A Backstage Tour of the Atlanta Cyclorama (part two)

Atlanta Cyclorama observation deck(part two of four)

Back in June, I had the privilege to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the new cyclorama facility at the Atlanta History Center. This week, I’m glad to finally share my adventure with you.

In yesterday’s segment, the museum’s senior military historian and curator, Dr. Gordon Jones, brought me inside the center of the exhibition room, with the painting hanging on full display. It was absolutely breathtaking to stand in the middle of this immense work of art. 

“The lighting package, we just fired it up last week,” Gordon told me. “It makes a huge difference on how the painting looks, and you can not only see the artistry, but you can also see the mistakes.” We laughed.

Gordon led us across the room to the skeleton of an observation deck that stood in the middle of the room. We climbed the stairs to the platform for a good look at the painting as he talked about it. With his permission, I recorded Gordon’s tour—which I’ve lightly edited for clarity—and my son, Jackson, started grabbing pictures. I’ll let Gordon do the talking:

Chalk marks on the canvas help guide the conservationists in their restoration.

GORDON JONES: Where we are now with this project is our conservation team, German and American, are now working on the painting. We hired a German team because that’s where the experience was with moving these things. There’s not the experience over here. Even at Gettysburg, they had to hire someone from Poland to help them out because that’s where the experience was.

So what the conservationists have been doing up to this point, really, is a lot more engineering than anything else, but right now they’re adding to the sky. You can see we have lost, over the years before it ever came to Grant Park, about seven feet of sky, which was incrementally cut off every time the painting moved. It was moved several times.

Also, you had losses at the bottom of the painting for various reasons, but one big reason was because, in that building in Grant Park, there was actually no floor. You actually just had a dirt floor, so the painting went into the floor and there was dirt piled up on it to look like the dioramas that were along the base of painting. That resulted in a lot of deterioration and mold, so some of this was cut off.

Then, we have a section that was actually cut as an escape hatch in the 1930’s. There’s supposed to be a wagon that goes over that. You can see the wheel there.

But the more significant thing that you can see over here: this is the high point of the painting, the breakthrough and the trooper pass. That’s the Confederate victory and then right next to it, you see the Union victory. So it depends on whether you like your glass half full or half empty. “Well I like the attack.” “Well I like the counter attack.” But when the painting was being put into the building in 1921, it was cut at this seam. They ended up not measuring the building properly. Realizing that the painting was a little bit too big, they said, “Why don’t we just cut some out.” So that part was missing.

So Wilbur Kurtz, when he did his restoration in the 30’s—this was about the same time he was working on the Texas [the museum’s other centerpiece exhibit, the steam engine involved in the Great Locomotive Chase]—he came in and did some doctoring and he added some figures right here because there were not enough Confederate defenders, because the Confederate defenders were cut out. And I get it. So we wanted to leave those figures, and you can see them, these guys are up here. They’re shooting, and those are Wilbur Kurtz’s figures. So we wanted to leave those because, to me, that’s part of the story of the painting.

So we’re going to go ahead and do the restoration. We have the 1886 photograph, so we know what this actually should look like.

There’s also a loss on the other side, where we came in, which was the entrance tunnel in the main seam [on almost the exact opposite side of the painting]. That’s where the painting was always cut and it was always scrolled when it was moved, which we did when it came here. And so incrementally, it lost some over here, and there’s also some loss over there, as well, and that’s also being put back in.

CHRIS MACKOWSKI: So why did they choose to cut out a section right here at the ultimate scene, as opposed to maybe just trimming out something else?

G.J.: See, up until just about May [2017], I thought that’s exactly what it was and was telling everybody that’s what it was: our four feet that we’re missing is over there. Because when I saw that, I assumed that they were smart enough, they cut it at the main seam. But our conservationist team looked at it and said, “I don’t think so. Really what you’re seeing over there is a lot of overpaint. The big loss occurs right here.” [“Over there” is near the seam where we entered; “right here” is the climactic scene altered by Kurtz.]

And I went back and looked at a photograph I had from the newspaper, but it was microfilm, so it’s black. So I start playing with the contrast. I finally got the contrast right, and I finally figured out that I could actually see one of the figures way over here, and I said, “That’s that figure. That’s on the other side of the painting. By God, they did cut it right here!” Now why they did that, I don’t know. By that point—this is 1921—there’s nobody around that knows these things anymore. The artists are all gone. Nobody knows anything. The contractor, he’s the lowest bidder for the city—quite literally, he’s the lowest bidder. He says, “I’ll just move the painting.”

C.M.: And the painting had been on the road for quite a while before it finally came to Atlanta, wasn’t it?

G.J.: It was in Minneapolis, Indianapolis, went bankrupt, came to Chattanooga, and then came to Atlanta. There was a duplicate that was displayed in Detroit and in Baltimore. The duplicate is lost. Most of the other ones are lost. There were probably forty or fifty of these paintings during the heyday. There were crucifixion scenes, there were battle scenes, there’s a Chicago fire, there’s a Bunker Hill, there’s a Custer’s last stand where he was shot, there was Vicksburg, second Manassas, the Monitor and the Merrimack, Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga—there are actually four copies by two different artists of that one—and then by far the most popular, there’s Gettysburg.

For Gettysburg, there were at least four “original” copies by Paul Philippoteaux, and then probably five or ten others that were knockoffs that were made and circulating, so there’s probably as many Gettysburgs as there are of all the others combined.

My theory is that the Eastern Theater guys had their Gettysburg. It was their great shining moment where open-field combat turned the tide. That was their big Civil War monument in paint, so there was a lot of interest in that in the Northeast, and three of the four Gettysburg paintings premier in Eastern cities. In the Midwest, most of the guys are Western theater guys, so they want to see something they were in, so therefore you get Shiloh, Vicksburg, Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga, and Atlanta. Those are the four great Union victories in the West, and each one of them got a painting, and in two of the four, they got multiple copies. These ones premier in Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, they play out west. So my theory is that there is no single Western equivalent to Gettysburg, but there are these other battles and they all got paintings.

Now the anomaly is Second Manassas. How’d that happen—that’s a Confederate victory? That’s displayed in Washington, D.C., and as far as I know, there’s only one copy, and I don’t know where else it went besides Washington. It did have Lee and Jackson and it did have some prominence to the Confederate officers in there. My thought is that Washington is trying to attract from both areas.

Then you have this Monitor and the Merrimack thing, and it’s definitely a one-off. It is a kind of Northern perspective because what you see is the battle is going on out there in the river and then, on the shoreline, you see the Federal officers watching it, so you see Sumner, and I think you can count that one as being from a Northern perspective. So really, all but one are painted from a Northern perspective, because that’s where the audiences are, that’s where the big cities are.

And when Atkinson, the promoter, brought this one to Chattanooga and Atlanta, the fad was over in the North, so he brought it down here and he’s taken a chance. It’s kinda like movie theaters in the 30’s. He’s taking a chance by selling it down here because there aren’t as many people. Furthermore, they’re going to be hostile towards a Union victory, so he’s got to be really careful about how he advertises it. That’s why he advertises it as a Confederate victory, but his operation went bust for the same reason it did in the North, only it didn’t take as long. Up there, they could play for two years before they went bankrupt, but down here it was nine months.

Anyway, that’s my theory, whether that’s true or not.

————

Tomorrow, as our tour continues, Gordon will talk about about the painting’s history in the city, and he’ll point out some of his favorite details in the painting itself.