Cycloramas were a popular form of entertainment in the late 1800’s, both in America and Europe. These massive cylindrical paintings were displayed in special rotundas and enhanced with landscaped foregrounds, life-size figures, and realistic lighting. The result was a three-dimensional effect that surrounded the viewers who stood on a central platform, placing them in the center of the scene. Hundreds were painted and exhibited in Europe and America during the 1800’s, but with the invention of motion pictures, most panoramas were abandoned or destroyed. A few years ago I was transfixed by the Panorama Mesdag, painted by Hendrik Willem Mesdag in the 1900s. Located in Den Haag, Mesdag is the oldest panorma still at it’s original site.
In the Washington Post, Philip Kennicott reports that this Friday, after a five-year and $15 million restoration effort, the panoramic Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama will reopen to the public. The painting has been restored to its original 377-foot-by-42-foot size and installed in a new rotunda. An entrepreneurial venture organized by Chicago retailer Charles Louis Willoughby, the panorama was painted by the French painter Paul Philippoteaux and a team of thirty assistants.
“The Gettysburg panorama was originally painted for Boston but brought to the small Pennsylvania town for the 50th anniversary of the epic clash. And there it moldered for decades. Philippoteaux’s Battle of Gettysburg — with its exploding caissons, agonized horses and chaotic disarray of charging soldiers — is an occasionally dramatic but hardly great painting. In 1883, impressionism was in full flower, and Philippoteaux’s compatriots — Monet, Cézanne, Degas — were revolutionizing painting. Panorama painters had become purely commercial artists, and panoramas were a decidedly middle-brow form (the artist of the Sedan panorama ‘put this entire starched, blatant, dreary, petit bourgeois, feudal society onto canvas in a manner that is as thorough, embarrassing, and insipid as the society itself,’ said one critic)….Looking at the painting today, you begin to wonder if maybe the medium isn’t the message. Like cinema, panorama grew out of a scientific and enlightenment tradition and was championed by an industrial and entrepreneurial one. But the message of the Gettysburg Cyclorama (brought to the United States by a Northern businessman) is all about the nation perpetually trapped at the moment of the South’s greatest glory. The industry of illusionism (which continues with video games and virtual reality) is placed in service of an almost feudal worldview, the ‘lost cause,’ which championed an agrarian economy that was out of step with the march of progress that would invent, popularize and rapidly forget the wonders of panorama.”
Sanford Wurmfeld’s non-mimetic panorama painting in Edinburgh
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