What is a Cyclorama?

Mary McMahon

A cyclorama is a large panoramic painting which is displayed in a cylindrical room so that the painting wraps around the walls. For people standing in the room, the painting makes them feel as though they are standing in the middle of the scene which is depicted, because they are totally surrounded. Cycloramas were immensely popular through the late 19th century, before being displaced by the motion picture.

Woman painting
Woman painting

The invention of the cyclorama is usually credited to Robert Barker, an Irish entrepreneur who displayed the first known cyclorama in 1787. Supposedly, Barker was inspired by the sweeping view from a hilltop, and wanted to share the experience with others. His display proved immensely popular, and soon other painters had taken up the fad, creating cycloramas of their own and generating a new form of entertainment.

During the heyday of the cyclorama, most cycloramas traveled, being rolled up and wrapped between displays. A cyclorama would be displayed at one location for a few weeks before being replaced by a new scene, ensuring a steady flow of visitors to the facilities specially constructed for the display of cycloramas. Some cycloramas even rotated, so people could remain stationary and watch the scenery roll by.

Because the goal of a cyclorama is to make people feel like they are inside the scene, most of these paintings were quite large, and rooms had to be specially designed to accommodate them. The scenery was often larger-than-life, and in many cases the perspective was painstakingly detailed, to preserve the illusion that one was actually standing in the scene. Some cycloramas also came with supportive dioramas, turning the display into a three-dimensional scene.

These massive panoramic paintings brought the sights of the world to communities large and small, appearing at fairs and circuses as well as cyclorama halls. With the advent of the motion picture, the cyclorama faded from the public eye, and many of these paintings were allowed to molder away, or chopped up and sold. A few complete cycloramas remain on display in museums, for people who want to see these interesting historical curiosities for themselves. One famous cyclorama, located in Atlanta, Georgia, depicts the Battle of Atlanta, and the museum also has a number of Civil War artifacts on display.

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