Friday, January 22, 2016

War and illusion: Atlanta Cyclorama's dramatic diorama figures were made in all sizes

(Picket photo of AHC exhibit)

Onward the men rush to join the battle. They dodge shattered tree limbs and fallen comrades to meet the Rebel challenge. And, if the artists’ illusion is successful, they will be pulled from the foreground and into the painting’s maelstrom of death.

Like other cycloramas, the massive work depicting the July 1864 Battle of Atlanta was an immersive experience for patrons who gazed in wonder. It was all about building the illusion of being there – capturing the very human moments of anger, terror, determination and pain. The panorama allows a 360-degree view of the subject.

Dioramas were a big part of the experience. Plants, structures and human figures close to viewing platforms and in the foreground of the painting added a realistic perspective – and the Atlanta Cyclorama has all of that.

The Cyclorama was closed last year in anticipation of its relocation from Grant Park to the Atlanta History Center in the Buckhead community.

The 120 plaster figures built in the 1930s are now in storage at the Atlanta History Center. They will be patched and touched up during construction of a new Cyclorama building at the AHC.

So important is the Civil War to Atlanta’s story is that several related items are currently on display at the AHC’s exhibit “Atlanta in 50 Objects.”

(Library of Congress)

Near the exhibition entrance is one of the plaster figures from the Cyclorama, created in a supine position. The Union soldier, blood running down his shirt, may be in his dying moments as others rush by him. Not on display with him are his cap and rifle.

(If you enlarge and look closely at the painting above, you can see the figure on the right, just above the railroad track.)

Erica Hague, collections manager at the Atlanta History Center, said some of the plaster figures “are in really good shape. Some have guns that fell off and have chips.” Others may have lost a few of their fingers over 80 years.

The figures were made in a variety of sizes, ranging from about 18 inches to 5 feet. They weigh from 10 to 100 pounds.

And because the only perspective that mattered was what was seen from the viewing platform, the backs of many figures were not painted and some of their faces and other features are not complete.

“It’s a little creepy in a good way,” said Hague, adding a few can appear zombie-like.

The figurines were fashioned between 1934 and 1936 as part of a Works Progress Administration project. Artists Weis Snell, Joseph Llorens, and Wilbur Kurtz fashioned plaster figures for a diorama as foreground for the painting. Set on a flooring of red clay, the shrubbery, cannon, track, and 128 soldiers gave the painting more realism for visitors,” the AHC says.

Some of the figures were created from the same structural form, but with different features or expressions (others face away from the viewer). Their interior was bolstered by rebar and some have rust, Hague said.

All but six of them depict Union soldiers. (The Milwaukee company that employed German artists to produce the painting was influenced by one patron, politician John A. Logan, who commanded the XV Corps at the Battle of Atlanta.)

The most famous figure is a Union corpse with the face of Rhett Butler. Clark Gable, who played Butler in “Gone With the Wind,” has visited the Cyclorama in December 1939 while in Atlanta for the film’s premiere.

The Cyclorama was cleaned and treated during a major restoration in 1979-1981. Clay in the old diorama was replaced with a fiberglass and plastic coating and the figures were reset.

Hague said the figures have been digitally mapped in their old setting, but a new diorama floor will have to be constructed (real tree stumps will be replaced with faux versions).

The plaster soldiers won’t be in their exact original positions when the refurbished painting opens in a couple of years. That’s because the Atlanta Historic Center will restore the massive mural to its full hyperbolic, or hourglass, shape. That will re-create the intended visual perspective lost when the painting was cut to fit into the Grant Park building.

Once the painting is moved and its new building is opened, visitors will be able to witness the ongoing restoration.


  1. Is anyone familiar with an apparently rare black and white photo of the Cyclorama scene with Atlanta on the horizon?
    Although the nearly 4' x 8' photo was discussed on the NBC Today Show in the early 1980s and again on either the Discovery or History channel in the early 2000s, I have been unable to uncover any info about the photo or why it was being discussed on TV on programs some 20 years apart.

    1. Same here, I have not had any luck with that either. The Cyclorama in Atlanta, and the larger one at Gettysburg are facinating to me.