‘We have liftoff’: Crane lifts massive Civil War painting

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To a chorus of cheers, one half of a massive painting depicting a major Civil War battle was lifted by crane Thursday night for the trip to its new home, where it will be carefully restored.

Why is the “Battle of Atlanta” being moved in halves?

The aging 1886 work is so big — weighing about five tons and 371 feet long — that conservators cut it in two and wrapped it around two 45-foot metal spools for transport to the Atlanta History Center, 12 miles away from its longtime Grant Park home.

“We have liftoff,” uttered someone in the small crowd as the first spool was removed through the roof. The description seemed appropriate, given that the shrink-wrapped columns appeared to be miniature rockets.

Officials had hoped to remove both spools on Thursday from the now-shuttered Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum.

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Atlanta History Center

But problems with proper attachment of a base plate delayed the operation, so only one was lifted and put on a flatbed truck for the journey. The second will come out Friday; both should be in their new home by later in the day.

Throughout the preparation and execution of the move, officials have emphasized the need to do things methodically and slowly so as not to damage the fragile painting.

Promoting dialogue about crucial part of US history

Sheffield Hale, president and chief executive officer at the Atlanta History Center, said Thursday “was a red-letter day for history.”

He said the “wow factor” will return to the painting at its new home in the Buckhead neighborhood. And it has to be seen in person to be truly appreciated, he said. “It’s real, something they can’t see at home or on a (computer) screen.”

The AHC will tell stories related to the painting, explaining its connections to Atlanta’s history and the civil rights movement of the 20th century.

Officials say the work previously was interpreted in many ways, from extolling the emergence of the “New South” after the Civil War to the “Lost Cause” narrative, which proclaimed the conflict was more about states’ rights than slavery.

Atlanta History Center

Atlanta History Center

Hale said the history center emphasizes the war was indeed about slavery. But, he added, the center welcomes respectful dialogue about root causes.

The “Battle of Atlanta” was created by German artists during the heyday of paintings called cycloramas, and only a few still exist in North America.

The 360-degree renderings of landscapes, city skylines and war were popular before movies came on the scene.

This painting depicts the July 1864 Battle of Atlanta during the Civil War. It was intended as a tribute to a Northern victory but, perhaps ironically, it ended up in the South.

While the Atlanta artwork is irreplaceable, the history center has insured it for $7.5 million.

The focal point of the sprawling painting is fierce fighting around a house, with Confederates firing from behind cotton bales. Federal troops and cavalry are rushing toward that point and are on the cusp of victory. The fall of Atlanta more than a month later helped re-elect President Abraham Lincoln.

Painting was presented in leaky building

Over more than a century at Grant Park, the painting began to shows it age. Observers worried the old building was contributing to the painting’s slow deterioration. A recent visit to the brick-walled, circular room showed some water seepage on the floor.

Among those witnessing preparations for Thursday’s move were three Weilhammer & Schoeller painting conservators who have worked on the “Battle of Atlanta” since last summer.

Chris Szaro said a double fiberglass backing has ensured the survival of the painting, which he called brittle in places. The trio said they had to place buckets at the Grant Park building to capture water that dripped during rainfall. The bottom of the painting will need particular attention, they said.

All three appreciate the craftsmanship of the artists who painted the “Battle of Atlanta.” They point out exquisite details — like faces of soldiers, or mountains and the city skyline.

“It’s the sense of drama and movement,” said Megan Crouch. “The scale is most impressive.”

The painting, made of Belgian linen, will be restored before an autumn 2018 opening.

Trying to immerse viewers in the scene

Officials say the painting will be presented in the way its creators originally intended. That’s partially because parts of the painting were cut over the years.

In 1921, the installation crew at Grant Park had a wee bit of a problem — the painting was too big for the building. The solution? Lop off a 6-foot-wide section of the battle scene (fortunately, near an entrance tunnel).

The “Battle of Atlanta” also lost nearly 8 feet of sky over the years as workers installed it in different buildings.

Conservators will restore those missing pieces.

The painting also will have the proper perspective: The work hung like a shower curtain and there were folds and creases.

And the “Battle of Atlanta” will be displayed in its original hyperbolic, or hourglass shape. Through proper tension at the top and bottom, the painting’s horizon will appear closer to the viewer, restoring the original 3D illusion.