The History and Transfer Process behind Gigantic Cyclorama Paintings

Have you ever wondered how famous museums managed to have huge paintings? Just imagine the work done just to transfer one gigantic painting from one place to another. What makes it even more difficult? Some humongous paintings are circular in form!


History of Panoramas and Cycloramas

From the 1870s to the 1880s, the United States was crazy about cycloramas. Cycloramas started when gigantic panoramas were created in the later part of the 18th century. Artists in Europe loved to paint larger-than-life artworks that showed explorers, exotic places, landscapes, mythology, Biblical scenes, major battles, and other interesting themes. From panoramas, the gigantic paintings turned into 360-degree paintings called cycloramas. These paintings could only be installed in circular buildings. Their main purpose was to give a realistic experience to the viewers, as if the guests were part of the scene in the painting.


Examples

Here are examples of famous panoramas or cycloramas:

“The Battle of Gettysburg” (1883)

One famous example of a cyclorama is “The Battle of Gettysburg.” This painting is known as the biggest oil painting of all time. It was created by French painter Paul Philippoteaux who started making cycloramas back in Europe in 1871. Philippoteaux painted the Gettysburg cyclorama because of investors from Chicago. He created the cyclorama for two years. But, he couldn’t handle everything. So, he hired approximately 24 assistants. The display was so successful that Philippoteaux was asked again to paint three more cycloramas solely focusing on the famous Battle of Gettysburg.

Paul Philippoteaux/National Park Service

“The Battle of Atlanta” (1887)

After the trend of “The Battle of Gettysburg,” the American Panorama Company was founded by William Wehner. The founder was born in Germany but lived in Milwaukee. The company’s most detailed work was “The Battle of Atlanta.” Wehner probably chose this battle scene because one of his patrons was the commander of the Fifteenth Corps for the Battle of Atlanta, Major General John Logan. The commander was also known as “Black Jack.”

Like Philippoteaux, Wehner also hired more than a dozen artists. But, he chose painters from Germany. Before the process, the artists really researched about the battle through notebooks and sketchbooks from Civil War campaign artist named Theodore Davis, official government maps and documents, veterans from both camps, and going all the way to Atlanta to see where the actual battle took place. Before the debut, unfortunately, Black Jack died. By 1890, the American Panorama Company was problematic. So, Wehner decided to sell the painting to Paul Atkinson, a promoter from Georgia. Many years passed and the painting still didn’t get much attention as expected. That’s why in 1898, “The Battle of Atlanta” ended up in the City of Atlanta itself through donation.

Atlanta History Center

The Dilemma

Now here’s where the fun begins, Atlanta built another building in 1921 to transfer “The Battle of Atlanta” to Grant Park. Funnily enough, the city didn’t thought of measuring the painting meticulously. It prioritized the building, which turned out to be smaller than the giant cyclorama. To solve it, some parts of the cyclorama were cut out to fit most of the painting into the building. The result? Big empty spaces.

The solution was made in 1936. A team from Works Project Administration added 128 soldiers made of plaster, railroad tracks, artillery and landscape features to put volume onto the red floor representing Georgia’s soil. The cyclorama became a 3D painting.

However, in 2014, the city thought of moving the painting once again to attract more visitors. From Grant Park, “The Battle of Atlanta” was moved to the Atlanta History Center. The transfer was a great sacrifice because the painting weighs seven tons and stands 359 feet wide by 42 feet high. The massive weight and height led to two years of planning and preparing.

Mike Mergen/The New York Times

The Transfer Process

Workers spent many days just rolling “The Battle of Atlanta.” Afterwards, two spools were finished – both weighing 6,200 pounds! Now, how to carry these gigantic spools? A crane was used to carefully lift them. Everyone behind the project made sure to do the process after the residents go home, the traffic slows down, and the rush hour ends. It usually happens at 3:00 A.M.

Sam Whitehead/GPB

The spools were not raised on the same day. After raising, the painting was hanging like a shower curtain. It had creases and folds. Improvements are planned to be presented next year during the reopening.