In the 1880s, The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama painting was an immersive experience—the equivalent of virtual reality today. The painting is a full-color, three-dimensional illusion designed to transport the viewer onto the battlefield. Cycloramas were created as a form of entertainment—they were the IMAX of their time. The painting was a visual story about the 1864 Battle of Atlanta, but over time it has evolved into a significant artifact that has its own fascinating story. Now, the historical journey of the painting itself is part of the “big picture.”
At 358 feet in circumference and covering 15,030 square feet, the Atlanta Cyclorama is considered to be the largest oil painting in the world. In the 1930s, the considerable effect of the painting was enhanced with the addition of three-dimensional characters and objects. Eagle-eyed visitors can spot the likeness of Clark Gable standing in for a fallen soldier.
Created at the American Panorama Company in Milwaukee by 17 German artists, The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama took five months to create before it debuted in Minneapolis in 1886. Painted 22 years after the Battle of Atlanta, the painting originally depicted the battle from a Northern perspective as a heroic Union victory so it would appeal to Northern audiences. When the painting relocated to Atlanta in 1892, it was slightly modified and advertised as “the only Confederate victory ever painted” to appeal to its new Southern audiences that maintained Confederate sympathies. The 1864 Battle of Atlanta was not a Confederate victory, and most of these changes from 1892 were reversed in the 1930s.
The cyclorama is a relic of a past form of entertainment. Although once enormously popular, only three significant cycloramas remain in the United States: The Atlanta Cyclorama, the Gettysburg Cyclorama and the Panorama of Versailles on display the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In California, the petite Velaslavasay Panorama in Los Angeles is a modern recreation of the art.
Although few full-scale panoramas of the hundreds that once lured crowds around the world still exist, there are a few notable survivors: In Wroclaw, Poland, the enormous 120-year-old Raclawice Panorama lets you step into the middle of the 1794 Battle of Racławice. In Istanbul, Turkey the Panorama 1453 Museum recreates the epic fall of Constantinople. A more modern example in Damascus, Syria the October War Panorama is dedicated to scenes from the 1973 October War between Israel, Egypt, and Syria.
In 2014, plans were announced to close the Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War History Museum. On February 22, 2019, Atlanta History Center opened Cyclorama: The Big Picture, featuring the fully restored cyclorama painting, The Battle of Atlanta. At the centerpiece of this new multi-media experience is a 132-year-old hand-painted work of art that stands 49 feet tall, is longer than a football field, and weighs 10,000 pounds. This painting is one of only two cycloramas in the United States—the other being the Battle of Gettysburg cyclorama —making Atlanta home to one of America’s largest historic treasures.
Visitors will now see The Battle of Atlanta cyclorama painting as it was originally intended to be viewed—an experience no one has seen or felt in nearly 100 years. Guests enter the painting rotunda through a seven-foot-tall tunnel entry—passing underneath the diorama—before ascending an escalator to the 15-foot-tall stationary viewing platform. Here, visitors get a full 360-degree view of the painting, enhanced by technology and a 12-minute theatrical, larger-than-life presentation projected onto the painting.