By Patti Solomon
If your kids think IMAX theaters and Disney theme parks created 3-D imagery, it’s time for a history lesson at the Atlanta Cyclorama in historic Grant Park, where the art of creating depth perception began a long time ago.
The world’s largest panoramic Civil War oil painting was completed in 1886. Then, in 1936, craftsmen created a foreground of miniature, lifelike characters including Confederate and Union soldiers, wagons, horses and Georgia red clay. The diorama adds visual depth to the painting in the round, which is 42-feet high and weighs 9,334 pounds
Along with about 50 other visitors including young children, I “toured” the painting, which lays out much of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s march through the South.
When I looked at this painting – 358-feet in circumference – depicting the Civil War’s Battle of Atlanta, I could not tell where the diorama ended and the painting began.
One of the most famous figures in the painting was added several years after the diorama was completed when Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield commissioned an artist to create a 3-D model of Rhett Butler, the iconic star of “Gone with the Wind,” the movie. In Margaret Mitchell's novel, as the war nears its end, the dashing Butler joined the withdrawing Confederate soldiers.
In December 1939, movie stars Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Carole Lombard and Olivia de Havilland enjoyed a private viewing of the Cyclorama right before the movie’s premiere at the Fox Theatre. At the time, Gable remarked to Mayor Hartsfield, “The only thing missing to make the Cyclorama perfect is Rhett Butler.” Hartsfield then ordered a new plaster of paris figure to be created with Butler as a fallen soldier. It is an uncanny likeness to Gable, and, unlike any of the other fallen soldiers, this mannequin is smiling.
Parts of the painting emphasize the heroism of Union commanders including the benefactor, who died before the painting was completed. About 20 years after the war ended, Gen. John A. Logan, who commanded a large part of the Union forces in the battle, commissioned a group of German painters with skills in European Cyclorama painting to depict the story of Sherman’s march through Atlanta and the surrounding area.
The artists researched – with the help of interpreters – the history behind the battles via war documents and letters from soldiers on both sides. In addition, the team conducted personal interviews with those who experienced the many battles leading to the day the Confederate troops led by Gen. John B. Hood made a desperate attempt to save Atlanta from the encircling Union armies. Hood’s unit initially succeeded, but the Union troops, led by Sherman, regained positions lost earlier in the day and won the battle. By nightfall, more than 12,000 soldiers had been killed, wounded or were missing.
After the oil painting was complete in 1886, it was taken on tour in several cities and bought and sold many times. Eventually, it ended up in the hands of a traveling circus. When the circus arrived in Atlanta in the late 19th century, few citizens went to view what they considered a Northern-biased painting glorifying the defeat of Atlanta. Ultimately, the circus went bankrupt, auctioning its assets including the painting and animals.
George V. Gress, a local businessman and philanthropist, bought the animals and the painting. The animals became the founding attraction for the Grant Park Zoo, later Zoo Atlanta. He gained permission to house the painting in a wooden structure next to the zoo. In 1898, Gress donated the painting to the city of Atlanta, and in 1919 an amendment to the Atlanta City Charter allowed for construction of the fireproof building, which still houses the Cyclorama.
Today, the rotating painting is accompanied by music, sound effects and lighting changes that act as chapter markers. An enthusiastic narrator, “Young Abe,” wears a black beard.
After the show you may visit the Civil War museum, which includes The Texas, a steam locomotive that played a key role in the Great Locomotive Chase of 1862, the subject of a 1956 Disney movie.
Check out special programming this summer by historians, filmmakers and re-enactors familiar with different aspects of the Civil War.
The Cyclorama offers free admission this summer to veterans and active military personnel and their families in collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts, Blue Star Families and Department of Defense.
Looking for more summertime things to do in Atlanta? Check this page.
Guest blogger Patti Murray Solomon is a native of Pittsburgh, yet lived with her husband, Mike, and three daughters in Ohio, New Jersey, North Carolina and London, England, before coming to Atlanta in 1998. She is a professional writer and group facilitator with experience in journalism, public relations and education communication.