This presentation is part of the Are We There Yet: Preservation of Roadside Architecture and Attractions Symposium, April 10-12, 2018, Tulsa, Oklahoma

Presenter standing at podium

Susan Wray

Suzanne Wray: I’ll be talking about two survivors, the Gettysburg and Atlanta cycloramas. Are we there yet? At the Seaside in Holland. Are we there yet? Waterloo. Are we there yet? The Civil War battle of Gettysburg. No we’re not there but we can be virtually there. Not by using these. But by using this, the panorama rotunda.

Long before the term virtual reality was coined tourists were visiting other cities, or seeing battles by entering a circular building to be immersed in another world, in the form of a 360 degree painting. Virtual travel was appealing to viewers. One wrote, in 1824, “Panoramas are among the happiest contrivances for saving time and expense in this age of contrivances. What cost a couple of hundred pounds at half a year, half a century ago, now cost a shilling and a quarter of an hour.”

The panorama allowed the viewer to avoid, “ the innumerable miseries of travel, the insolence of public functionaries, the rogueries of innkeepers, the visitations of banditti, and the rascality of the custom house officers.” Panoramas became the newsreels of the Napoleonic era; newspapers could report on current events but not illustrate them. Panorama painters produced representations of recent battles as quickly as possible, and they drew large audiences. Why panorama and not cyclorama? We’ll be there in a minute.

On June 18th 1787, an Irish painter name Robert Barker patented a new art form. A circular painting that surrounded the viewer. Visitors entered a circular, or 16 sided building, walked through a dimly lit corridor, climbed a spiral staircase to enter upon a circular viewing platform. They were surrounded by a painting done as realistically as possible. The viewing platform kept the visitor at the proper distance, too close, or too far away and the illusion would be lost. The foreground, it was a foreground of three dimensional objects, which made it impossible, or almost impossible, to tell where the painting began and the diorama, so called, began. The top of the painting was hidden by that umbrella like velum you see, this also hid the skylights that emitted light to the building. Light was reflected from the painting and appeared to come from the painting itself. The visitor was cut off from any reference to the outside world and was immersed in that scene.

Period drawing of the interior of a cyclorama building including the viewing platform, painting, umbrella, and roof.

Cut-away of a cyclorama building. Scientific American (Boardman Collection/Atlanta History Center)

And this is a still existing panorama. You’re below the viewing platform and you see the velum and the sky lights at the top of the building. It was 1792 before one of Barker’s paintings was a success. By then a new word had been coined for his invention, the Greek words “pan,” all, and “-orama,” view combined to form panorama, the all-encompassing view. The following year Barker leased a lot on Leicester Square in London and erected the first permanent panorama rotunda. And it’s still there, it’s now a Catholic Church.

Some of these panoramas were brought to the United States but interest faded in the 1850’s. The word panorama had quickly entered the English language. In America it was applied to the moving panorama, which like the circular panorama began in Europe. This achieved a huge popularity in America, it was literally a moving picture. It rolled from one scroll to another in front of an audience, usually to the accompaniment of narration and music. They could be painted quickly on muslin in theatrical scene paint and transported by horse and wagon, canal boat, or railroad, set up in a rented hall or a school house. A man name John Banvard, and you see him in this sketch, achieved a huge success by scrolling a painting of the Mississippi river, said to be three miles long, which of course it was not, in front of audiences in America and Europe. This spawned a huge number of moving panoramas. Scene painters, house, sign painters, hoped to make their fortune by created panoramas. Some of them were very bad. Newspapers and magazines printed jokes about these distempered daubs. You see there one from the Brooklyn Eagle. And Charles Dickens said, “I systematically shun pictorial entertainment on rollers.”

So, that is why when the circular panorama enjoyed a great revival in America, in the late 1800’s, promoters advertised them as, not a panorama, but a realistic painting done on Belgian canvas, in oil paint, by trained artists at great costs. Shown in a special building constructed at great cost, in other words, a work of fine art. Thus the term cyclorama came into use here to differentiate the circular panorama from the moving panorama.

The first circular panoramas of this revival period came to New York from Belgian and French companies mostly showing European battles. They were not very successful and then in 1883 the Belgian Panorama Company began preparations to install the Battle of Gettysburg in Chicago. This is the cover from one of the guidebooks you could buy.

Paul Philippoteaux’s Battle of Gettysburg depicts Pickett’s Charge, a decisive action in a decisive battle of the American Civil War, a battle that came to be known as the turning point of the war, the high tide of the Confederacy. The three day battle was fought July 1st, 2nd and 3rd in 1863 in the fields of Gettysburg Pennsylvania, claimed 51,000 casualities. The victory for the Union, the northern states, after many losses in earlier battles drove the Confederate troops southward, lessening the perceived danger of southern attacks on northern cities. Even at the time the battle was recognized as being of great importance.

The panorama of the Battle of Gettysburg also represented a turning point to the panoramic art form in America. In Paris and Belgium, panorama consortiums were already producing paintings of the standard size 50 feet high, 400 feet in circumference on an almost industrial scale of production. These were intended to be moved from one rotunda to another and exchanged between cities. Once a painting was installed stock was sold, and for many years the stockholders received a very good return on their investment.

With the huge success, and profits of Gettysburg in Chicago, paintings of Civil War battles became the most popular cycloramas in America. In the 1880’s there was a revival of popular interest in the war once some of the traumatic memories had past, or were passing. Panorama studios were established in Mott Haven, the Bronx, New York, Englewood, Illinois and Milwaukee, Wisconsin by competing companies.

Gettysburg was still drawing visitors in Chicago 10 years after it opened, supposedly over two million people saw the painting there. Stockholders were paid $25,000 a year in dividends during that time. Tourists visiting Chicago were urged to see the painting, railroads would organize special excursions, which were advertised in local newspapers by cyclorama companies, and they brought whole train loads of people into the city for the day, a day that of course included a visit to the cyclorama. This practice was followed in other areas as well, for generally you needed a large city for a panoramic to be profitable.

This is Paul Philippoteaux, who painted the Chicago Gettysburg and other versions. He was a French artist, his father was famous as a panorama painter. The first Gettysburg was painted in Belgium, shown there briefly and then shipped to Chicago. Philippoteaux, and his crew of artists had come to the United States to visit the battlefield, make preliminary sketches, and hired a photographer to record the battlefield, the part they had selected to show. A battle had to be depicted from one spot, more or less one time of day in the painting, so they needed to do careful research.

Pickett’s Charge, which took place on the last day of the battle, was the action chosen for the cyclorama. So the painters interviewed generals and other officers, took their portraits, consulted maps. They were very aware, as were the promoters, that veterans of this war, this battle, would be viewing the painting and would expect it to accurately depict the events they had witnessed. When the artists returned to the studio a one tenth scaled painting of the finished work was created. This was transferred onto paper in pen in ink and a grid drawn over it, with each section designated by a number and a letter.

These are sketches from the Battle of Atlanta.

The images were then transferred square by square onto the huge canvas which consisted of Belgian linen woven on carpet looms seamed together. The canvas was hung from an iron beam at the top, attached to a weighted iron ring at the bottom. This gave the painting a hyperbolic shape, the center of the painting was somewhat closer to the viewer than the top or the bottom. The painting was done in high quality oil paint by artists who stood on a movable scaffolding, moving on rails, they could move around the inside of the building. They were specialists in landscape, horses, figures, portraits and they all worked together under the guidance of the head painter.

Period photograph of 13 men posing for the camera on scaffolding in front of the painting of Gettysburg

Panorama artists, Boston version of the Gettysburg Cyclorama (Boardman Collection/Atlanta History Center

The other Gettysburg cycloramas by Philippoteaux were to be shown in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. Philippoteaux was recruited to come to America by Charles Willoughby, a successful Chicago clothing merchant, and Edward Brandeis, a French art dealer, who became Philippoteaux business partner. Brandeis set up a circular wooden studio in the Bronx for production of the paintings, that way they avoided the high duty on imported paintings. The New York painting was first shown in Brooklyn in a portable iron rotunda that had been built for its nomadic career. After months in Brooklyn the painting and the building were moved to New York and installed at 19th street and 4th avenue, just above Union Square. In 1888 the Blue and the Gray, Confederate and Union veterans, met for a reunion on the Gettysburg battlefield, the battlefield of the cyclorama.

The Battle of Atlanta panorama depicts another Civil War battle, another Union victory, that culminated in the afternoon of July 22nd 1864. It was a critical victory contributing to the reelection of Abraham Lincoln and Sherman’s March to the Sea. The American Panorama Company, which was incorporated by Chicago investors, had hired William Warner, a German born Chicago businessman as the manager and they built a studio in Milwaukee. They recruited German and Austrian artists in Europe, some had had previous experience painting panoramas. They produced two copies of this painting. Beginning in 1886 one was shown in Minneapolis, then Indianapolis, and Chattanooga. It’s this painting that has been in Atlanta since 1892. The lead painter, Friedrich Wilhelm Heine, and landscape painter August Lohr, had done the preparations, visiting the battlefield in 1885 to do research, sketches, color studies and interviewing veterans. Theodore R. Davis, who was the wartime illustrator for Harper’s Weekly and had been at this battle, was with them.

The painting was well attended when it first opened in June 1886 in Minneapolis, but bankrupt in 1890 after a run of 27 months in Indianapolis. The cyclorama fad was fading. In 1903 insurance guides advised agents to decline to insure panorama paintings or their rotundas, as the building are unsuited for any other use and are undesirable. By this point many had been converted to other uses, theaters, roller skating rinks, automobile garages, but many were demolished as their city locations made their locations more valuable as real estate. The cycloramas continued to be features at world fairs and similar exhibitions. A man name Emmett W. McConnell, known as the panorama king bought many of these paintings and displayed them at these venues, thus keeping them in the public eye.

In 1901 the Philippoteaux Gettysburg that had been shown in Boston was reportedly stored in a rubbish field vacant lot. In wooden box three feet high, two and a half feet wide, fifty feet long, it had been there for years in the sun, rain, and snow. Some boards had been pried away allowing further damage to the painting. But as the cyclorama fad faded the movement to commemorate Civil War battles and preserve battlefields, that had begun in the late 1880’s, had increased.

Many battlefields had remained relatively untouched, veterans, of course, remembered the details, and reconciliation between Union and Confederate veterans unified these men to push for federal support of battlefield preservation. The Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association was formed to preserve portions of the battlefield as a memorial to the Union Army. By 1893 over 850 monuments had been placed on the battlefield. The organizations land holdings were transferred to the federal government in 1895 and Gettysburg designated a National Military Park, and administration of the park was transferred to the National Park Service in 1933.

The opportunity for preservation was lost in Atlanta, about 40% of the city had been demolished and burned in 1864. Much of the battlefield terrain was eradicated during rebuilding and urban development. A proposal in 1900 to form a National Military Park was never adopted by congress.

Unlike Gettysburg, the Battle of Atlanta painting was not rolled up and forgotten. McConnell had sold Southerner Paul Atkinson a cyclorama in 1890. Atkinson thought that Civil War cycloramas could be profitable in the South. He bought Atlanta for $2,500 and with other investors put up buildings in Chattanooga, Nashville, and Atlanta, planning to rotate the painting between those cities. But this was risky. Would white Southerners pay to see Yankee victories as illustrated in the cycloramas?

So some changes were made. When Atlanta was shown in Chattanooga a group of Confederate prisoners, being rushed through the Union lines had their uniforms repainted in blue so they became a group of fleeing Yankee soldiers. The painting came to Atlanta in 1892 and was billed as the only Confederate victory ever painted. And Atkinson lectured on the viewing platform claiming that the loss of the battle by the Confederacy was only due to the superior number of Yankee soldiers. But the business venture failed, there were not enough paying customers, the cost of moving the paintings, erecting the buildings was high.

In 1893 an Atlanta lumber merchant and Union Army veteran, George V. Gress bought the painting at auction, moved the building and painting to Grant Park and the venture, unfortunately, also failed. The painting was donated to the city of Atlanta in 1898. In 1910 an attempt was made to bring a Battle of Gettysburg cyclorama to Gettysburg. A group of investors was prepared to lease the land, put up a building, but the plan fell through and the cyclorama, which had not been displayed for 15 years, was sold as junk for $1.

This was a Chicago painting, a copy of the Philippoteaux, owned by two men, who were panorama promoters, and owned the studio in Englewood, Illinois. In 1912 a plan to bring the cyclorama, again, was in the works. The building opened in 1913 on the 50th anniversary of the battle and it showed the Boston version of the Gettysburg cyclorama by Philippoteaux. It had been bought by a department store owner, Hahne, and he had shown it in his Newark New Jersey department store, in sections, from the interior balcony and at the pension building in Washington and in none of these places could it be shown in its correct circular form.

The National Park Service acquired the building and the painting for $1 in 1942. The building had no heat, no humidity controls, no viewing platform. An artist stabilized the painting in 1948 and added supports to the back of the painting, the bottom was allowed to hang free, and this caused more damage.

To coincide with the Civil War Centennial a new cyclorama building was opened in Gettysburg in 1962, in this modernist building by architect Richard Neutra, it was placed as close as possible to the location depicted in the cyclorama. The painting was once again conserved but by now it was only 356 feet in circumference and 26 feet high, a huge part of the sky had been lost.

Exterior of an eight-sided building that resembles a circular barn.

Contemporary cyclorama at Gettysburg National Military Park

In 1999 the National Park Service announced that the Neutra building would be demolished and the painting preserved and moved, because they wanted to restore the battlefield to its 1863 appearance. So the cyclorama was moved for restoration and conservation and despite opposition the modernist Neutra building was also torn down. The painting was again restored, the previous restoration had sometimes had to be reversed, cleaning of the painting was needed, and the hyperbolic curve, required for the correct illusion, had to be added back.The painting is now in this building. It looks somewhat like a red barn, the round barn, that can be found in the area but it resembles the historic cyclorama rotunda.

In 1921, in Atlanta, the old cyclorama building was replaced by a fire proof structure. And in 1934 funding from the WPA allowed the restoration of the painting and the diorama. They replaced a missing section of the canvas and painted more Confederate soldiers in it.In 1939, the Gone with the Wind premier was held in Atlanta and the stars visited the cyclorama, there you see them in the diorama. A plaster figure of Clark Gable, as Rhett Butler, was added to those of the dead soldiers in the diorama.

View of portions of the circular painting and viewing platform

Atlanta painting during restoration process c. 1960s.

Atlanta and public institutions were desegregated in 1950’s and 60’s and the first African American mayor was elected. There was concern that the needed repairs to the painting, which was now a Confederate icon, would not be funded. But the painting was restored, backed with fiberglass, and the diorama reworked. The static viewing platform was replaced by a circular platform that revolved, people sat and heard a narration about the battle. Unfortunately, the fiberglass backing had not done its job, or it failed. You see it here after the painting was being restored … the paintings hanging like a shower curtain so there are wrinkles, there’s no illusion there.

In 2012 it was decided that the Battle of Atlanta painting should be moved to a larger building, and it’s now being restored. It had to be rolled onto two huge tubes to move it, it’s a six ton painting, so this was quite a job.. It is scheduled to be on display again in November 2018. Gordon Jones of the Atlanta History Center wrote, “The Battle of Atlanta is an outstanding case study and popular historical memory as it ebbs and flows over the years, continually rewriting history of victors and defeated alike. Always revisionist, always dependent upon the present, never settled.”

The location of the paintings have changed over time, but they were meant to be moved from one city to another. The buildings have changed, and the tourists who see them now arrive mostly by automobile, instead of by trolley or railroad. But the cycloramas, almost miraculously, have survived despite an ever changing popular historical memory and we’re lucky to have them.

And just one note, the National Park Service in 2007 decided to rethink the way it showed the Battle of Bunker Hill and opened a new museum. And there you see a much smaller cyclorama at the top of the museum, at the upper left there is the sketch of a real painting from the 1880’s. So this muralist based his painting on the original black and white photos but included images of Black and Native American soldiers.

And I would like to thank Sue Boardman of the Gettysburg Foundation, Gordon Jones of the Atlanta History Center. My cat Spike who was my research assistant. Thank you.


Suzanne Wray is a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and lives and works in New York CIty.  She is a member of the International Panorama Council, and has presented her research at the organization’s conferences.  Her research has also been presented at the conventions of the Magic Lantern Society of the USA and Canada, and published in their Gazette.   She is on the board of directors of the Society for Industrial Archeology, and is a member of the Society for Commercial Archeology.

Tagged with →  
National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
645 University Parkway
Natchitoches, LA 71457

Email: ncptt[at]
Phone: (318) 356-7444
Fax: (318) 356-9119