Meg Jones Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published 7:07 PM EDT Jun 2, 2019
ATLANTA – More than a century ago, a group of German immigrant artists re-created the scene of a bloody battle they did not witness.
Fortified by steins of their adopted city’s famous beer, the artists of Milwaukee-based American Panorama Co. sketched out prancing horses, puffs of smoke from rifle volleys, flag bearers bravely running toward danger, and men dying in the Battle of Atlanta.
The Milwaukee artists’ re-creation ultimately stretched 49 feet tall and 371 feet around and gave viewers an intimate experience of what it was like during a Civil War battle back when 360-degree cycloramas were the IMAX movies of their time.
While other cycloramas disappeared, the Battle of Atlanta survived — though in the last few decades it fell into serious disrepair until it was rescued, renovated and recently unveiled at the Atlanta History Center. And for the first time, the men who created the last surviving cyclorama created entirely in the U.S. are getting their due.
“We really wanted to emphasize the artists because that got lost over the years,” said Gordon Jones, senior military historian at the Atlanta History Center and curator of the Battle of Atlanta cyclorama exhibit.
It took several years to create architectural plans, build the special round addition at the Atlanta History Center to house the 133-year-old cyclorama and move the five-ton painting from its former home, a museum that closed in 2015, in a massive undertaking that involved cranes, holes cut in roofs and a flatbed trailer traveling late at night to avoid Atlanta’s notorious traffic jams. Then it was cleaned and touched up while seven feet of painting trimmed from the top as well as two missing vertical sections were seamlessly re-created.
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Since the Battle of Atlanta cyclorama opened in its new home in February, large crowds have turned out to gaze at the painting from a platform, watch a 12-minute movie, use touchscreen monitors showing historical inaccuracies and geographical descriptions and look at an extensive collection of artifacts and exhibits.
The Milwaukee County Historical Society provided photos and a diary by the Battle of Atlanta cyclorama project supervisor Friedrich Heine, which curators found very helpful, Jones said. The Wisconsin Historical Society supplied photos including an image blown up and hung on a wall in the entry showing the Milwaukee painters at work on a specially-built scaffolding that rotated as they worked.
Also, the Wisconsin Museum of Art, which created a 2008 exhibit on Milwaukee panorama painters, provided artist biographies and a history of cycloramas.
“The point of the illusion was to put you in the middle of the scene,” Jones said in a recent interview at the Atlanta History Museum. “Photos couldn’t show movement. Sketches were often stylized. The public really had no idea what battle was really like.
“These artists in Milwaukee figured this out.”
Though the heyday of cycloramas lasted only a few years in the 1880s and 1890s, Milwaukee was the hotbed of the technology with a couple of businesses hiring artists, mostly immigrants, to churn out the paintings that viewers accessed by coming up into the middle of the cyclorama through a tunnel. Only three cycloramas still exist in North America, and the Battle of Atlanta is the only surviving painting from Milwaukee artists who were hired for their expertise in painting landscapes, horses or human figures.
The painting takes viewers back in time to the battle for Atlanta, specifically 4:30 p.m. on July 22, 1864, as Confederate troops broke through Union lines and took over a federal battery. Northern troops rush forward. Union Gen. John “Black Jack” Logan rides his famous black steed, Slasher, as his troops yell his nickname. Old Abe, the famous war eagle, soars above the fray.
Since none of the Milwaukee artists had known the horrors of the American Civil War, some traveled to Atlanta to sketch the terrain and note the exact colors of the trees and red clay. For historical accuracy they sought the expertise of a Harper’s Weekly staff artist who covered the Civil War and they met veterans of the battle.
Records show the Battle of Atlanta was displayed in Minneapolis in 1886; Indianapolis in 1888; Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1891; and in Atlanta since 1892.
Friedrich Heine was a newspaper sketch artist famed for his battle scenes of the Franco-Prussian War in the 1870s. The Leipzig, Germany, native was hired to work for the American Panorama Co. in Milwaukee in 1885 and was responsible for the composition of the cycloramas as well as hiring and supervising the artists.
His great-grandson Tom Heine visited the cyclorama in Atlanta as a boy in the 1950s and returned in February with his family for the opening at the Atlanta History Museum. Tom Heine lent watercolor sketches done by his great-grandfather for a cyclorama on the crucifixion of Jesus that are displayed in the new exhibit.
Tom Heine was thinking about his great-grandfather as he walked through the cyclorama and noticed the colors were much richer than he remembered from decades ago.
“What did strike home for me was that for a split second in time, this was what the horror of battle looked like,” said Tom Heine, 75, of Madison.
Friedrich Heine, who sported a large mustache, is believed to be one of the figures in the cyclorama, carrying a snare drum. His great-grandson didn’t know that until a museum official pointed it out.
“That would be like him as far as his sense of humor — to work himself into a painting instead of signing it,” said Tom Heine.
While Battle of Atlanta veterans were impressed with the accuracy and faithful re-creation of the battle that killed 12,000 people, the Milwaukee artists did take one liberty. Old Abe, the eagle mascot of the 8th Wisconsin Infantry, wasn’t actually there. Neither was the 8th Wisconsin. But Jones suspects that even though the artists didn’t sign their work, in a way that was their signature.
Restorers were careful to return Old Abe to his former glory when parts of the top of the painting were cut decades ago.
“We had to do some touching up on Old Abe. Where the blue sky had encroached on his feathers, he had started to look like a pterodactyl,” said Jones.
For more information: atlantahistorycenter.com
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