By Bill Hendrick
For the first time since it was painstakingly drawn in pencil and meticulously painted by 15 German artists in Milwaukee in 1886, scholars at the Atlanta History Center know exactly what the Cyclorama depicting the Battle of Atlanta looked like before its multiple moves, repairs and restorations.
And they know the artists inexplicably made at least one critical error.
In their quest for accuracy, the artists studied photographs of soldiers, the terrain and relics and interviewed survivors of the July 22, 1864, battle, mostly fought in east Atlanta. But they used the wrong colors when painting Confederate battle flags being frantically waved by rebel soldiers near the Troup Hurt House, a focal point of the 42-foot-high, 358-foot-long panorama.
Battle flags were painted with white fields and red crosses, instead of red fields with blue crosses, said History Center senior military historian Gordon Jones, who is a curator at the Buckhead facility on West Paces Ferry Road.
A donation sheds lights
Jones learned of the error recently when a prominent Civil War collector in the Midwest donated to the center a 3-by-4-foot lithograph depicting fierce fighting in the area. It likely was painted by one of the German artists who worked on the original canvas.
The wrong-colored flags were likely seen by tens of thousands of people when the huge painting was shown first in Detroit in 1887, then Minneapolis the same year, then Indianapolis and several other Northern cities in 1888 before being shipped to Chattanooga in 1890.
Sal Cilella, the chief executive officer of the History Center, told Reporter Newspapers last summer that the Cyclorama in Grant Park, owned by the city of Atlanta, is in dire need of repair. Many think the Cyclorama will eventually be displayed on the Buckhead grounds of the History Center.
The painting made its way to Atlanta in 1892. When local artist Wilbur Kurtz got his hands on the canvas at the city’s behest in 1934, he noticed the Confederate flags were incorrect and fixed them, Jones said.
“Nobody to this day knows why the German artist did this,” he said. “There were no flags of this description at this battle.”
Kurtz also corrected major flaws that had been painted onto the canvas in anger during its stay in Chattanooga.
“The exhibitors were afraid that the scene showing Confederate prisoners being led off the field would offend and anger white Southerners, so their uniforms were repainted to be blue uniforms, hence giving the impression that they were Yankees fleeing in terror,” Jones said. “Kurtz repainted the figures to make them Confederates again.”
A shortened canvas
When the painting was hung in its present building at Grant Park in 1921, 4 feet of the canvas had to be whacked out because it was too big for the structure. In the process, the road leading from downtown Atlanta to Decatur was erased. Kurtz found a place to paint it back in.
Kurtz was “an indefatigable researcher, tracking down locations long since paved over and veterans long since dead, recording his findings in notebooks, now in the History Center’s archives, and drawing or painting historical scenes derived from his research,” Jones said.
But he also may have been too eager to make corrections.
“By today’s ethical standards, a modern conservator would not intervene in issues of artistic content but would instead concentrate on saving the painting as it existed, not worrying about historical accuracy,” Jones said.
He said it’s important to know as much as possible about what the German artists’ finished painting looked like. That was the goal of the Gettysburg Foundation, which recently put on display a Gettysburg Cyclorama that was restored to its original state based on rigorous research by Gettysburg historian Sue Boardman, a friend of Jones’, and a team of experts.
Gettysburg restored the tattered canvas to the way it looked when completed by French artist Paul Philippoteaux in1883-84.
That’s what Jones said his goal will be when the Atlanta Cyclorama is restored.
With Boardman’s help, Jones recently acquired five photographic prints of conceptual sketches for the Battle of Atlanta painting. The sketches recall a childlike stickman battle scene.
“Photographs were made of these sketches to be distributed to the dozen or so artists who actually did the work so they would all work off the same plan,” Jones said. “These five prints are what remains of one of those sets … used by Berlin-born artist and figure painter Herman von Michalowski. Clearly you can see paint drips on them, plus notes and a few do-over sketches in ink.”
A flash from Minnesota
The History Center also recently obtained an 1887 souvenir guidebook with photographs of the painting when it was exhibited in Minneapolis.
“Together, these three acquisitions show us for the first time what the painting looked like before the Kurtz restoration,” Jones said. “Why is this important? Well, if the painting is ever to be conserved, as what happened up at Gettysburg, then we will need to know what it looked like originally.”
A similar restoration in Atlanta will raise at least two questions, Jones said. “Do you go back to the original 1886 appearance? Or do you keep the changes Kurtz made? Whatever the answer, you would still need the historical evidence to inform your decision.”
He said the History Center has made collecting Cyclorama material one of its goals. “So far as we know, no one else is doing so.”
Boardman said the acquisitions “contribute to the overall understanding” of the Atlanta painting’s history.
The materials acquired by Jones “will prove to be a valuable resource, just as contemporary images of our painting guided our restoration at Gettysburg,” she said.
Jones said other materials remain to be tapped, including untranslated diaries of one of the German artists.
Many large panoramas of Civil War battles were painted in the late 19th century, but only three survive: Gettysburg, Atlanta and a privately owned knock-off of the Gettysburg painting in North Carolina.
Such paintings were popular forms of entertainment in the years before nickelodeons and silent movies. Most were trashed when those more modern types of entertainment arrived.