Art: Painting’s Big Dig

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The first three days of July 1863 saw the bloodiest hours of the Civil War, in a battle that spilled across the fields and hills surrounding Gettysburg, Pa. The fighting climaxed in the bright, hot afternoon of the third day, when more than 11,000 Confederate soldiers mounted a disastrous assault on the heart of the Union line. That assault—Pickett's Charge, named for the general who led it—marked the farthest the South would penetrate into Union territory. In a much larger sense, it marked the turning point of the war. (Article continued below...)

No surprise, then, that the Battle of Gettysburg would become the subject of songs, poems, funeral monuments and, ultimately, some of the biggest paintings ever displayed on this continent. Paul Philippoteaux, famed for his massive 360-degree cyclorama paintings, painted four versions of the battle in the 1880s. Cycloramas were hugely popular in the United States in the last decades of the 19th century, before movies displaced them in the public's affection. Conceived on a mammoth scale, a cyclorama painting was longer than a football field and almost 50 feet tall. Little thought was given to preserving these enormous works of art. They were commercial ventures, and when they stopped earning they were tossed. Most were ultimately lost—victims of water damage or fire. One of Philippoteaux's Gettysburg renderings was cut up and hung in panels in a Newark, N.J., department store before finding its way back to Gettysburg, where it has been displayed off and on since 1913. Along the way, the painting lost most of its sky and a few feet off the bottom. Sections were cut and moved to patch holes in other sections. And some of the restorative efforts proved almost as crippling to the original as outright neglect. Since 2003, a team of conservators has labored in a $12 million effort to restore Philippoteaux's masterwork. They have cleaned it front and back, patched it, added canvas for a new sky and returned the painting to its original shape—a key part of a cyclorama's optical illusion was its hyperbolic shape: it bellies out at its central point, thrusting the image toward the viewer.

When restoration is completed later this year, the painting will be the centerpiece of the new Gettysburg battlefield visitors' center, which opens to the public on April 14. Much work remains to be done. But even partially restored, the painting seethes with life—and death. This is no mindless celebration of war but a balancing act of horror and heroism. Philippoteaux stared straight into the face of battle, and he didn't flinch.