Depicting the 1864 Battle of Atlanta—a Civil War turning point—the fully restored The Battle of Atlanta painting is at the heart of the Atlanta History Center’s Cyclorama: The Big Picture experience.
The painting rises 49 feet, stretches 371 feet (longer than a football field) and weighs 10,000 pounds.
Enhanced by multimedia storytelling technologies, including a 12-minute introductory film projected onto across a 160-foot-long swath of the painting, the exhibit is housed in the Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building, a newly erected, custom-built 25,000-square-foot circular structure. The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama is one of only two cycloramason display in the United States, the other being The Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, making the Atlanta History Center home to one of America’s largest historic treasures.
In the 1880s, cycloramas—massive 360-degree paintings—provided immersive experiences analogous to today’s virtual reality. The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama is a full-color, 3D illusion designed to transport the viewer onto the battlefield.The painting visually tells the story of the 1864 Battle of Atlanta, but over time it has evolved into a significant artifact that has its own fascinating story, and its historical journey is perhaps the most important part of the “big picture.”
The new exhibit was created to give visitors an experience true to the one offered when the cyclorama was created in 1886, an experience no one has witnessed in more than a century.
Restoration highlights include:
- Re-creation of three missing sections, adding 3,143 square feet to the painting to return it to its original size of 18,179 square feet
- Erection of a 15-foot stationary platform upon which visitors can view the horizon line of the painting at eye-level as originally intended
- Re-creation of the custom-made diorama landscape, including 128 restored original soldier figures from 1936
- Corrected hyperbolic shape through re-tensioning, conveying the originally intended 3D effect
Created at the American Panorama Company in Milwaukee by 17 German and Austrian artists in 1886, 22 years after the Battle of Atlanta, the painting originally depicted the battle from a Northern perspective—as a heroic Union victory—to appeal to Northern audiences. When it was relocated to Atlanta in 1892, The Battle of Atlanta was slightly modified and advertised as “the only Confederate victory ever painted” to appeal to Southern audiences with Confederate sympathies. The battle was not a Confederate victory, of course, and those 1892 changes—such as repainting captured Confederates being led off the battlefield by Union soldiers to look like fleeing Union soldiers in blue uniforms—were repainted yet again in the 1930s to accurately portray the original design.
With this new exhibit, the Atlanta History Center channels these varying viewpoints into a deeper conversation.
“History is messy, but it has a lot to teach us—if we let it,” said Sheffield Hale, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Atlanta History Center. “What makes Cyclorama: The Big Picture so cool is the surprise factor of the painting’s history — the ‘how and why’ it was created, and its various interpretations over time. We are challenging visitors to explore their own perceptions and misperceptions of history. Facts are facts, but the way we view the past varies widely.”
The Atlanta History Center uses this restored work of art and entertainment, and the history of the painting itself, as a tool to talk about the “big picture.”
Through exhibitions, rare artifacts, historic images, immersive technology, digital resources, videos and museum theater, visitors are encouraged to look critically at a range of Civil War imagery and consider how images and entertainment can influence how we perceive history. Photography, art, movies, marketing and media all provoke emotions and can generate incorrect, or incomplete, ideas about historical events.
“These shifting viewpoints are precisely what make The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama such a distinctive and important artifact,” said Atlanta History Center Senior Military Historian Gordon Jones, who curated Cyclorama: The Big Picture. “No other object can so vividly tell the story of how attitudes toward the Civil War have been shaped and reshaped over the past 150 years. In fact, it is the largest single artifact in existence to demonstrate the power of the use and misuse of historical memory.”
Seeded by a $10 million gift from Atlantans Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker, the Atlanta History Center’s cyclorama campaign raised $35.78 million, including $10 million for an endowment that will ensure the ongoing care of the painting and related objects, including the 1856 locomotive Texas, during a 75-year license agreement with the City of Atlanta.
Guests enter the painting rotunda through a tunnel, passing underneath the diorama before ascending an escalator to the 15-foot stationary viewing platform. Here, visitors immediately experience a full 360-degree view of the painting. The 12-minute introductory video film is just one aspect of the extensive interpretation. Two levels of exhibitions just outside the rotunda detail truths and myths of the Civil War, explore the untold stories of the painting, examine the role movies and visual entertainment had on shaping perspectives of the Civil War, and provide a look at the fleeting entertainment sensation of cycloramas. Additionally, exhibitgoers can access monitors beneath the viewing platform to explore the historic facts about various scenes in the painting, and to explore different aspects of the painting in detail, down to individual brushstrokes. An exhibition detailing how the painting was created and restored also is located under the platform.
The Atlanta History Center further enhances the experience through weekend performances of a series of Meet the Past museum theatre monologues, including journalist Demark Mitchell, a composite character based on the written and documented perspectives of post-Reconstruction-era journalists and intellectuals; Paul Atkinson, the Georgia promoter who purchased The Battle of Atlanta painting and brought it south; and German artist Franz Schroeter, a composite character based on painters who worked for the American Panorama Company.
Cyclorama: The Big Picture also incorporates several technological aspects, some of which are available online for use in classrooms, at home, or for people who are unable to make it to the exhibition in person. War in Our Backyards, presented on touchscreens in the exhibit area underneath the viewing platform, provides an examination of important people, places, and events during the Civil War in Georgia, with then and now views and archival images. The Civil War in Georgia, 1864-1865, in the upstairs gallery, is a time lapse map that shows all troop movements, skirmishes, and battles in the state.
Time of the Timeline of the Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama Painting
- October 1885 and April 1886: Field studies at site of 1864 Battle of Atlanta by American Panorama Company of Milwaukee.
- June 1886: First copy of The Battle of Atlanta, painted by 17 mainly German artists in Milwaukee, opens in Minneapolis; moves to Indianapolis in May 1888. Owners declare bankruptcy August 1890.
- February 1887: Second copy of The Battle of Atlanta opens in Detroit. This “twin” copy no longer exists; last reported in poor condition in Baltimore, 1899.
- May 1891: In Indianapolis, Georgia businessman-promoter Paul Atkinson purchases The Battle of Atlanta and moves it to Chattanooga.
- February 1892: Atkinson moves The Battle of Atlanta to Atlanta where it is displayed in a temporary wooden building on Edgewood Avenue. In a prime early example of promotional spin, newspaper ad proclaims it the “only Confederate victory ever painted.” The display is a financial failure. Roof on building falls in.
- August 1893: Ernest Woodruff buys painting at fire-sale price and then immediately resells to George V. Gress and Charles Northern for a small profit. Repairs on painting proceed. The Battle of Atlanta and its temporary building then are moved to Grant Park (located on Cherokee Avenue near the Augusta Avenue park entrance), but business still falters.
- March 1898: Gress donates the painting to the City of Atlanta on condition that building and painting be repaired.
- February 1908: Locomotive Texas donated to the City of Atlanta. Put on outdoor display in Grant Park in 1911; placed inside new Cyclorama building in 1927.
- October 1921: New “fireproof” building in Grant Park (which becomes the painting’s home for the next nine decades) dedicated. When painting proves to be slightly too big for new home, 22-inch-wide vertical slice removed along one of two seams to make it fit.
- 1934-1936: Team funded by Works Progress Administration (WPA) creates new diorama foreground with 128 plaster figures and repaints portions of the painting. Clark Gable figure added in 1940, after “Gone With the Wind” star visits Cyclorama in connection with the film’s world premiere and remarks, legend has it, that there was only one thing wrong with the painting: “I’m not in it.”
- 1959-1977: Deteriorating conditions prompt intense debate over future of Cyclorama attraction. City considers two new sites downtown or construction of a new building in Grant Park.
- 1978: Mayor Maynard Jackson appoints committee to study conservation options.
- November 2018: Texas locomotive, focal point of an exhibition on Atlanta transportation history, Locomotion: Railroads and the Making of Atlanta, goes on view to the public.
- 1977: Atlanta City Council votes to keep Cyclorama in its 1921 building due to cost considerations.
- 1979: Bills introduced in state legislature to move Cyclorama and Texas to Stone Mountain Park, implying that Jackson didn’t care to save either. Jackson responds: “It’s one battle where the right side won. I’m going to make sure that depiction of the battle is saved.”
- 1979-1982: Cyclorama building closed while conservation team led by Gustav Berger treats the painting in situ and adds new diorama surface. Extensive renovations to building, including new ground level entrance and revolving seating. Total cost: about $11 million.
- September 2011: Mayor Kasim Reed forms Atlanta Cyclorama Task Force to study conservation issues and economic viability at Grant Park and other possible sites.
- July 2014: Mayor Reed announces move of The Battle of Atlanta, locomotive Texas, and related artifacts to Atlanta History Center. 75-year license agreement signed in December.
- July 2015-February 2017: Detailed preparations to ready The Battle of Atlanta painting for move to the Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building (which broke ground in December 2015) on the Atlanta History Center’s 33-acre Buckhead campus.
- December 2015: The Texas locomotive moved to the North Carolina Transportation Museum for complete restoration.
- February 2017: Scrolled onto two 45-foot-tall steel spindles, the panting is removed through holes in roof by crane and moved by flatbed truck from Grant Park to the Atlanta History Center, where a complete restoration begins.
- 2017-2018: Painting is cleaned and tensioned, and two missing sections as well as 7 feet of sky around the top of its full circumference are re-created. Entire sky returned to 1886 appearance.
- February 22, 2019: Grand opening of the Lloyd and Mary Ann Whitaker Cyclorama Building featuring Cyclorama: The Big Picture.
Cyclorama: The Big Picture is included in Atlanta History Center’s general admission ticket, which includes full access to all exhibitions, three historic houses and the 33-acre Goizueta Gardens. Parking is free. The Souper Jenny cafe, BRASH Coffee and the Atlanta History Center’s gift shop and bookstore are accessible to all visitors and do not require tickets.
Timed tickets are required to view the painting. Advance tickets available online at AtlantaHistoryCenter.com.
Media Communications Director
At the centerpiece of this new multi-media experience is a 132-year-old hand-painted work of art that stands 49 feet tall, is longer than a football field, and weighs 10,000 pounds.
The interactive map, War In Our Backyards, provides an in-depth look into Civil War-era Atlanta.
A collection of Atlanta History Center press coverage.