Visitors can now see the restored "Battle of Gettysburg" painting in a way it hasn't been displayed for more than a century.
The five-year labor of love to save the fragile panorama involved cleaning it, filling in the flaked-off paint and re-creating the skyline and a missing 15-foot section of the original work of art.
Workers hung the painting so it would return to its appropriate hyperbolic shape. They re-created a diorama to give it a three-dimensional look, built a 30-foot viewing platform and suspended a canopy from the ceiling.
The presentation immerses the viewers in the panorama, which depicts Confederate General George Pickett's charge on July 3, 1863.
The last time that visitors saw the
painting exhibited in this fashion was 1892 in Philadelphia.
"There is not a person alive today that saw this painting as it was intended to be seen," said Sue Boardman, leadership program coordinator for the Gettysburg Foundation. "So our generation . . . we are the first."
About the painting
French master Paul Philippoteaux created four panoramas of the "Battle of Gettysburg."
The one owned by the National Park Service in Gettysburg was his second version. It opened in 1884 in Boston in a building built specifically to house the 360-degree painting.
Philippoteaux came to Gettysburg in 1882 to survey the battlefield, study maps in Washington, D.C. and talk to the veterans to re-create the scene of the battle.
He asked a local photographer, William Tipton, to take 360-degree photographs of the battlefield from a 30-foot platform that was built along what is now Hancock Avenue. Philippoteaux used those photographs to re-create the landscape.
The first version of the painting opened in Chicago in 1883, and the second one went on display in Boston the following year.
Veterans served as the base audience in viewing the paintings, and they reportedly wept upon seeing it. They also would point out inaccuracies, information the artist used to correct subsequent versions.
One mistake that still appears in the Gettysburg version shows Confederate General Lewis Armistead - the only brigade commander who made it across the wall that day - receiving his mortal wound while riding a horse.
But the general did not ride a horse across the field that day, Boardman said.
By the time Philippoteaux found out about the mistake in the Chicago version, it was too late to fix his second one. However, he did correct it in subsequent versions for New York and Philadelphia.
About the restoration
When conservators studied the painting years ago, they saw the most obvious deterioration, such as the damaged canvas and flaking paint.
But they also found that a large percentage of the painting had been covered by overpaint - other people's restoration efforts to cover areas of loss, said David Olin, chief conservator with Olin Conservation of Great Falls, Va.
For example, someone painted a tree into the landscape that didn't exist in the original. It simply was easier to paint over that spot than to apply paint to re-create what was lost.
"The park service acted just in time to prevent any real damage," Olin said.
The undertaking included removing the painting from the old Cyclorama building, restoring it and hanging it in the new museum and visitor center.
The tedious work included removing the residue from an animal glue used to adhere a fabric to the back of the canvas. Workers and volunteers had to scrape the residue with a scalpel a square inch at a time, Boardman said.
Conservators replaced the backing with fiberglass so it could support the painting, Olin said.
The tricky part involved hanging the 14 sections of the painting. Each one weighed about 1,500 pounds, he said.
It's no longer hung like a shower curtain, Boardman said.
The painting hangs from a curved pipe and is weighted at the bottom with 25-pound weights spaced three feet apart. That creates the hyperbolic shape - from top to bottom, the painting curves toward the viewer so that in the middle, it's one foot closer to the onlooker.
"Now there's just something about the way it hits you when you walk up on that platform," she said. "It's truly an exciting painting."
About the details
The "Battle of Gettysburg" painting provides hours of study for viewers.
Wagon wheels spin. Soldiers fight. Civilians help out.
Here are some details that might pique the interest of visitors:
· Poppies do not grow in America, but they're included in the painting of the Gettysburg battlefield. Poppies grow on disturbed soil in Europe, which is why they are prolific on battlefields across the pond.
The explanation for the inaccuracy? "Well, we've got a French artist on a battlefield, so he puts in red poppies for depth perception so you can see the three-dimensionality. And how would he know they're not here?" Boardman said.
· Philippoteaux created his own signature for the painting. He painted himself as a red-bearded officer under a tree with a sword across his knee.
· African-Americans appear in the painting as teamsters, usually in duties with the horses or as orderlies. The recruiting of black soldiers had not yet begun in the Civil War.
· Oral history has it that one figure in the painting represents Abraham Lincoln. The figure is being carried in the same way Lincoln was taken out of Ford's Theatre the night he was assassinated.
· A row of evergreen trees planted in 1872 to landscape the Soldiers National Cemetery shouldn't appear in the painting, but it does. Philippoteaux, who based the landscape of the painting on photographs of the battlefield taken in 1882, wouldn't have known the artificial terrain feature wasn't there during the battle.
· More than 100 artifacts, such as shoes and uniforms, used in the re-created diorama came from reenanctors.
The Gettysburg Foundation asked reenactors to donate their artifacts after they participated in the reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg in July. They mobbed the foundation with items.
"They loved the idea of being a part of it," Boardman said.
One artifact, though, does date to the Civil War. It's a wooden box - called a limber box - that held artillery shells.
About the reaction
"We're always seeing new things in this painting (that) we've never noticed before," Boardman said.
She pointed out a signal flag on Little Round Top. She knew it had to be signaling to someone, but it wasn't until about a month ago that she found the other one on Cemetery Hill.
"We never saw it because the painting was so dirty," she said.
The cleaning uncovered other details, such as the orange dots from musket fire and the smoldering remains of the Bliss farm. Union soldiers burned the farm to deal with the Confederate soldiers who were firing from there.
Olin said the hardest part of the job was meeting the 28-month deadline for restoring the painting on a $7 million budget.
"It was such a large job," he said. "It was such a complicated job."
Initially, officials in Gettysburg wrestled with what to do with the painting in this multimedia age. One camp wanted to fix it up and do a glitzy show. The other wanted to restore it to its former glory.
In the end, they decided to restore it the way Philippoteaux intended it.
About 80 percent of the cost went into restoring the canvas, said Gettysburg Foundation President Robert C. Wilburn.
"It seemed like it made a lot of sense if you're going to spend that much money restoring the canvas, why not take it back and show it the way the artist originally intended to show it," he said.