The Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama, located in the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center, is the second of four paintings by French artist Paul Philippoteaux depicting Pickett’s Charge. The cyclorama was originally commissioned in 1884 for display in Boston due to the fervent popularity of the first Gettysburg cyclorama in Chicago. After a few years on display in Boston the cyclorama was moved about the country. It spent part of its life in Philadelphia, part as wall paper in a department store in New Jersey, part on display in an armory in Baltimore, and part housed in a crate in a warehouse, before the painting was finally brought to Gettysburg in 1913.
The cyclorama was found in poor condition. The sky section was rotting, portions had been cut away, and it was fading or yellowing due to sun and humidity. It had also been sliced into multiple sections. Upon relocation in Gettysburg work began immediately to stabilize and stitch the painting back together. Much of the rotted sky was removed and missing areas were repainted or over-painted to reestablish the fluidity of the piece. Typical maintenance and minor restorative work had been done between the purchase date and 2004, including its rehousing in 1962 in a specially designed rotunda in the old Visitors Center. However, between 2004 and 2008 the Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama received its greatest restoration to date in preparation for its relocation to the new Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center.
In my interview with Mary Wootton, a member of the conservation team, she explained how the first stage of the process involved painstakingly cleaning the entire 377ft x 42ft surface. Conservators and volunteers removed dust, dirt, and excess paint from its front. From its back they removed wax and added canvas, leaving only the original elements of the painting remaining.
One of the main goals of this restoration was regaining the accuracy of the painting. Much of the over-painting was severely inaccurate including the pivotal section of “the Angle” where General Armistead broke through Union lines during Pickett’s famous charge. The previous Angle had been over-painted with an extra stretch of wall that protruded outward in an L form not at all consistent with the 90 degree angle of the actual wall. The finding of photos taken of the painting in 1880 as well as the finding of the original 1:10 scale sketched glass plates Philippoteaux created enabled conservators to project his sketches over the painting. Using infrared scanners they were able to discover the gridlines the original artist used. Equipped with these reference points the team was able to recreate much of the original. Mary described to me how Polish conservator Ryszard Wojtowicz. Would, “come back at night with the lights off to project the sketches onto blank canvas that had been inserted to restore areas that were missing. By projecting images onto the canvas the restoration team was able to recreate these missing portions of the painting.” In addition, seven feet of the lost sky was restored by artists Jim Hoston and Allen Forrest.
The second goal of the team was stabilizing the painting so it would last for years. A cyclorama naturally has a curved parabolic surface where the ends are aligned and the middle juts forward, like the curve of a semi-sphere. This shape results from the way the painting is attached on top to a circular metal collar and at the bottom where a metal rim is enfolded into the extra fabric and weights hung from it, as well as the cyclorama natural tube construction. It was a concern that over time the weights could cause tearing. As a preemptive measure, the back of the canvas was lined with a fiberglass textile to strengthen it. In places where restorers had stitched back together the canvas, a second layer of adhesive protection was added, both to the front and back.
This past month a five-year checkup/ cleaning was completed on the cyclorama. The painting proved to be holding up quite well as was expected from the skilled conservation team headed by David Olin of Olin Conservation of Great Falls, Virginia and the team of conservators from Poland.
Boardman, Sue, and Kathryn Porch. The battle of Gettysburg cyclorama: a history and guide. Gettysburg, Pa.: Thomas Publications, 2008
“The Gettysburg Cyclorama”, Gettysburg National Military Park. (accessed 2/6/2013).
Wootton, Mary. Interview by author. Personal interview. Musselman Library Special Collections.