In 2014, then-Mayor Kasim Reed announced that an agreement brokered with the Atlanta History Center would relocate one of the world’s largest oil paintings more than nine miles to Buckhead, a feat both meticulous and Herculean.
On February 22, the famous Atlanta Cyclorama will once again be on display for public viewing, with no shortage of changes, it turns out, that reflect its original intent—and the truth.
To many Atlantans, the colossal work of art—a 360-degree painting with a circumference of nearly 400 feet—is best known just as the Cyclorama, and it carries with it a complex history that’s been told and retold (many times wrongly) since its 1880s inception.
Most Atlantans recognize the Cyclorama from its former Grant Park home, where it was hung in 1921 and remained for decades. Less known: The painting was initially showcased in Minneapolis in 1886, according to Smithsonian Magazine, which recently published a fascinating deep-dive into the Cyclorama’s checkered story.
Officially titled “The Battle of Atlanta Cyclorama,” the painting, crafted by the Milwaukee-based American Panorama Company and painted by German artisans, depicted a critical turning point in the Civil War.
Tour guides and historians have for years endeavored to tell the story behind the imagery, but many of them got it wrong, according to the magazine.
Some urban legends even suggested the Atlanta Cyclorama mysteriously appeared in Atlanta overnight, after a circus came through town.
To gaze upon the painting today—restored, reinstalled and reopening in February at the Atlanta History Center—is to see an unintended monument to the wonderments of accretion: accretions not merely of paint, but of mythmaking, distortion, error, misinterpretation, politics, opportunism, crowd-pleasing, revisionism, marketing, propaganda and cover-up (literally).
Rumors have circulated that the massive canvas portrayed a significant Confederate victory. That notion was particularly prevalent soon after the end of the Civil War.
The reality, however, is that the Atlanta Cyclorama illustrates a moment when the Rebels were on the fringe of overtaking Yankee troops at a major battle along a railroad line on the then-outskirts of Atlanta.
But rather than retreating, Union Gen. John “Black Jack” Logan counterattacked, forcing the Confederates to withdraw.
Atlanta was defeated, and afterward, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman turned east for the long march that ended the war.
Following its completion, the manipulation of the great, traveling canvas boggles the mind.
The consequential battle scene made for a great opportunity for political hopefuls, such as Benjamin Harrison, an Indiana Republican presidential candidate.
Harrison was not at the Battle of Atlanta. Nevertheless, in the late 1880s, when the painting was scheduled to temporarily relocate to Indianapolis, a campaign staffer of his coerced the manager of the Cyclorama to paint the candidate into the picture.
Harrison’s likeness covered up the figure of Harper’s Weekly illustrator Theodore Davis.
Soon enough, the Indiana papers encouraged customers to see the new Cyclorama, which suddenly appeared to have a new name. “HARRISON AT ATLANTA,” the ads screamed. Harrison lost the popular vote that November, but in the electoral college, he won—thanks in part to the votes in Indiana and neighboring states.
The 23rd president of the United States, however, did not have the last laugh on this front. Ironically, that went to the print media, which exposed Harrison as a fraud and led the disgraced Cyclorama manager to resign.
Theodore Davis was recently painted back into his rightful place in the picture, but that wasn’t the end of the Cyclorama’s exploitation.
In 1890, the Battle of Atlanta was sold to a Georgian named Paul Atkinson, the youngest brother in a family of Confederate soldiers.
With just a bit of blue paint, Atkinson attempted to rewrite history, changing a troop of Rebel soldiers fleeing from Union fighters into cowardly Yankees themselves.
By the time the painting was moved to Atlanta in 1892, the newspaper made it even easier for everybody, announcing the arrival of the new Cyclorama and its depiction of the “only Confederate victory ever painted!”
Unfortunately for the phony Atkinson, his effort to disparage the Civil War’s ultimate victors did not significantly drive up ticket sales, and in 1893, he sold the painting for less than $1,000—still a steal, even back then.
The Atlanta Cyclorama then moved to Grant Park, where for weeks it sat outside and endured the elements.
Adding to the years of wear-and-tear, once the thing was hung inside a Grant Park building, its curators realized it was too big for the space, so they cut off a huge slice of the sky.
The Cyclorama has experienced many changes since then—including the addition of a deceased Clark Gable, who played Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind. Unreal.
Today, however, it hangs in Buckhead, where soon Atlantans will once again be able to marvel at its stature and significance. Historic photos have been used to restore the painting to how it originally appeared.
Through it all, the Cyclorama survives, and it’s being restored within a 23,000-square-foot facility specifically built to house it.
- Atlanta’s Famed Cyclorama Mural Will Tell the Truth About the Civil War Once Again [Smithsonian Magazine]