Monday, October 6, 2008


After years of exposure to rot and mishandling, a U.S. institution has been pulled back from the brink of collapse with the help of international experts who pooled their knowledge. This rescue package had nothing to do with Wall Street.

Instead, it was about a massive 360-degree panorama depicting the key Civil War battle fought in Gettysburg and was painted 125 years ago by French artist Paul Philippoteaux.

When the painting, “The Battle of Gettysburg,” was unveiled in 1884, 21 years after the campaign it depicts, it was the total immersion experience of the era, a sort of 19th-century version of surround-sound-and-vision cinema.

After more than 100 years of mishandling and exposure to moisture, rot and fire, the gigantic painting had lost not only some of its Imax effect but also entire sections. Its circumference had shrunk from 377 feet to 359 feet and its height from 42 feet to 27 feet.

Five years ago the Gettysburg Foundation launched “the largest conservation project of its kind ever undertaken in North America” to save Philippoteaux’s epic work, which portrays one of the bloodiest battles ever on U.S. soil, in which about 51,000 people lost their lives in three days.

“It was an enormous task,” says David Olin, chief conservator of the $15 million project.

Restoring the painting, which depicts the doomed infantry charge led by Gen. George Pickett of the Confederate army against troops from the North, posed a unique set of problems.

Philippoteaux had painted the Battle of Gettysburg on 14 pieces of canvas, which had been glued, primed, stitched together, hung and stretched, causing the canvas to take on an hourglass shape.

The artist had adapted the perspective of the painting to take into account the unique hyperbolic shape of the canvas, and Mr. Olin needed to find conservators who understood that.

He found one in Ryszard Wojtowicz, a Pole who had restored panoramas in Poland, Hungary and Ukraine and brought a team of four from Poland to help restore the Gettysburg panorama.

“People think conservators take brushes and dab color on a painting. But the reality is different. It’s hard scientific work,” Mr. Wojtowicz told Agence France-Presse at the inauguration of the new museum in Gettysburg, where Philippoteaux’s restored work is housed in a windowless rotunda.

The United States has only two panoramas; the other one is in Atlanta. Europe has several, and China has nine, according to Mr. Wojtowicz, whose work in restoring panoramas has made him a world leader in the esoteric field.

“I don’t look at this as a Polish or American project. There were aspects of Chinese influence in our work, people from Germany and the Netherlands that influenced our work,” Mr. Olin says.

Over two years, a team of 25 artists and conservators reinserted a missing part of the panorama, touched up the sky, covered up cracks, and hung the painting with a canopy at the top and a 3-D landscape at the bottom to give the never-ending, total-surround feel intended by the artist.

The immersion experience is enhanced for today’s technology-dependent viewer with a 21st-century sound-and-light show.

Spotlights pick out fallen soldiers on the canvas; horses rear, and fires burn as a soundtrack, punctuated by the boom of cannons, explains the scene to viewers, who stand on a central, raised platform that puts the line of horizon level with their line of vision.

“I have a feeling that the movement around the world’s panoramas will become very dynamic and panoramas will become more fashionable again,” Mr. Wojtowicz said after the rejuvenated Battle of Gettysburg was unveiled last week.

Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide