National Park Week Celebration Continues: The Movies 100 Years Ago
Most of us love going to the movies. Whether we are there to be entertained, enlightened, or to be exposed to other worlds, we love sitting in the darkened theater to “be told a new story.”
One hundred years ago people had the same desire to see, to think about, to be entertained by stories, but of course, there were no films, not even silent movies. There were, however, cycloramas. These were panoramic paintings, usually of historical events, that were designed to be viewed by an audience that could move about on a central platform to examine the enormous painting that encircled them. During each viewing, a guide would tell the story of what was happening in the painting, often with musical accompaniment. The overall effect was to make audiences feel they were in the midst of the action.
The first cyclorama was painted by an Irishman, Robert Barker, who was said to have climbed to the top of a hill near Edinburgh and was so awed by the view that he determined to create a way to depict a similar view artistically. As the art of creating cycloramas became more widely practiced, their creation proved to be quite complex. These cylindrical paintings were enormous, about 40-50 feet high and 300-400 feet in circumference. To provide visitors with a “you are there” feeling, the artist/designer needed to make some sophisticated adjustments in perspective.
Teams of workers were necessary to create a cyclorama. Certain workers prepared the huge canvas; others erected the scaffolds; a team of artists, most of whom had a specialty such as landscape painting or a particular gift for painting humans or horses, moved from section to section of the painting, adding in the art they did best.
Special buildings were created for the display of these paintings. Dioramas were often constructed in the foreground to add to the feeling of realism. As more buildings were erected for their display, the cycloramas began to be designed so that they could be taken down, rolled up, and transported to a new location.
Cycloramas became so popular that Pulitzer-Prize-winning Civil War historian James M. McPherson, told me that communities that did not have special buildings for their display would arrange for viewings of the paintings in regular auditoriums with men unrolling the painting scene-by-scene while a narrator described what the audiences were seeing.
The fellow who became a leader in designing and painting cycloramas was Paul Philippoteaux (1846-1923). Following the success of several of his paintings depicting European battle scenes, Philippoteaux was commissioned by an American merchant to paint the “greatest battle of the Rebellion,” Pickett’s Charge. (Pickett’s Charge was an attempt by the Confederacy to penetrate the Union line at Gettysburg. The attempt failed, causing Robert E. Lee to call for a retreat by the Confederates, which brought the Battle of Gettysburg to a close.)
In the early 1880s, Philippoteaux came to the United States, where he visited the battlefield and interviewed a good number of the participants, sketching as he went. He also enlisted local photographer William H. Tipton to shoot a series of photographs. Later the photographs were pasted together to provide Philippoteaux with a blueprint for the background for the cyclorama.
Philippotoeaux’s first painting of Pickett’s Charge was presented in Chicago. Over a half million people visited it during the first year, and as a result, a Chicago businessman commissioned Philippoteaux to paint a second one which was soon sold to a company that placed it in Boston. Eventually, four versions of this work were painted.
Guides at the time were often military men who had been in the battle; the reports were probably very subjective and not all that accurate but they must have been exciting all the same. One fellow who wrote about seeing the Boston cyclorama in 1885 wrote: [It’s as if…] you can see for 15 miles all-around. Thousands and thousands of soldiers–horses–cannon–everything in a battle–about 40 feet on every side of you …” [from the Sue Boardman collection, as cited in The Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama by Sue Boardman and Kathryn Porch.]
Most buildings that could display a cyclorama were in large cities where more tickets could be sold, and so “Pickett’s Charge” was not placed at Gettysburg until 1913. The particular version eventually given for display at the battlefield was one that was acquired by department store magnate Albert Hahne, according to The Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama by Boardman and Porch. After Hahne acquired it, it was first displayed in the Grand Court of the Newark department store, Hahne & Company, where Hahne also arranged for it to be photographed section by section. Despite the deterioration that had taken place by that time, these photographs have been an invaluable resource for those studying the painting.
In June 1912 the Gettysburg Battle Picture Association received a charter from the Pennsylvania legislature to erect a building to house the painting. Hahne himself contributed $7,000, and from 1913-62 the painting was housed in a building that was intended to be only a temporary home. There was no climate control of any sort, leading to further deterioration.
In 1948 emergency repairs were undertaken to try to restore the painting but it continued to be housed in this same building. Then in 1959 the painting suffered further damage from misguided efforts to restore it. Finally in 1999 park superintendent John Latschar put together a plan to preserve the painting as part of his overall plan for the Gettysburg site. The painting had to undergo multiple cleanings and much of the work done to repair it in the past and to be undone, before a proper plan could be made. Battlefield Foundation president Robert Wilburn, contractor Robert Kinsley, conservator David Olin, and a team of historians and artists worked to bring the painting back from ruin.
Today only about 30 cycloramas survive, and the newly restored, magnificent “Pickett’s Charge” is a highlight of the reeently completed Visitor Center at Gettysburg National Military Park.
If you come to Gettysburg, view the battlefields, and see the cyclorama, you will be reminded that in the 1860s, there was no guarantee that the United States would remain unified…it could just as easily have collapsed as a “grand experiment.” Fortunately for us, it did not.
As President Abraham Lincoln concluded in the Gettysburg Address, the Civil War was a “new birth of freedom” so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth.”
Come experience it for yourself: http://www.gettysburgfoundation.org/
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