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The World Forgot About a 402-Foot-Long Painting. Here's What Happened When It Was Found

By Lily Rothman
via the TIME.com web site

Shortly after World War I broke out in 1914, two French artists could already predict that the conflict would take place on a scale unlike anything ever seen at that point. A tribute to it would, then, also demand an unprecedented scale.

pantheon section3Artist Daniel MacMorris' team at work on recreating the giant painting (National WWI Museum and Memorial)By the time the project they conceived to honor the Allies was completed, shortly before the armistice in 1918, more than 100 French artists — mostly older men who were not able to fight themselves — had worked on it. Dubbed Panthéon de la Guerre, the painting measured a whopping 402 feet around and 45 feet tall, and depicted approximately 6,000 heroes of the Allied war effort. It was billed as the world's largest painting. (Whether it actually was depends on when and how exactly the comparison is made; one competitor for the title, for example, is the Atlanta Civil War cyclorama, which has been displayed at various sizes since it was completed in the 1880s but now clocks in at 371 feet by 49.)

But the version of the painting that exists today is not only smaller, but also takes a different perspective on the war. A full century after American forces first saw combat in World War I — on Oct. 21, 1917, in France — the modern Panthéon de la Guerre reflects late-breaking but crucial role of those troops.

After the painting was initially displayed in a dedicated structure in Paris, it went on tour. At the Chicago World's Fair in 1933, a special building was constructed to display the massive mural. But, after it toured the United States in the years that followed, with the Great War fading somewhat in the minds of Depression-era Americans and a fresh war on the horizon, it wound up by 1940 sitting in a crate outside a Baltimore warehouse, forgotten. A local restaurateur named William H. Haussner — a German immigrant who in fact had fought for Germany in the Great War — purchased the painting at an auction for $3,400. In 1953, he finally unfurled his enormous purchase to see what it looked like.

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