Just two decades removed from the horrors of the US civil war, throngs of sightseers stepped into the center of a gigantic painting-in-the-round to imagine what it might have felt like to be in the scrum of battle on the hallowed ground of Gettysburg.
The realism of this cyclorama, the story goes, brought some veterans to tears.
One part art and one part commercial venture when it opened in Boston in 1884, this colossal canvas, now in Gettysburg, has become as ragged as an old Army tent -- worn, torn, sagging and covered in grime. Art conservators here are embarking on a US$9 million federally financed project to restore vigor to a painting that has lost its visceral power.
This enormous undertaking -- the work is just under 111m in circumference and 8m tall -- is the largest conservation project for a single painting ever done in North America, according to the National Park Service and its private partner in the effort, the Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum Foundation.
The cyclorama is a major draw at the park, where it recreates Pickett's Charge, the climax of the Battle of Gettysburg on July 3, 1863, which marked the beginning of the end for the Confederates. Conceived as a tourist attraction, the 360 degrees vista was "the Imax of its day," said Robert Wilburn, president of the Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum Foundation.
Conservators face the challenge of preserving something that was never meant to last. Cycloramas depicting historical events had their heyday in the latter half of the 19th century, when entrepreneurs commissioned artists and installed their grand efforts temporarily in custom-designed buildings, sending them on tour much as a blockbuster art show today moves from museum to museum.
"These things were painted as economic ventures and then were discarded in a couple of years," said David Olin of Olin Conservation Inc, which is leading the project along with Perry Huston and Associates. Paul Philippoteaux, a French painter, and his team of 20 were hired to complete four nearly identical Gettysburg cycloramas; one has disappeared, one became tent material, one is in storage at Wake Forest University, and the other wound up at Gettysburg in 1913.
It had a rough journey. In its early years, the cyclorama traveled from Boston to Philadelphia, then back to Boston, unrolled and then packed up again and again. It was stashed in a crate, stored in a parking lot, subjected to moisture and rot, and sliced into panels for display in a Newark department store, losing pieces along the way. Even when this bit of American heritage came under the park service's stewardship in the 1940s, the abuse continued: for decades it hung improperly in a museum with wildly fluctuating humidity, poor ventilation and a leaky roof.
All these indignities and more have sabotaged Philippoteaux's attempt to make his battle scene grippingly real. He wanted not so much to create fine art, but to spin the illusion, if just for an instant, that a viewer was in the midst of a historic moment. To do that, he surrounded viewers with a chaotic scene of thousands of soldiers charging with rifles and bayonets, ruin in their wake: splayed bodies, fallen horses, cannon-ravaged farmland and clouds of smoke and dust. More than 5,000 soldiers became casualties in one gruesome hour during Pickett's Charge.