Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Brenneman, Boardman and Dowling: "THE GETTYSBURG CYCLORAMA: The Turning Point of the Civil War on Canvas"

[The Gettysburg Cyclorama: The Turning Point of the Civil War on Canvas by Chris Brenneman and Sue Boardman with photographer Bill Dowling (Savas Beatie, 2015). Hardcover, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. 224 pp. ISBN:978-1-81121-264-8 $34.95]

The Gettysburg Cyclorama is arguably the most famous Civil War painting. If not viewed firsthand among the millions of visitors to the battlefield itself, it was probably introduced to many through the pages of the superbly illustrated Time-Life series of Civil War books. With text from Chris Brenneman and Sue Boardman and photographic images from Bill Dowling, the painting's details and history are presented in unprecedented depth, context and clarity in The Gettysburg Cyclorama: The Turning Point of the Civil War on Canvas.

The book begins with a brief overview of the cyclorama phenomenon, which was an evolutionary step from the moving panorama [long scrolled paintings that were unrolled in front of the stationary viewer] for making grand moments from history alive to the observer. Cycloramas were a European creation that peaked in popularity in the late 1800s, with American audiences flocking to depictions of the great battles of the Civil War.

The process of creating these art works is described in brief. Documentary research and interviews with participants were enhanced by meticulous landscape photography (in the case of the Gettysburg Cyclorama, the 1882 images of William Tipton). From this a 1:10 scale study was created which was then enlarged through grid projection (using images photographed on glass plates) on an approximately 50 x 400 foot canvas. A team of artists, each a specialist of landscapes, objects, faces, figures, etc., would then paint the final product. The massive painting, which could weigh 6 tons, was then hung in a specially designed building, the massive weight causing an inevitable sag in the middle giving the painting an elliptical shape much like a squat hourglass. To enhance the realism, tons of earth, battle debris, and vegetation were carted into the building and carefully arranged along the flooring below the painting. Many visitors, who were situated in a raised circular deck in the middle, remarked how they could not tell where the diorama ended and the painting began.

There were four Gettysburg cycloramas created by the team led by French artist Paul Philippoteaux. All depicted Pickett's Charge in a similar manner but with differences based on criticisms, updated information, or local flavor. The painting was not intended as a snapshot in time but rather an aggregations of key events that occurred during the famous assault. Each version is named after the city where first exhibited (Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York). The book details their history as well as their unique features. Only one, the Boston cyclorama, survived the ravages of time to be displayed in restored fashion in Gettysburg today.

The "tidbits" chapter of the book explores a number of interesting sidebars, among them the artist self-portraits incorporated into the painting, the controversial "European" straw stacks, and the interpretation of the Tipton photographs in the context of the changes that occurred on the ground during the nearly two decades following the battle. Another chapter documents changes (ex. extra flags, diminished smoke, addition of Meade and staff) made to the cyclorama after its Boston unveiling in 1884, most likely in response to feedback from veterans and others.

Deserving of special mention is the quality and quantity of illustration in the book. Every page is packed with period photographs, drawings, and illustrations as well as crisp and vibrantly colorful modern images of the cyclorama. Close-ups allow readers to see details uncovered by the 2008 restoration. Skillful juxtaposition of archival and modern images pinpoint changes in both the painting and the battlefield over time.

The rest of the book, perhaps two-thirds of its length, is devoted to the most comprehensive "key" yet created for the fully restored Gettysburg Cyclorama. The original 1880s key was copied onto a single sheet fold-out with the entire painting traced in a donut shape. 57 objects of interest were labelled and very briefly captioned in the center. These guides to the painting were sold for a nominal fee to visitors. The key created in the book is far more extensive. The entire painting is divided into ten panels called "views" (designated 0 through 9 in keeping with Tipton's original number system). A chapter in the book corresponds to each view, all beautifully rendered in large scale on facing pages using Dowling's photography. Tipton's original landscape research photograph is also paired with Dowling's closely aligned modern image for comparison. The key for each of the ten views labels by letter those individuals, military units, objects, and ground features deemed to be of special interest, up to twenty in number. Far from merely identifying singular features of note in the painting, the book offers several paragraphs of annotated historical context, description, and interpretation for each item. The Brenneman, Boardman and Dowling key runs nearly 150 pages and comprises an exhaustive and uniquely invaluable guide to the cyclorama for visitors and armchair readers alike.

Equally useful as both guidebook and serious history, this is clearly the most important work yet published on the Gettysburg Cyclorama. If any experience might serve as a worthy substitute to visiting the painting in person reading The Gettysburg Cyclorama would be it.


  1. Thanks a lot for the in-depth review, Drew. I am glad you enjoyed it. Personally, it is one of my all-time favorite books we have published. I love them all, but this one really appeals to me because of how much I did not know about it.

    Keep up the good work.

    Ted Savas

    1. I'll always regret never viewing the Cyclorama on either of my two GB visits.


  2. Thank you for this gracious review! The cyclorama is one of the country's largest artifacts and is fully accessible to the public. Your comments will inspire others to see it and hopefully enjoy it as much as the authors do. --Co-author Sue Boardman

  3. Thanks for the wonderful review. You did a great job of describing some of the more interesting facets of the painting and its history. We really tried to make the book so that the reader would feel like they are taking the painting home with them.

    Co-author, Chris Brenneman


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