. In 1913, the 50th anniversary of the battle, Hahne and other investors built an unheated, tile-covered building on Cemetery Hill in Gettysburg and put the painting on display. "And it never left," Boardman said.

The National Park Service, realizing the painting's cultural value, acquired it in 1942 and, with the approach of the 100th battle anniversary in 1963, had it restored and installed in a then-new ultra-modern visitor center/cyclorama building. The 1913 structure on Cemetery Hill was demolished.

But that was nearly a half-century ago. Now the 1960s building has grown ragged and outdated, and it is due to be torn down.

Throughout, the painting has survived -- battered, patched, trimmed, carved up, touched up and now getting new life.

With all that, as conservator Mary Wootton said last week: "It really is a treasure."

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