Fascinating history book delves into iconic painting that visually depicts details of one of America’s worst days
“Life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” wrote Oscar Wilde in an 1889 essay, “The Decay of Lying.” Yet “The Gettysburg Cyclorama: The Turning Point of the Civil War on Canvas” is an exception. The book’s authors, Chris Brenneman and Sue Boardman, who worked as licensed guides at Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, acknowledge that there have been thousands of books written about the Civil War’s worst battle, with 51,118 victims in three days. However, this book uniquely examines the battle from an artistic perspective, particularly through Paul Philippoteaux’s massive 19th century cyclorama painting, “The Battle of Gettysburg”.
In a succinct and accessible style, the authors of the book first provide information on the events of July 1-3, 1863, when 30,000 Confederate forces entered Pennsylvania from Virginia to fight 20,000 Union forces, the final battle of July 3 being the bloodiest in America. Although black-and-white photography was a more common medium by the 1860s, it was the trend toward oil-painted cycloramas in the late 19th century that served to document in intense color and detail the physicality specific battles.
Before focusing on the logistics involved in creating the 377-foot-long, 42-foot-tall, 12.5-ton cyclorama, the book’s authors present historical research, illustrations, and photographs to convey the popularity of this form. pre-television entertainment.
But the essence of the book articulates the immensity of Philippoteaux’s preparatory task. In the 1880s, he interviewed citizens and veterans of Gettysburg, hired a photographer to photograph the battlefield site for an accurate scale, and spent time analyzing and drawing artifacts. Each 360-degree directional “view” of the painting was photographed for the book by Bill Dowling, and each serves as an individual chapter that includes historical and modern battlefield photos; an information key to the who, what and where of the battle scene; and a thrilling commentary on the events taking place in the painting.
The book’s authors learned that Gettysburg veterans flocked to see the painting when it opened in Chicago in 1883. Some wept. And when the painting was moved for a while to Boston, “The Sunday Globe” shared on December 30, 1884: “You see stretching out before you the battlefield so alive and vivid.”
While you don’t have to see the actual Gettysburg Museum cyclorama to appreciate the monumental undertaking to portray a significant time and place in American history, the experience – especially after reading this book – is to step back to grasp the enormity of that day.
“The Gettysburg Cyclorama: The Civil War Turn on Canvas” by Chris Brenneman and Sue Boardman (Savas Beatie, 2015).
This article originally appeared in American Essence magazine.