The Half-Life of Illusion: On the Brief and Glorious Heyday of the Cyclorama

Cycloramas were the blockbusters of their day, drawing millions to revel in their illusions. They were also marvels of technology, blending art with artifice to create an immersive experience. During the final decades of the nineteenth century, they pioneered mass entertainment. Then, within a few years, they lost their appeal and almost all were destroyed. One decade's cutting-edge marvel became the next's hackneyed anachronism. This is the story of the half-life of an illusion.

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In their brief and glorious heyday, cycloramas proliferated through America. There were cycloramas recreating a half-dozen Civil War battles. An erupting Mount Kilauea. Niagara Falls. Bunker Hill. The Johnstown Flood. Even the Crucifixion. But by far the most successful were those depicting the Battle of Gettysburg. For the online edition of The Atlantic's Civil War Special, I wrote an essay on memory, illusion, and the Gettysburg Cyclorama:

Four hundred feet long. Fifty feet high. It was art on an astonishing scale. All four versions were housed in massive, purpose-built rotundas. In Boston, for example, visitors walked through a grand crenelated archway, paid for their tickets, and proceeded along a dark winding passage toward the viewing platform. They ascended a winding staircase to another time and place. "The impression upon the beholder as he steps upon this platform," one reviewer wrote, "is one of mingled astonishment and awe."

July 3, 1863. The Battle of Gettysburg rages on for a third day. From just behind Cemetery Ridge, visitors watched Pickett's Charge crash against the Union lines. There, in the distance! General Lee and his staff. Much closer, an artillery caisson explodes. All around, soldiers crouch, charge, level rifles, bare bayonets, fight, die.

A dozen different twists heightened the illusion.... The canvas bowed outward by a foot in the middle, receding as it approached the ground and horizon. Tinsel lent a convincing gleam to the bayonets and buckles in the painting.

What most astonished observers, though, was the diorama, which began near the edge of the platform and ended at the painting, 45 feet away. Hundreds of cartloads of earth were covered in sod and studded with vegetation, then topped with the detritus of the battlefield. Shoes, canteens, fences, walls, corpses: near the canvas, these props were cunningly arranged to blend seamlessly into the painting. Two wooden poles, painted on the canvas, met a third leaned against it to form a tripod. A dirt road ran out into the diorama. A stretcher borne by two men, one painted and the other formed of boards, had its poles inserted through holes in the painting. "So perfect is the illusion," as the Boston Advertiser voiced the common sentiment, "that it is impossible to tell where reality ends and the painting begins."

As that essay evolved, I found myself torn between explaining these marvelous illusions and exploring their cultural significance. The beauty of paperless publishing, though, is its infinite space. For the essay, I chose to focus on culture. Now, I can give the technology the attention it deserves. Every published review took note of some facets of their operation, but cycloramas also inspired lengthy explanations, complete with technical specifications and diagrams of their mechanics, in publications as varied as Popular Science, Boston Daily, the children's magazine St. Nicholas, and Appletons' Annual Cyclopedia and Register of Important Events.

The cycloramas expanded the limits of the ancient art of painting by harnessing the very latest technological innovations. The breathtaking realism of the landscape owed its fidelity to photography. Phillipoteaux journeyed to the battlefield at Gettysburg, selected the site he wished to recreate, and erected a wooden platform on the spot. His crew drew a circle around it, eighty feet across, and drove stakes into the ground dividing the view into ten sections. A photographer took three pictures of each section, focused on the foreground, the land behind it, and then the horizon. The images were taped together, overlain with a grid, and then the landscape they recorded was transferred to the canvas. The resulting painting captured the faithful detail of the photographs, rendered at a massive scale and with vivid colors that the nascent technology could not begin to replicate.

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The numbers are staggering. The canvas of a Gettysburg cyclorama was slathered with four or five tons of oil paints. The artists used the brightest pigments, sparing no expense; four peach cans filled with cadmium ran $200, just for that yellowest of hues. The crew painted some 20,000 men and horses. Many were given the features and clothes of actual participants, who modeled for the artists or sent photographs. Every diorama was slightly different, but contained thousands of individual artifacts. Those closest to the platform were life-size, but each receding rank was made a little smaller, until by the painting's edge, they shared its scale.

The paintings dazzled their audiences. During the day, they were lit by skylights in the center of the dome. A screen hung above the platform left the audience obscured in dim shadows, gazing out at the blue sky of the canvas sparkling with sunlight. At night, the effect was even more intense. The Boston Cyclorama boasted that its state-of-the-art electric lighting used "a Ball 25-lighter, 10 amphere current," powered by "a Southwark engine and a Hodge Steel boiler." For audiences for whom the electric light remained something of a wondrous novelty, the extended hours offered a new appeal. "Those that have seen the Cyclorama by daylight should see it by electric light," the proprietors urged. It was a frozen slice of the past, shining with the incandescent glow of the future.

Stories circulated of credulous visitors for whom illusion displaced reality. A veteran shouted to his companion: "Down, Bill, down! By t' Lord, there's a feller sightin' his gun on us!" Another told his companions, "You see that puff of smoke? Just wait a moment till that clears away, and I'll show you just where I stood." An old woman urged her son, "Come away, John, I canna bear the smell o' these dead horses." Such stories, with stock characters speaking in exaggerated dialect, allowed their tellers to laugh away their own unease. Blinking in the bright daylight outside, still uncertain just where the stone-wall ended and the painting began, they reclaimed their shaken faith in their own senses by telling tales of the truly credulous.

In marketing their remarkable illusions, the proprietors faced an enormous hurdle. To pull in paying crowds large enough to reward their enormous investment, they needed to carve out a new social space, cutting across class lines. They took pains to lure the burgeoning middle classes alongside workers enjoying the heady mix of cash wages and leisure, stressing the educational value of the experience as well as its visceral appeal. Of all potential entertainments, "there is none where the combination of pleasure and instruction is better obtained," The Brooklyn Magazine declared. Lecturers, themselves veterans of the battle, were employed to point out its highlights and to offer their own memories. Children received discounted rates, and school groups were frequent visitors to "the most vivid history lesson they can ever study."

The illusion was so gripping, though, that the history lesson often proved a little too vivid. Many visitors were overwhelmed horrific gore, and the thousands dead or dying. A novel of the era had its protagonist, a "model lad," visit the Cyclorama. "Oh! I never thought it was so horrible," he exclaimed. "I used to want to be a soldier, but I guess I will forget that want." Life imitated art. One ten-year-old stared at the canvas, looking at the carnage in the wheatfield. "Pop, isn't that murder?" he asked. His father, a Union captain, affirmed that it was, and "from that time, his soldier ardor abated."

Nor were such reactions restricted to children. A young school teacher who spent three hours staring at the painting wrote that "the picture vanished and it became a live battle to me and all things there were real." She left convinced of the futility of violence. A veteran who "never wanted to see another war" found that he "couldn't look at the suffering men," and focused instead on the landscape.

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But even convincing illusions are eventually dispelled:

"We once obtained permission to go behind the scenes in ... The Battle of Gettysburg," a critic later recalled. "After that the illusion was destroyed. Most of the cannon in the foreground were of galvanized iron, the thickness of a sheet of tin, and so were the soldiers and wagons. When we returned to the platform the skill of the deception seemed to us greater than ever, but we were thoroughly disillusioned." Familiarity turned the marvelous mundane, made the breathtaking banal.

It is a problem as old as art itself. Illusion relies upon confounding expectations, and its initial success resets those expectations for future encounters. Would Parrhasius' painted curtains fool a contemporary observer, or Zeuxis' fabled grapes lure a street-smart pigeon? Would the jaded crowd at the local multiplex jump in terror if someone swapped in a reel of the Lumières' Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat? Or, to take a more recent example, think of Avatar. The 3-D film left many viewers marveling as it dissolved the line separating representation from reality. But other films have failed to duplicate its success, at least in part because audiences have acclimated to the illusion, and are less willing to surrender their disbelief.

Cycloramas might still have extended their appeal through ever-more lavish effects and confounding illusions, but they faced a far greater problem. Philippoteaux's painting of Gettysburg was the most immersive, most convincing depiction of a scene ever placed on canvas. For millenia, painters labored to conjure living tableau with oil and brush; Philippoteaux succeeded as never before. But his triumph came as realism peaked. Photography could capture images with more perfect fidelity; moving pictures soon offered scenes of greater immediacy. Painters began to strive, instead, for less literal truths. By 1894, a critic could sneer that "in the salon carré at the Louvre is Murillo's Immaculate Conception; no one ever mistook its figures for real objects, yet who would not give for it a thousand Gettysburg cycloramas?" 

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The great canvasses portraying Gettysburg became anachronistic curiosities. One buckeye was shipped across the Pacific to the Japanese Military Academy, so that officers could study tactics in the run up to the Russo-Japanese War. A second painting wound up stranded in Wellington; the government of New Zealand offered it for sale with the helpful suggestion that it might "be converted into a modern Battle Scene at very reasonable cost." In Brooklyn, amusement agencies offered "circus wagons, performing dogs, 'The Battle of Gettysburg' cyclorama, a Pullman car and a demon child."

Only one of the four original Gettysburg Cycloramas survives. It has been lovingly restored, and its diorama recreated. It remains as fabulous a time-machine as ever. But like Doc's DeLorean, it sometimes deposits its users in the wrong decade, leaving them more conscious of the artifices of the 1880s than of the scene from 1863 they were used to recreate.

Presented by

Yoni Appelbaum is a social and cultural historian of the United States. He is a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University.

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