Tuesday, February 22, 2022

“An Evening with the Painting” Reveals the Mysteries of the Gettysburg Cyclorama

If you decide to visit the Gettysburg National Military Museum and Visitors Center for an “Evening with the Painting,” chances are you may be rubbing elbows with history buffs. During my visit I ran into members of the Civil War History Roundtable group, whose members were interested in adding to their already encyclopedic knowledge of war history.

13th New York depicted

We were all there for an “Evening with the Painting," conducted by Sue Boardman, Licensed Battlefield Guide and Research Historian for the Gettysburg Foundation. Boardman takes visitors behind the scenes of the Gettysburg Cyclorama. The famous painting (one of the few that still exists), depicts the Confederate attack on the Union forces known as Pickett’s Charge.

69th Pennsylvania

“We hold these special ‘Evening with the Painting’ events because we recognize the incredible impact the Cyclorama has on museum visitors, some of whom seek more in-depth information about it and express the desire to take more time to admire it,” said Boardman.

Little and Big Roundtop

Larry Alexander, a member of the Cumberland Valley Civil War Roundtable, attended a session with members of the group that studies the history of the Civil War. They were eager to collect new nuggets of information from the two-hour presentation, which is held monthly.

Bigelow's Two Guns

“Not only is the cyclorama painting a true canvas documentary, the battlefield landscape it depicts has been preserved so that both the painting and the battlefield can be used to visually understand what happened here,” said Boardman, as she addressed the audience.

Battle with Codori Farm in the background.

Alexander, who arranged the visit, said he was especially interested in the history of the panoramic paintings known as cycloramas. Boardman, a wealth of knowledge on the topic, informed the crowd that cycloramas originated in Europe and were displayed in special standardized auditoriums. The paintings, rendered on parabolic canvases, give the illusion of 3-D and usually depict historic events, religious themes, or scenes from literature. Known as “entertainment for the masses,” cycloramas enjoyed a rather short shelf life of popularity ranging from 1883-1889, after which the public’s fixation turned to moving pictures.

Pickett's Charge detail

French artist Paul Philippoteaux painted four versions of the Gettysburg cyclorama; two are known to have survived throughout the years. The first version, completed in 1883, was purchased for an undisclosed amount of money by North Carolina investors. The other version, which opened in Boston in 1884, now hangs at the Gettysburg National Military Museum and Visitors center after a massive, multi-year conservation effort.

Shoes in foreground are real donated shoes where the painting ends.
Detail of a field hospital.
Event attendees learn details about how Philippoteaux prepared to paint the masterpiece by spending time on the Gettysburg battlefield with a guide and a photographer, consulting official maps from Washington D.C. and obtaining battle details from Gens. Hancock, Doubleday and others before returning to France to begin work.

Ammo Box from the Civil War.

Boardman illustrates her lecture with accompanying pictures, some depicting work scenes, including one where Philloppoteaux oversees a team of 20 artists from an elevated viewing platform. Guests will learn that the artists also made mistakes. Boardman points at the outlines of a few colorless “ghost” soldiers whose facial features were never completed.

Sue Boardman, guide, addresses the audience.

Visitors also learn about the painstaking care taken to restore the Gettysburg Cyclorama. Boardman explains how restorers used infra-red photography to find original gridlines to piece together missing gaps in the painting. (A jaw-dropping fact: some of the cycloramas were cut down to fit in smaller buildings like department stores.)

She also explains how those who worked on the painting to restore it to its original glory discovered other elusive details, including the precise color of the sky on that fateful day in 1863 thanks to Pennsylvania College Professor Michael Jacobs, who just happened to keep daily records in a weather journal.

After the lecture, guests are escorted to the main platform to view the painting up close. Boardman  points out authentic artifacts and details mentioned in the presentation, like the form of the soldiers who neglected to be “painted in” due to an oversight and Lincoln portrayed as a wounded soldier being carried off the field, along with other interesting tidbits.

Observers are also shown instances where some of the artists used themselves as models for the soldiers they painted.

Patrons are permitted to take pictures while up on the platform and also have the opportunity to climb the stairs behind the painting to observe the work from a different perspective.

“I remember as a young boy seeing the cyclorama in Gettysburg and I thought it was interesting, but since they did the renovation to restore it and display it again, it is so much better than ever before. You can even see how the artifacts in the front blend in with the painting. I was so impressed with how realistic everything looked,” said Alexander.

Those who are interested in signing up for "An Evening with the Painting" can find tickets by clicking here.