Diorama puts viewer into 1863 Gettysburg

Posted Feb. 19, 2010, at 5:40 p.m.

I kept checking my L.L. Bean polo shirt for bloodstains.

Gettysburg was blanketed with several feet of snow this week, discouraging the usual parade of Civil War aficionados. But the fancy new visitors center was open, even if most of the surrounding roads to the battlefield were closed.

That hardly dimmed the impact of the diorama which re-creates the violent battle on July 3, 1863. The fact that only a handful of visitors were here only served to heighten its impact. Even in an age of spectacular graphics and movie special effects, the diorama’s effect is undiminished.

The diorama is a skillful painting of the battle which surrounds the room, reaching a height of 50 feet. Thanks to a modern sound and light system, the battle is carefully re-created. It is so realistic you just wait for the bullets. The visitor is placed above Cemetery Ridge, just behind the Union lines on the moment when the Confederate forces almost break through to victory in the battle and possibly in the entire bloody war.

It was astounding in retrospect to realize that the gigantic painting had been produced by Frenchman Paul Philippoteaux in 1883. He had been commissioned by businessman Charles Willoughby of Hookset, N.H., for $50,000, a fortune in the day.

Soon after the battle, Philippoteaux came to Gettysburg to complete a variety of drawings and paintings, even commissioning some new-fangled photographs taken from a height of 30 feet, then interviewed the Gettysburg veterans to make the work as accurate as possible.

The final work was 50 feet high and a 400-foot-long circle with more than 20,000 square feet of canvas, weighing more than four tons.

Naturally, no man could produce such a work alone. It is reported that Philippoteaux repaired to Brussels, where he hired a studio and a team made up of somewhere between five and 20 artists. Each artist would specialize in his or her work, with one doing the horses, another doing uniforms, another doing trees and the sky.

The dioramas of the day created a sensation not unlike the release of the latest Hollywood blockbuster today. Before the work even crossed the ocean, L’Art Moderne Magazine said “what really constitutes the highest beauty and is superior to anything seen up to this time is the landscape. The sky is a prodigious clearness and truth. When one raises the eye, the illusion is marvelous.”

Not bad for a first review.

To present the giant cyclorama, a special building was constructed in Chicago. The work would become the walls of the building and the spectator would view the work from inside the painting, on a 30-foot platform.

On Dec. 22, (my birthday) 1883, when the work was finally unveiled to Americans, the Chicago Times exclaimed, “the panorama … is universally conceded by all who have seen it, to be the most extraordinary work of art ever seen in this city. To describe it in words is impossible. It must be seen, in order to have any idea of its striking realistic effect.”

Usually, the cyclorama was presented with the testimony from a Gettysburg veteran. The reaction by the Civil War veterans was shocking, witnesses reported.

It has been reported that more than 2 million people saw the work within the first 10 years, including visitors to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

The Gettysburg cyclorama was so popular that Philippoteaux produced two more, which toured the country.

Like many fads, the popularity of the new cycloramas exploded, then died. It is nothing short of a miracle that the work survives until today.

By 1901, the painting had been forgotten, packed into boxes and left in crates outdoors in a vacant lot on Clarendon Street in Boston. The Boston Globe reported that the boxes had caught fire several times, with fireman spraying the precious boxes with water.

One of the three Philippoteaux versions was cut into pieces and distributed to veteran’s organizations. According to the Gettysburg Star and Sentinel, the third version was cut into pieces to make tents for a new Shoshone reservation.

The rescue of the historic work fell to Newark, N.J., department store owner Albert Hahne, who found the painting in Boston in 1910. After further exhibitions in New York City, the work was sent where it belonged, in Gettysburg. Hahne chipped in $7,000 to assist the purchase by the Gettysburg Battle Picture Association in June 1912. Once again a special building was constructed to exhibit the round artwork. By 1913, the work was once again on display to customers, who paid 25 cents for the honor.

After several careful restorations, the Philippoteaux work sits in a gleaming new visitors center at Gettysburg, re-creating the horror of that magnificent battle 127 years ago.

It was worth the snowy drive, even if I kept checking myself for miniball wounds.

Send complaints and compliments to Emmet Meara at emmetmeara@msn.com.

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