News & Observer | newsobserver.com | Triangle trio buys massive painting

Published: May 02, 2007 12:30 AM
Modified: May 02, 2007 03:53 AM

Triangle trio buys massive painting

The painting is the size of a football field. It took a team of artists two years to complete the depiction of the battle of Gettysburg, and when they had finished, the work weighed six tons.

For four decades, the 124-year-old oil painting has been rolled up in cylinders and stored at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. Now, three unidentified investors from the Triangle have revived hope that people might see the cylindrical panorama again.

The trio paid at least $10 million for the painting, known as a cyclorama. Now they hope to find an institution that will buy it, construct a big round building, and put it on public display, according to the dealer who arranged the sale.

"It still has the drawing power," art dealer Larry D. Laster of Winston-Salem said Tuesday. "Even when lying on the ground, it still pulls you in. I imagine once it's properly displayed, it will be just commanding."

"The Battle of Gettysburg" was the first of four cycloramas by French artist Paul Philippoteaux depicting the climax of the Confederate assault on Union forces during the three-day battle that marked a turning point in the Civil War.

The second cyclorama, a smaller version, spent nine decades on display at the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania; it's now being restored. Philippoteaux's other two renderings disappeared. The first cyclorama also was presumed lost until the late Joseph Wallace King, a Winston-Salem artist and scholar, found it in 1965, rolled up in cylinders in a burned-out Chicago warehouse.

King brought the monumental painting home and had it unrolled on the football field of what was then Wake Forest College. The goal posts had to be removed to make room for it all. King gave the cyclorama to the university, and after his death in 1996, Wake Forest began looking for a buyer.

Last month, Larry D. Laster Fine Arts & Antiques arranged the acquisition for the buyers.

"This is probably the single most exciting piece we've ever had," said Laster, who has been in business 33 years and is helping the investors in their search for a permanent home for the art work.

Eight figures

Laster said the investors don't want to be identified and also asked him not to release the purchase price. A Wake Forest University spokesman also declined to disclose the purchase price.

However, a Vermont-based monthly newspaper called Civil War News recently stated on its Web site that a trio calling itself BPW Investment paid eight figures for the cyclorama. Laster had disclosed the information before the investors asked him not to say anything.

Civil War News publisher Kay Jorgensen said Tuesday that she had one question for the investors.

"If it took that long to sell, what makes them think they can sell it?" she said.

Laster said the investors hope that a buyer will commit to constructing a building with a 360-degree interior view where the painting can be spread out to its full length of 276 feet and height of 22 feet.

Ken Wilson of Winston-Salem, one of the agents who tried to find a buyer for the painting, says the purchase price is just the beginning of what it would cost to display the work. Several million more dollars will have to be spent on restoration and installation in addition to the cost of building a place to house it. Still, he's encouraged by the purchase.

"It deserves being put on display," Wilson said. "I'm pleased it's been placed in responsible hands."

Viewed in 1883

"The Battle of Gettysburg" depicts the clash of July 3, 1863, known as Pickett's Charge. Gettysburg was both the South's most rousing offensive and the deadliest battle of the war. More than 45,000 casualties were reported over three days.

Four and a half months later, President Lincoln delivered his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address, at Soldiers' National Cemetery, where the bodies of Union soldiers were moved from makeshift graves on the Gettysburg battlefield.

About 20 years after the battle, Philippoteaux sketched and photographed the battlefield, and interviewed a Union general who had survived. Over the next two years the artist and as many as 20 other painters completed the work, which was displayed in Chicago in 1883. The painting was so popular that three more versions of the battle scene were commissioned.

The original painting went on tour to eight other U.S. cities before returning to Chicago in 1933, where it disappeared into a warehouse.

In 1944, Congress designated the second painting as a National Historic Object.

It was thought to be the only one that existed, but that all changed when King's 30-year search paid off.

Heather Childress, collections curator at Wake Forest University, said this painting is slightly different in style and substance from the Pennsylvania work. If it ever finds a home where it can be displayed, scholars will be able to study it more closely, she said.

Staff writer Craig Jarvis can be reached at 829-4576 or craig.jarvis@newsobserver.com

ABOUT CYCLORAMAS

WHAT ARE THEY? Cycloramas were the Imax theater of the late 1800s. Massive oil-on-canvas paintings were installed in special auditoriums. Objects and life-size figures were placed in the foreground to give these cylindrical panoramas a 3-D effect.

WHAT WAS THE THRILL? Visitors walked into a dark tunnel and up a stairwell to a viewing platform that placed them in the middle of a historic scene or religious setting. "The public could step away from their daily routine and step into some other time and place," said Heather Childress, collections curator at Wake Forest University.

HOW MANY REMAIN? A few, such as the one in Atlanta that depicts the battle of Atlanta. In Berlin, Ohio, the Behalt Cyclorama depicts Amish and Mennonite heritage. And Gettysburg has Cyclorama Center, which is caught up in a controversy over the National Park Service's plans to demolish the four-decade-old building and construct a new one to display the Paul Philippoteaux panorama of the Gettysburg battle. Architecture and history buffs are fighting to preserve the building.

(NATIONAL PARK SERVICE)

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