by Michael Sappol
Once upon a time, long before immersive video games, the History Channel and IMAX cinema, History was Big, heroic, epic, and full of Great Men and Great Wars. Big painters painted big wall-sized history paintings of events that were real (but improved upon for dramatic effect), which won big awards and hung in big galleries. And big crowds came to marvel.
The biggest, most spectacular painting of them all was the “cyclorama”: an extravagant 360° floor-to-ceiling panoramic experience;—a painting so grand (really a series of paintings on canvas stitched together) that it required its own dedicated space, a cyclorama building. At 50¢ a pop (25¢ for children), cycloramas packed ‘em in. Until a few seasons passed. Then the novelty wore off; audiences started to dwindle. And the painting (snipped or added on to, to fit a slightly different space) moved on to other cities and other cyclorama buildings, where new audiences could marvel at the deteriorating grandeur and novelty of it all.
A small piece of that world washed up on the shores of the Surgeon General’s Library (as the National Library of Medicine was then called) on May 7, 1918: a catalogue booklet for a cyclorama experience of the Battle of Gettysburg. The painting was then on display in Baltimore, after showings over several decades in Boston, New York, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington and elsewhere.
In truth there was no good reason why the Library should have acquired it. There is nothing particularly medical about the booklet or painting, except that many soldiers were killed or wounded in the battle—over 40,000 by most estimates—and the wounded required medical attention. The catalogue briefly mentions (on page 26) that a section of the painting shows a shed where surgeons treated casualties and some wounded men lying in the shade of nearby haystacks. Nothing else. But the Surgeon General’s Library, aka the Army Medical Library, was very much a military institution, and the country was at the time engaged in another terrible conflict, the “Great War” (which was soon to get its own cyclorama paintings). The librarians and administrators had reason to be interested.
The “Battle of Gettysburg” was painted by Paul Philippoteaux (1846-1923), a Parisian artist who specialized in cycloramas. Aided by a team of assistants, he did a number of battles: the Paris Commune, the Belgian Revolution of 1830, the Battle of Tel-el-Kebir in Egypt, battles of the Russo-Turkish War. For the Battle of Gettysburg, he visited the battlefield, interviewed Union generals, and based his sketches on panoramic photographs of the site. The painting took eighteen months to finish, was nearly 100 yards long, weighed six tons, and was supplemented with artifacts, sculptures, stone walls, trees and fences. It opened to the public in Chicago in 1883. (A veteran of the battle is said to have openly wept upon seeing it.) Eventually four versions circulated. One of them can be seen in a recently restored and partly reconstructed version at the Cyclorama in Gettysburg itself, where today the nation marks the 150th anniversary of that terrible battle.