Above: Detail of the Cyclorama’s “Battle of Atlanta” painting. Photo courtesy of Atlanta History Center.
What famous work of art is 132 years old, stands 49 feet tall, is longer than a football field and weighs 10,000 pounds? That would be “The Battle of Atlanta” cyclorama painting, which is once again on view after four years of painstaking restoration at its new home at the Atlanta History Center (AHC). The painting is the centerpiece of “Cyclorama: The Big Picture,” a multimedia experience inside a newly finished addition to the Buckhead campus.
A fixture at Grant Park for more than a century, the Cyclorama – as its commonly known – was acquired by the AHC in 2015 in a deal negotiated by former Mayor Kasim Reed. Atlantans Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker donated $10 million toward the desperately needed restoration of the painting, while AHS raised $35.8 million for the project, including $10 million for an endowment that will ensure the ongoing care and safe-keeping of the artwork. The former Cyclorama building in Grant Park is now an event center for Zoo Atlanta.
“The Battle of Atlanta” is one of only two cycloramas in the United States – the other being “The Battle of Gettysburg. When the painting was created in the 1880s, the gigantic painting was an immersive experience – the equivalent of an IMAX theatre today. The painting is a full-color, three-dimensional illusion designed to transport the viewer onto the battlefield at the height of the 1864 Battle of Atlanta during the Civil War.
Created at the American Panorama Company in Milwaukee by 17 German artists, “The Battle of Atlanta” took five months to paint before it debuted in Minneapolis in 1886. Painted 22 years after the Battle of Atlanta, the painting originally depicted the battle from a Northern perspective as a heroic Union victory so that it would appeal to Northern audiences.
When the painting relocated to Atlanta in 1892 changes were made to make the battle seem like a Confederate victory, including repainting Southern soldiers so they appeared to be Union soldiers captured by Confederates. This early instance of “alternative facts” was eventually corrected in the 1930s, but other changes to the painting caused more lasting damage that AHC has sought to correct. Mostly notably, three missing sections of the painting were recreated, adding 2,908-square-feet back to the painting, returning it to its original size of 14,952-square-feet.
In an era where Confederate symbolism is being removed from public places around the country, the Cyclorama itself has come under criticism during its 127-year history. Some see it as a symbol of Atlanta rising from the ashes after it was burned during the war, but it’s also been interpreted as yet another glorification of the “lost cause” of the Confederacy, which saw Southern states secede from America to maintain slavery.
“History is messy. And it has a lot to teach us – if we let it,” AHC President and CEO Sheffield Hale said. “Facts are facts, but the way we view the past varies widely. Visitors to the Cyclorama exhibit will be encouraged to think critically about how art, entertainment and popular culture influence their interpretations of history.”
Through exhibitions, rare artifacts, historic images, immersive technology, digital resources, videos, and museum theatre, visitors are encouraged to look critically at a range of Civil War imagery and consider how images and entertainment can influence how we see history.
Guests enter the painting rotunda through a 7-foot-tall tunnel – passing underneath the diorama – before ascending an escalator to the 15-foot-tall stationary viewing platform. Here visitors immediately experience a full 360-degree view of the painting, enhanced by technology and a 12-minute theatrical, larger-than-life presentation projected onto the painting. Visitors will also have a chance to see the newly-restored Texas locomotive, famous for its participation in the “Great Locomotive Chase” during the war.
Tickets and more information are available at AtlantaHistoryCenter.com.