Original ‘Gettysburg Cyclorama’ unveiled in Fuquay-Varina

A well preserved detail from the The Cyclorama of the “The Battle of Gettysburg” by French artist Paul Philippoteaux, displayed by it’s owners in an old tobacco warehouse in Fuquay-Varina, N.C. on Tuesday, April 21, 2015.
A well preserved detail from the The Cyclorama of the “The Battle of Gettysburg” by French artist Paul Philippoteaux, displayed by it’s owners in an old tobacco warehouse in Fuquay-Varina, N.C. on Tuesday, April 21, 2015.

One of the biggest paintings in the world is up for sale, and its Raleigh-area owners hope its next home is somewhere large enough to properly display it.

That’s no easy task for a piece of canvas that is nearly 400 feet long and several stories tall when fully extended.

“It’s the second-largest painting in the world and the largest in the Western Hemisphere,” said Fuquay-Varina native Billy Ray Powell, who’s keeping the painting stored at a property he owns in town. “So you can’t just hang it on your wall.”

Tuesday, for the first time in years, the entire painting known as “Gettysburg Cyclorama” was unveiled for a small group of interested viewers and potential buyers. It hasn’t been seen by the public since 1965.

Sixteen artists created it between 1881 and 1883 under the direction of French painter Paul Philippoteaux. While Philippoteaux’s team ultimately made four mostly identical paintings, the work unfurled Tuesday is the original. At least one of those paintings is known to have been destroyed; one is unaccounted for; and the other is on display at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania.

The original could soon move out of its ignoble storage to the North Carolina Civil War History Center, planned for Fayetteville.

“We think that would be the perfect spot for this,” Powell said. “The perfect spot.”

But there are finances to consider. Powell wouldn’t say how much he and two investors paid for the painting in 2007, but he said the price tag is “into the seven figures.” The painting was appraised at $5.5 million that year, according to a 2007 News & Observer story.

Several representatives from the Fayetteville center, which would focus on the war and Reconstruction, viewed the painting Tuesday. Powell said an unnamed wealthy investor outside the United States also is interested in buying it.

The war movie of its time

In an era before movies, and when photographs were just becoming common, “Gettysburg Cyclorama” was as close to a three-dimensional experience of battle as people could get. And it was a blockbuster.

“This was an early period picture,” said Sid Smith, a marketing professional who represents the owners. “People would come from all over just to experience it.”

It toured the country before becoming a major attraction at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933.

Millions of people saw it, including 500,000 just in 1883, when it first went on tour. It was displayed in a circle, with visitors standing in the middle as depictions of fighting raged around them.

The focus of the painting is the final part of Gettysburg, the ill-fated Pickett’s Charge.

In the images, horses lie dying as soldiers charge into musket fire or carry their wounded comrades away from the carnage. Tree branches hang limp, shattered by the violence, and smoke from exploding shells obscures parts of the battle.

“If you really study the battle, it was just such a bloody affair,” Smith said. “And the things that took place that could’ve changed history – ‘What if they had done this?’ – But they were out of men, out of ammo.”

During Pickett’s Charge, about 12,500 Confederate soldiers marched for nearly a mile on open ground under heavy fire. More than half were killed or wounded, ending the battle and, some say, the war.

About 50,000 Americans on both sides died or were wounded in the slaughter at Gettysburg. North Carolina troops accounted for a full quarter of the rebel casualties.


Past, present and future

After the 1933 World’s Fair, the painting was thought to have been lost in a fire. But Winston-Salem art collector Joe King stumbled upon it three decades later and bought it.

In 1965, he laid it out for the public to see in at what was then Wake Forest College’s football stadium. They had to take down the goal posts for it to fit.

King donated the painting to Wake Forest University upon his death in 1996. In 2007, Powell, along with partners Leigh Vallance of Raleigh and David Wilson of Rocky Mount, bought the painting.

Powell, Vallance and Wilson kept their identities as co-owners a secret until a few months ago. That’s when Vallance was listening to public radio while driving and heard about the North Carolina Civil War History Center being proposed in Fayetteville.

Vallance was surprised to learn that the museum’s organizers had been searching for the “Gettysburg Cyclorama” but couldn’t track down its anonymous owners.

David Winslow, a Winston-Salem resident backing the Fayetteville museum, had seen the painting on display in Gettysburg and spent Tuesday viewing the local, original version.

“It will bring you to tears to see it restored,” he said.

Winslow came with another museum backer, Mary Lynn Bryan of Fayetteville. They said the museum’s goal is to focus on telling the stories of North Carolinians during the war and during Reconstruction.

Bryan said it’s a shame a museum hasn’t undertaken the task of telling how people of all genders, races and walks of life were affected in North Carolina by the war, and especially by Reconstruction.

“It was a very complicated state,” Winslow said.

“And it still is,” Bryan added.

But they said buying the painting isn’t their decision to make. The group of backers will need to discuss the purchase.

The group raised more than $5 million in its initial fundraising effort last year and is planning a second push for more private and state funding in the next few years, with a goal of opening the museum by 2020.

Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran

By the numbers

22Height, in feet

279Original length, in feet

376 Current length, in feet (it was divided into sections and then lengthened when put back together)

6Weight, in tons

4 Gettysburg Cycloramas made

3 Counterfeit copies, at least, probably more

17 Artists who worked on the original

2Years it took to paint the original

1883Year completed

500KPeople who saw it that year