The Gettysburg Cyclorama
The "Cyclorama" was a very popular form of entertainment in the late 1800's, both in America and Europe. These massive oil-on-canvas paintings were displayed in special auditoriums and enhanced with landscaped foregrounds sometimes featuring trees, grasses, fences and even life-sized figures. The result was a three-dimensional effect that surrounded the viewers who stood on a central platform, literally placing them in the center of the great historic scene. Most cycloramas depicted dramatic events such as great battles, religious epics, or scenes from great works of literature. Hundreds were painted and exhibited in Europe and America during the 1800's, yet most were lost or destroyed as their popularity died out with the introduction of a more entertaining art form, motion pictures.
The "Battle of Gettysburg" Cyclorama at Gettysburg National Military Park is one that has survived. This fantastic painting brings the fury of the final Confederate assault on July 3, 1863 to life, providing the viewer with a sense of what occurred at the battle long touted as the turning point of the Civil War.
The culmination of the battle was captured on canvas by the French artist Paul Philippoteaux, a professional cyclorama painter and artist. Philippoteaux was not present at Gettysburg, but came to the United States in 1879 when he was hired by a group of entrepreneurs to paint this monumental work for a special display in Chicago. Philippoteaux arrived in Gettysburg in 1882 armed with a sketchbook, pencils, pens, and a simple guide book to help him locate the site of the climactic charge. The artist spent several weeks on the battlefield, observing details of the terrain and making hundreds of sketches. To help him recall the landscape with accuracy, Philippoteaux hired a Gettysburg photographer to produce a series of panoramic photographs for his use. These images are some of the earliest detailed photographs of Cemetery Ridge, the Angle and the "High Water Mark", and the field of Pickett's Charge. Philippoteaux was also lucky enough to interview a number of veterans of the battle, who helped with suggestions on how to depict the chaos of battle.
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