Drawing the War, Part 6: Paul Philippoteaux

Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama ticket.

Part six in a series.

The original inspiration for this series of articles was a piece Chris Mackowski wrote earlier for ECW about his daughter and a picture by nineteenth century artist Paul Philippoteaux. The article made me think, again, about how important images are when one is trying to piece together the past. Seeing pictures of cave paintings makes it just a little easier to imagine life without television.

The photographs of the Civil War dead at Antietam had a huge impact on New York City, a place geographically far removed from the reality of the battlefield. The CDVs and old tintypes give images to the men and women of the 1860s, and make our heroes and villains even more real, as we trace the lines of their faces with our fingers. The “Gallant Pelham” was indeed a handsome man, and Ben Butler was an ugly one. The proof is right in front of you.

The complex illustrations in Frank Leslie’s and Harper’s were the results of “Special Correspondents” and “Special Artists,” the first embedded journalists in America, facing the same kind of challenges embedded journalists and photographers do today when traveling with fighting forces in places far away from home. Their quick charcoal and whitewash sketches were sent back to New York, along with notes, and a team of lithographers completed an elegant plate for publication.

Original Gettysburg Cyclorama building.

These same newspapers carried editorial cartoons, informing citizens about important issues and trying to shed a little light into murky political corners, just as the corps of modern Thomas Nasts do today.

And after the War? It was the work of artists and photographers to preserve images, but it also fell to them to create the memories that have preserved the war in people’s minds for generations. Fine art artists such as Winslow Homer made larger paintings from their battlefield sketches. Other artists attempted to recreate the furor of battle for the general public–lest we forget.

Many a man is remembered as a hero and engagements remembered as pivotal due to the way the person or event was portrayed graphically.

One of the most famous artists who has given us outstanding images of the Civil War was Paul Philippoteaux, working with his father, Henri Felix. Paul was trained at the best French art schools, and then worked at his famous father’s studio in Paris. These men were the Industrial Light and Magicof the late 1800s. They created a dynamic art form–the cyclorama. A cyclorama is a 360-degree presentation of an event, much like IMAX. It is an attempt to completely immerse an onlooker in the sights of a battle, and it is three-dimensional, including a variety of canvases and natural landscaping details.

Preliminary drawing for a visitor center near Zeigler’s Grove on Cemetery Ridge, Gettysburg (1957). The next year the firm of Neutra and Alexander was hired.

Paul and his father travelled Europe, creating cycloramas celebrating military actions such as The Defence of the Fort d’Issy in 1871. Their other works included Taking of Plevna (Turko-Russian War), the Passage of the Balkans, The Belgian Revolution of 1830, Attack in the Park, The Battle of Kars, The Battle of Tel-el-Kebir, and the Derniere Sortie.

Their work was world famous, and in 1879, Paul Philippoteaux was contacted by a group of Chicago businessmen to create a cyclorama for America–the Battle of Gettysburg. He and his father came to Pennsylvania and spent several weeks at Gettysburg, examining the site of the battle. The area was sketched and photographed over a period of months, and the battle was studied in detail. Paul Philippoteaux interviewed survivors of the battle, including Union generals Winfield Scott Hancock, Oliver Otis Howard, Alexander Webb, and Abner Doubleday. Much of Philippoteaux’s work was based on their recollections.

A local photographer, William H. “Boss” Tipton, also created a series of panoramic photographs shot from a wooden tower erected along present-day Hancock Avenue. The photos, pasted together, formed the basis of the composition.

Philippoteaux painting the Gettysburg Cyclorama.

Paul Philippoteaux hired five assistants, including his father (who died before the cyclorama was finished), to create the final work. It took about twenty months to complete, and was one hundred feet long. It weighed six tons. When completely installed, the complete cyclorama included not just the painting, but also a huge variety of artifacts, and sculptures such as stone walls, trees and fences. The painting depicts Pickett’s Charge, considered to be the climax of Lee’s attack on Meade’s forces during the three-day battle.

Four versions of the cyclorama were created by the Philippoteaux team, two of which still survive. The first version opened to the public in Chicago on October 22, 1883, to critical acclaim. General John Gibbon, one of the commanders of the Union forces who repelled Pickett’s Charge, was among the veterans of the battle who gave it favorable reviews. So realistic was the painting that many veterans of the war were reported to have wept upon seeing it. It was lost for some time, but rediscovered in 1965 and bought by a group of South Carolina investors in 2007. Its current value is estimated at 5.5 million dollars, but it has remained rolled up and in storage since its purchase.

The second version was originally shown in Philadelphia, after which, apparently, it went to Denver, Colorado. The cyclorama was exhibited there for an unknown amount of time, then–oddly enough, or maybe it is the stuff of legend–it was cut up and used for tents on a Shoshone Indian Reservation!

Gettysburg Cyclorama building along Cemetery Ridge.

The third version’s whereabouts is unknown.

The last version was originally exhibited in Boston from 1884 to 1891. According to newspaper reports of the opening, the Gettysburg Cyclorama was amazing, and very well received. It was then was moved to the Gettysburg Military Park. In the fall of 1912, ground was broken for a cyclorama exhibition building near the entrance to the Soldiers National Cemetery, where currently the 1863 Inn of Gettysburg stands. The installation was opened a year later, just in time for the 50th anniversary of the battle, but the building was unheated and leaky, and the painting began to deteriorate. It was removed, and finally restored in 1961.

The National Park Service purchased the cyclorama in 1942, and moved it to a site in Zeigler’s Grove, near the Gettysburg Visitor’s Center. Modernist architect Richard Neutra designed the cyclorama building created to house the installation. This exhibition remained open to the public until 2005, when it was closed once again for restoration. This restoration was also accompanied by the construction of yet another facility to house the painting, the new Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center on Hunt Avenue, located away from any areas in which fighting occurred in 1863. The newly restored Cyclorama Exhibition was reopened to the public in September 2008, and remains open today.

Inside the Neutra Cyclorama Building.

Philippoteaux’s cyclorama looks sort of funny, now, to twenty-first century eyes. The colors are bright enough, but muted rather than faded. The rocks and separate canvases remind one of an old-fashioned museum diorama from some elementary school field trip. Today, however, the Gettysburg Cyclorama serves a double function: it serves its original one of commemorating the Battle of Gettysburg and Pickett’s Charge, but it also commemorates Paul Philippoteaux. The efforts of this artist were groundbreaking for his time, and crowds were justifiable amazed.

And there is this: you don’t have to wear those goofy 3-D glasses to look at it.

Click here for a booklet from the Boston Cyclorama.

Back in February, ECW’s Chris Mackowski looked at some of Philippoteaux’s work on display in Lowell, Mass.


Note: Preservationists come in all stripes. The Richard Neutra building itself is considered by architectural preservationists to be worth saving. In 2010, a Federal ruling protecting the modernist landmark was issued, saving the Neutra building, which sits on the battle line of Cemetery Ridge.

Certainly the time is right for a creative, thoughtful solution here.

4 Responses to Drawing the War, Part 6: Paul Philippoteaux

  1. As a child in the mid 1950’s, I recall going into the old round building located adjacent to Baltimore Street and paying 25 cents to see the painting.

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