It is no easy task to relocate a 12,000-pound painting. The “Battle of Atlanta” cyclorama was carefully rolled onto two steel spools and lifted by crane out of its longtime home in Atlanta’s Grant Park, then journeyed by flatbed truck this month to the nonprofit Atlanta History Center. This relocation won’t just allow for much-needed restoration and climate controlled-care in the new Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building , it will also contextualize the colossal Civil War artwork, which at various points in its history was espoused by both the North and the South as a celebration of their values.
“What I like to say is, it’s one of our greatest Civil War artifacts in what it can teach us about what Americans have remembered and disremembered about the Civil War,” Gordon Jones, senior military historian at the Atlanta History Center and co-leader of the cyclorama move and restoration team, told Hyperallergic.
The “Battle of Atlanta” depicts the 1864 engagement of the same name, in which Union forces led by William T. Sherman defeated Confederate forces in Georgia. Stretching 359 feet in circumference and standing 42 feet tall, the cyclorama was designed to curve around the viewer for a totally immersive viewing experience.
Alterations have been made over time, such as the addition of 128 plaster figures as part of a WPA project in the 1930s (one of whom, a dead Union Soldier, is said to be modeled on Clark Gable following a visit from the Gone with the Wind star), yet overall it remains much as it appeared to viewers in the 19th century. Some of these updates will be guarded — “We’re not going to turn Clark Gable out into the street,” Jones said — others will be mended, like the return of seven feet of sky that were slowly trimmed off over the years, and a six-foot vertical strip that was removed when the 1921 Grant Park building, despite being built specifically for the cyclorama, was found to be slightly too small.
Only three complete 19th-century cycloramas survive in North America, with the other two being the “Cyclorama of Jerusalem” in Quebec, which depicts the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, and the Gettysburg Cyclorama in Pennsylvania. Other panoramas exist — such as the 1,275-foot “Whaling Voyage Round the World” now being conserved at the New Bedford Whaling Museum — but cycloramas are distinct in their 360-degree displays in specially-designed circular architecture.
“The ‘Battle of Atlanta’ is the only one of those that was composed and painted entirely in the United States,” said Jones. It was created by the American Panorama Company of Milwaukee after 1885 field studies on-site in Atlanta. About 20 Milwaukee-based artists, mainly Germans, painted the commemoration of the Northern Union Victory in 1886. Although popular, the cyclorama’s owners declared bankruptcy in 1890, and it ended up being sold around the country.
“All the veterans in Milwaukee, they flocked to this thing as a memorial to their cause, where they could point out to their children what they did in the war,” Jones said. “Then when it comes south to Chattanooga and Atlanta, all the sudden the newspaper says it is the only Confederate victory ever painted. Now it’s the Confederate veterans taking their children.”
Throughout the 20th century, it continued to have a changing meaning, from some seeing it as a Confederate monument, and others as a more complex, but important, historical object offering a pre-cinema entertainment experience of war. Now at the Atlanta History Center, galleries devoted to both cyclorama and Civil War history will be installed alongside it. It’s expected that the 23,000-square-foot Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building won’t open to the public until the fall of 2018. Jones explained that the next steps are to put in place the necessary infrastructure for the massive painting, and then to start the incredibly careful job of unrolling and conserving the huge circular painting in its new, perfectly-shaped home.
Read more about the “Battle of Atlanta” cyclorama at the Atlanta History Center (130 West Paces Ferry Road NW, Atlanta, Georgia).