When James Perry Wilson was laid off from his architectural job in 1932, he went right to work at his passion, painting his favorite spots in Westchester and Monhegan. Of the 269 dated plein air paintings spanning from 1918 to 1974 that I have documented in private collections and in museumsi, 58 are from 1932-1934, the two year period before he began to work at the American Museum of Natural History. A mystery from this time is that Wilson took a class in 1932 at the Arts Student League with John Carlson. This is the only painting class to my knowledge ever taken by Wilson. He was 43 years old and had already been painting in his mature painting style for decades. It has been incorrectly stated that he studied with Carlson. There is no evidence that anything changed in Wilson's painting methods as a result of his association with Carlson. As if to underline this fact, Wilson penciled one notation in his copy of Carlson's book-a correction of a misspelling. Nevertheless in advance of his employment at the American Museum, it seems clear he was practicing his painting and reviewing skill sets.
James Perry Wilson loved to paint. He loved to paint dioramas, architectural subjects, and more than anything else, he loved painting outdoors en plein air. In sharp contrast to his diorama painting or architectural work however, Wilson painted other works in a single day on transportable 8"X10" mahogany panels or 12"X16" canvasboards. These small works, done apparently for the sheer love and challenge of painting, reflect the same skill and intelligence seen in his diorama work with the addition of a working spontaneity. They guide us directly to the heart of James Perry Wilson and where his passion lay.
There is a palpable quality of joy in Wilson's paintings. He expresses his awe of nature through paint. This is a meticulously observed landscape that emanates his love of color in nature and his depiction of light and atmosphere. A viewer can sense this spirit when looking at the work. Hundreds of these paintings, some unfinished and unsigned, others completed and framed, were left in boxes, put away in attics, or stacked in his closet. The paintings, seemingly forgotten, were nevertheless important to him as records of the places and challenging conditions he had mastered. He would, at times, search through them when he wanted to demonstrate to a younger painter a technique he used to solve a specific problem. Many times these paintings were given as gifts to attentive students, on the spot.
Typically artists are engaged in the subject of their art; James Perry Wilson was deeply engaged with his. In almost every interview with those who knew him, his colleagues would recount how he liked to point out and explain physical phenomena. Fred Scherer would sometimes walk with him to the
Metropolitan Museum of Art during their lunch breaks: "We'd go out to Central Park and Perry would say, see that tree and see that rock, see the reflection, see the cool sky reflection falling on that. He'd explain it while we were walking through the park or while having lunch. See the sky, the edges of the clouds."ii Peabody Museum preparator, Ralph Morrill recounts: "If you were driving with him, he was always watching something, the way the shadows were, the way the clouds formed, the way the shadows on the ground reflected from the clouds, and what color it was on what kind of day. All of that turns up in his painting. Whenever you were with him he was always watching and looking-why the shadows look that color, where's the sun, what is the slant of the sun and is it obscured in mists. He was storing all the time because he had that kind of mind. He was in the field every time he was in the car. He wasn't painting but he was studying."iii Wilson "lived into" his paintings and while he analyzed the components of the landscape to understand them, he also transcribed his feeling of reverence in front of nature. He said that the greatest teacher is out [in the landscape] and that if you open yourself to it, it will come to you.
James Perry Wilson did what other artists said could not be done. He used a documentational method of painting the landscape that was believed to deaden the spirit or emotional impact of a painting and proved not only that this was not the case, but that, if anything, his rigorous methods enhanced the power of the work. He combined scientific and astronomical knowledge, he used mathematical perspective, he included all he knew concerning the physics of light and color, he used painstaking methods to paint his skies to reflect what was seen, and he knew the anatomy of trees, clouds and reflections on water or leaves.
Some of the defining characteristics of modern painting-the expressionism, emotional color, and narrative-that appear in the work of his contemporaries either are not in evidence or muted in Wilson's oeuvre. This difference was not so much a theoretical perspective or a reaction to prevailing aesthetics on his part as a reflection of his personality and a commitment to use painting to objectively notate his optical impressions of the landscape. Much of James Perry Wilson's objectivity is traceable to his mastery of scientific subject matter. His breadth of knowledge is staggering. Beyond a strong academic foundation in meteorology, astronomy, mathematical perspective, and the physics of light, he could quote Cicero in Latin. One gets a sense of the range of Wilson's mind, his love of detail, and his sense of humor from a letter in which he chided his friend and student, Thanos Johnson, for incorrectly painting the moon.
Now about the crescent moon. I really am surprised at you for painting the moon at eventide in that position! You have only one possible out; it would be correct in the South Temperate Zone, but I don't believe you were there. Here are a pair of diagrams that will summarize the situation for evening and morning skies in northern latitudes: These are drawn for the latitude of New York. If you note that the inclination of the central line is equal to 90º minus the latitude, you will see that in Louisiana the whole thing will stand higher above the horizon. On the equator the central line will be vertical, and in the Southern Hemisphere it will slope to the right in the evening and to the left in the morning. The 23 1/2º angles are approximate. They may vary considerably, since the moon's path through the sky does not exactly follow the ecliptic, or the path of the sun. Under most favorable conditions it is just possible for the evening crescent in the spring, or the morning crescent in the autumn, to stand vertically above the sun in the latitude of New York, making the horns stand level as you indicated. Ordinarily they will make an angle with the horizon at all times in this latitude.iv
Other artists acknowledged that some of this academic knowledge was useful while painting, but that it must remain secondary to the artist's interpretation of the landscape.. John Carlson, Wilson's one-time painting instructor wrote:
"Nature is never right" I would modify this by saying that nature is seldom right. The artist must look to nature for his inspiration but must rearrange the elemental truths into an orderly sequence or progression of interests. v
This is a theme heard repeatedly by landscape painters past and present. According to prevailing theory, merely copying nature produces inferior results. They would take their studies made on-site back to their studios to rework them into larger canvases. Wilson, if he ever made a larger painting from one of his studies, he would enlarge it using a grid and make a direct copy. The on-site paintings were documents of landscape phenomena observed, color notated, contours found, atmosphere harnessed, light translated. This was why he painted; there was no further need for refinement. Wilson, in his quiet manner, challenged the claim that the artist can inspire better results by sensitively reworking the scene in front of them. Wilson, in contrast, chose the landscape over the artist.
Creativity, used to re-compose the landscape was a sacred cow that Wilson questioned. Whether in the diorama or in his plein air studies, technical skill and his scientific knowledge provided Wilson an ability to work his painting with complete confidence, knowing exactly what physical or atmospheric event he was seeing in the field. At times in his diorama work, he delighted in changing the painting from daylight to evening as he did in the Jaguar, Wapiti, and Skunk dioramas. Creativity for Wilson was his ability to reach from the stores of his knowledge and painting expertise and bring aspects of them into his painting as needed. Creativity was also finding a site that lent itself to his painting. If he wasn't familiar with a locale, he might walk for hours looking for a place to paint. Sites were chosen for the challenge they presented or for a composition that pleased him. Very little, if anything, was ever changed as he painted the view in front of him. The more Wilson understood about physical phenomena and the better he was at depicting it on canvas and ultimately, the more impact the painting would have. It may have been a personal humility that guided his painting approach, but without saying so, he insisted that artistic manipulation or the "cult of the artist" got in the way more than it helped.
Wilson works to remove himself as much as possible from the painting. Viewers of these paintings comment how they are immediately struck by the familiarity of the landscape, the sense of place. This is as true in front of a Wilson diorama as it is with his plein air studies. Wilson's painting method or his style is not what is first seen. Wilson, the artist, is relegated to the edge of the stage by the control he exerts to all parts of the painting. Details come under his command such that they speak their unique characteristics. For example, in his Monhegan seascapes, his handling of the rocks as opposed to the waves is distinct. The rocks and waves are expressed differently; they don't move together. The manner in which the paint is applied, the rocks are stationary, firmly placed on earth. The water must flow around them. Wilson used painting styles flexibly and creatively to better express himself. He used a linear style when it was called for. In places there are no mushy edges; lines are visible and clearly painted, departing an air of security-serenity-peace. In other passages, a painterly style was incorporated to bring about a softness or an airiness to distant horizons or tree lines.
Wilson didn't seem to have thought about the broader implications that his painting method was challenging the paradigm that an artist's interpretation of the landscape was necessary for there to be a "poetic" feel to the painting. He never verbalized it if he was aware of it. He was singularly committed to his more objective realist painting methods and was secure that by painting in this way, he was able to achieve the "poetry" other artists were claiming. Wilson had an unshakeable confidence in his painting. There was no defiance about it, no groundbreaking significance that he attributed to it. He knew how he liked to paint, he politely did it well, and that was enough.
The fact that he wasn't attracted to a more subjective approach probably reflects his studious and humble personality, but it is clear that he did have an emotional response to the landscape. Like other artists, Wilson's measure of success of a painting was whether the mood was achieved. Wilson was thinking as much about the emotion of the painting as he was about the science. That he thought about this is evident in how he describes in poetic language Thanos Johnson's photographic compositions in the following examples:
The effects he saw in nature enthralled James Perry Wilson. Many of his paintings are notes he took of unusual lighting, celestial events, and strange cloud patterns, things that most people, if they notice at all, don't give more than a passing nod. A viewer can easily miss Wilson's intent if he or she looks at his paintings solely as just works of art. Different lenses are necessary with which to look at his plein air paintings to see what is being described as well as its merit as fine art. To give a personal example, I have a study of Lake Louise at sunset over my desk and I look at it every day. I have been annoyed by a paint fleck missing from the sky and I was thinking of getting a conservator to touch it up until I looked closely to see that it was not a chip missing, but a fleck of white paint deliberately put there by Wilson, himself. Knowing Wilson's interest and depth of understanding of astronomy, I assume now that this is an evening planet, maybe Venus hovering over the mountain ridge. In many cases, Wilson's primary impulse would have been to record some natural occurrence and afterwards he would think about how to produce a pleasing composition. In some cases, he only pursued documenting the event, confronting the challenge of getting it down in paint and letting the composition remain secondary.
To underline his observational focus of celestial and earthly events, I copy a 1945 letter about his observation of a partial eclipse:
Did you see the eclipse last Monday morning, July 9th? At Denver it was 84% total, as compared with 57% at New York. I note from the American Ephemeris that the maximum obscuration occurred at the same moment in the two cities, 12:03 GCT, which was 8:03 AM EWT, or 6:03 MWT. That means you would have had to get up early. In fact, it would be only 1/2 hour after sunrise, and if you were hemmed in by mountains, the sun might not yet have appeared. I had an excellent view of it through my binoculars, which are equipped with solar eyepieces. I had prepared diagrams showing the appearance of the eclipse at beginning, middle and end from New York, for Jr. Natural History, and I was gratified to see the eclipse behaved according to specifications. The maximum eclipse occurred while I was standing on the platform, waiting for the 8:06 to Stamford. Looking across the tracks, I could see about a hundred persons on the opposite platform, waiting for the NY train. Not one of them was paying any attention to the celestial drama..vii
We look at the object with intent regard, then at the palette, and thirdly at the canvas. The canvas receives the message dispatched, usually a few seconds before from the natural object. But it has come through the post-office en route. It has been transmitted in code. It has been turned from light into paint. It reaches the canvas a cryptogram. Not until it has been placed in its correct relation to everything else that is on the canvas can it be deciphered, is its meaning apparent, is it translated once again from mere pigment into light. And the light this time is not of Nature but of Art. The whole of this considerable process is carried through on the wings or the wheels of memory. Sir Winston Churchillviii
Churchill could be describing the exact process of how James Perry Wilson painted. Wilson's painting code included his three-primary color palette and absence of black, his impressionist method of painting, the depth imparted by atmospheric perspective and his control of values. His breadth of scientific knowledge overarches everything. It only appears that Wilson painted himself out of his paintings and that he had no apparent painting style. He is there, he just isn't shouting his presence.
It was Wilson's nature to translate what he saw as closely as possible, almost in the literal sense of collecting documentary data. Indeed, it is possible to find exact sites for his paintings because details such as the contours of the landscape and the position of identifiable landmarks, such as rocky outcroppings are very accurate. Viewers commonly mistake the paintings for photographs, at least at first. With Wilson, accuracy of details was not only the goal, it was the method. He was a highly organized, disciplined and methodical painter; he worked deliberately, focusing on the task at hand. His colors were ordered logically on his palette and he took time to clean his brushes before mixing a new color.
Wilson's painting technique was unorthodox with respect to how he covered his canvas. He always concentrated on the distant horizon with its cooler colors and lighter values first, working consciously with the concepts of atmospheric perspective. In his diorama work and most of his plein air paintings, the sky was painted first so he could determine values and color of the distant landscape in relation to it. On occasion, he might start with the landscape and paint the sky later. There is one example of a mostly-finished painting with foreground clouds left unpainted, outlined in the blue sky. But most commonly he painted a blue sky first starting with the deepest ultramarine or cobalt blue at the top of the canvas graduating to a significantly lighter blue-green at the horizon. As it neared the horizon, Wilson would infuse pinks and yellows as he lightened it so that the sky changed in both color temperature and value as it approached the horizon. He wrote notes to his friend Thanos Johnson specifically outlining his painting process:
Set out three dabs of white (or four, if you want to use two blues). With one mix a tint of ruby madder, with one a tint of cadmium, and with the remaining one (or two) tints of blue. In working the color into the white, you can produce a graduated tint, covering the range of values you will want in your sky. Then from the deepest part of the tints you can mix a color for the top of the sky. As you come down, use successively lighter parts of the tints. An effective way of mixing the color from the three tints is not to use a knife, but to pick up a bit of each tint directly with your brush. Stir them together only lightly, so that they are not too thoroughly mixed. Then you will get a suggestion of broken color, in a free, loose way. In preparing the three (or four) tints, be careful to make the values correspond; for in broken color it is important to have your values the same; otherwise the colors will never flow together and produce vibration. This, to my mind, is the failing of the French Impressionist painter Seurat. He uses dots of color of varying values and they remain just dots of color, never uniting to the eye as Monet's do."ix
Then he could adjust the value of the landscape to be in harmony with the sky. The next area painted was the mid-ground, again insuring that the value of this area was in harmony to the distant landscape which was in harmony with the sky, but with slightly higher keyed colors and wider range of values. Finally the foreground would be painted with the strongest colors and values. His painting technique may have been unorthodox, but it gave him the ability to reproduce what he saw in nature. Other artists covered their canvases by underpainting masses of color, working over the entire canvas all at the same time. They would have been viewed Wilson's technique as antiquated or eccentric.
Wilson had every aspect of his painting under control. His method took time but the process is evident in the results: the purity of colors, the cleanness of lines, and the high level of overall craftsmanship. He took time to think clearly while he was painting. Wilson's painstaking methods ensured that all his references, technical and observational, would be incorporated into his work. The strength of Wilson's painting lies in its intelligence; science provides the foundation, the rules of illusionistic art are applied consistently, and his careful analysis of the natural landscape are found in every brushstroke. While most artists work rapidly, sometimes feverishly, in plein air to capture fleeting moments of light, atmosphere, and cloud cover, Wilson, with his firm academic grasp of these occurrences, could plan for them in his painting and never break from his systematic approach to painting. Wilson was a classicist, employing painting methods developed during the Renaissance. Many of his techniques might have been learned in a good oil painting class at any time in modern history. He glazed, scumbled, and used thick, impasto paint to draw light objects forward. To enhance the illusion of three-dimensionality, he kept the surface of his paintings matte by mixing his paint with turpentine only. Wilson's palette, for the most part, was restricted to a simple combination of three blues, three yellows and three reds. Four of his younger colleagues, Ray DeLucia, Ann Milton, Jerry Connolly, and Ruth Morrill, wrote down what paint colors were on Wilson's palette. The notes span a time period of 20 years and the following colors were found, without fail, on each list.
Cadmium yellow pale
Cadmium yellow deep
*Burnt umber, cadmium pale green for highlighting leaves, and cadmium lemon were also used with less frequency.
The fact that he chose traditional painting techniques is of interest because oil painting, especially on a small scale, does not lend itself easily to a precise, documentational style of painting. In the 1920's Wilson tempered the solidity of his forms by using a more painterly, loose, and impressionistic style. He also experimented with painting on textured boards primed with a layer of roughly stippled permalba white oil paint. The pebbly surface of the boards imparted softness to the painted forms. Although eventually these experiments were abandoned and his brushwork would become tighter, Wilson always maintained a "sensual" quality in his paintings.
Wilson's paintings have a clarity and lack of muddiness that would have been impossible to achieve had he fussed over mistakes, overpainted, or made numerous changes. In the book, Monhegan, The Artists' Island, the authors, Jane and Wil Curtis quote a friend and fellow painter's recollection of Wilson scratching and scrapping paint off his canvas.x I doubt the complete veracity of this recollection because the unsullied white of the canvas was very important to Wilson to impart brightness to his colors. To this purpose, he tested the different types of white oil paints to determine which would provide the most brilliant underpainting for his canvases. He decided that permalba white was the best and he used it to prime his painting surfaces without exception. Additionally, he would try to preserve a white painting surface to leave unpainted areas as highlights throughout his painting. If, by chance, this anecdote is true, I can write with confidence that he never would have repainted such a canvas after scraping it down. The more likely possibility is that Wilson was using a technique called "scrafito" where the back of the brush is used to scratch through paint to create linear patterns. This technique can be seen in the white foam in the 1924 Pulpit Rock, Monhegan painting reproduced below in this chapter. In any event, this would have been a controlled technique used only in carefully planned sections of the painting.
In a sense he painted with opaque oils as if he were a watercolorist, setting the paint in place and leaving it alone. Wilson restricted his palette notably by omitting black, asserting that the atmosphere demanded tones of blue and stating as fact that "there is no black in Nature." The omission of black imparts a lightness and a sense of optimism to his paintings, which continued even through times when he may not have felt that way, as in the early 1930s, when he found himself unemployed in the Great Depression. Additionally, by mixing his colors from the three primary colors, blue, yellow, and red, his painted work appears pure and clean.
Wilson returned over and over to the same locations to paint: Westchester County, New York, Towaco, New Jersey, Pownal, Vermont, and his favorite summer vacation locale, Monhegan Island, Maine. He spent 18 of his summer vacations on Monhegan between 1919 and 1940, until the demands of his museum work and private commissions prevented his return. He traveled to Monhegan, as did other artists, to capture the island's inherent natural beauty, pulled by a love of nature and the ethic of working outdoors. He painted moody, tonalist paintings of dense island fog, seascapes shimmering in full moonlight, and close-up studies of storm-driven waves colliding with the rocky coast. James Perry Wilson's focus was toward the picturesque and the sublime. He was drawn to the glow of red-orange sunrises and sunsets reflected in the ocean; he risked the treacherous climb down to sea-sprayed rocks in stormy conditions in order to capture the immediacy and drama of the scene.
Man-made objects were rarely the subject of his painting. One hundred seventy-two studies from Monhegan survive and few include houses or people. He might paint a sailboat as a minor addition to a seascape or a rustic fish shack for Monhegan flavor, but usually if there was a house or building in the way, he would find another view. In contrast, Wilson filled a sketchbook with pencil drawings of the island's homes, fishing shacks, and its lighthouse. Since architectural renderings of buildings in pencil were a large part of his vocation as an architect, his resistance to including manmade structures seems to have been absent when he picked up a pencil.
Monhegan's reputation among painters was already established by 1919, when Wilson arrived at Monhegan for the first time. The island had been discovered by artists near the turn of the century as an unspoiled site with countless dramatic vistas. Robert Henri, an influential artist and art teacher, was one of the early visitors to Monhegan and he engendered much of this enthusiasm among his students and colleagues in New York City. Wilson, though not a student of Henri's, was already painting landscapes in the 1910's and he is likely to have heard about Monhegan from other artists; he may even have seen Monhegan paintings on exhibit in New York. The same dramatic natural land and seascapes that had attracted Henri and his students drew Wilson to Monhegan. The island offered painters both a respite from city life and a chance to focus solely on the elements of painting. The artists sought out the technical challenges presented by the crashing waves, the fog, the rugged rocky landscape. Monhegan Island was ideal for James Perry Wilson. Beyond its natural beauty, Wilson would have found in the resident's obstinate protection of the island from modernization an analog to his own shunning of 20th century subjects in his paintings. While overt political themes sometimes find their way into the paintings of other Monhegan artists, it wasn't so for Wilson. He primarily painted scenes that seem to be untouched by human presence or concern.
Wilson studied changing weather and atmospheric conditions when he painted. Although he never identified any as cloud studies, many of the paintings have low horizons where the sky and clouds occupy up to 3/4, and sometimes 7/8 of the picture plane. All types of clouds are painted: some fluffy cumulus on bright sunny days; some at sunset showing extraordinary crepuscular coloration; some in series showing changes in light and form. There are storm clouds, clouds throwing rays of sunlight, and the clouds of a cold front. Many painters have asked how he was able to paint clouds so accurately and quickly. The answer lies in his thorough understanding of cloud form and color, from watching them intently for years, photographing them, and studying them with his paintings. This knowledge allowed him to work steadily and calmly. While others had to work frantically to record clouds before they changed, Wilson relied on his scholarly understanding of meteorology and his powers of observation to capture accurate, though somewhat general impressions of the constantly shifting patterns in front of him without relying on photographs.
Thick fog, not uncommon on the island, reduces visibility almost to zero. Wilson, inspired by these unusual conditions, would set out into the fog to paint. These resulting "shades of gray" atmospheric paintings are considered by many to be his finest work. Later in his mid-70's, he visited Lake Louise in Alberta Canada with the same objective-to paint the mountains and lake under varying conditions. He toned down his approach though, painting day-after-day from his hotel room window.
Expressiveness was controlled in a Wilson landscape distinguishing him from the other plein air painters whose work was more emotionally descriptive about what was felt rather than what was seen. Even when painting a dramatic surf or stormy conditions, Wilson imparted a kind of realism or documentarian's view which restrained the artist's subjective emotions. Wilson was interested in letting the landscape speak for itself, the emotion welling up from an accurately rendered painting. He worked hard to make sure the values in the painting were in harmony with each other and with what was observed. The interrelationship of the values, to Wilson, was the essential key to creating depth in a landscape painting. He worked diligently to replicate in paint the colors he saw in nature. The extent to which he thought about this subject is reflected in the painting notes written to his young protégé, Thanos Johnson. These notes give a glimpse into how Wilson worked when painting on-site. By reprinting them, I hope that the reader will gain an understanding of the extent of Wilson's thinking with regards to the landscape and that any artist painting en plein air will find them useful:
June 3, 1944 (letter to Thanos A. Johnson)
It is one of the fundamental principles of aerial perspective. that the dark tones of a landscape are the first ones affected by the interposed veil of atmosphere. A green tree in the foreground will appear dark green in the shadows; but you don't have to get very far away from it before that green disappears entirely, especially if you are looking toward the sun. In the middle distance the shadow areas in the foliage will take on a violet tone, while the sunlit parts are only a little cooler green than they are close up. At a distance of several miles (varying with the clarity of the air) this violet will become more and more blue. By this time the air will begin to affect the sunlit parts also, and the green will begin to disappear. A forest-covered mountain fifteen or twenty miles away, in clear air, will probably appear of a violet hue; but if it is fifty or sixty miles, it will be a clear pale blue.
Another thing to remember is the effect of air on values. Here again it is the darkest tones that are affected first. The deep shadows and the half-tones melt together, while detail is still distinct in the highlights. As the distance increases, both dark and light objects approach the sky value; but the light ones hold out the longest. Objects lighter than the sky grow darker as they recede, instead of lighter; and they grow warmer, instead of cooler. You can observe this any clear day when there are cumulus clouds in the sky. Those near by will appear dazzling white. As they recede they become yellowish, and those away off on the horizon will be pinkish. (Take a look at the Bison group-AMNH)
A white object will remain visible after everything else has disappeared. On two occasions I have seen Pike's Peak across the plains, from a distance of a hundred miles. Only the snow-cap could be seen, floating just above the horizon; the mountain beneath melted absolutely into the sky. The reason for this diverse behavior of light and dark objects is to be found in the fact that the air absorbs and scatters light of the shorter wave lengths, toward the blue and violet end of the spectrum, while transmitting the reds and yellows whose wave length is longer. That, of course, is why the sun is yellow, and the sky blue. The blue and violet rays of the sunlight are filtered out and scattered, making the sky blue, whereas if there were no air at all, it would be black; and the sunlight deprived of its violet and blue, appears yellow. Toward sunset, when the slanting rays of sunlight have to traverse a thicker layer of air, still longer wave-lengths are filtered out, and the sun appears red. Now when a dark object is viewed through a layer of air, the small amount of light reflected from the object is supplemented by the blue light scattered by the air, and the object appears brighter and bluer. The more air there is in front of the object, the more pronounced this effect; the lighter and bluer the object appears. But if the object is lighter than the sky, that is, if it is transmitting more light than the air is, then the most important effect of the veil of air is the absorption and scattering of some of the light by the air. Hence a white object at a distance becomes yellowish and finally pinkish as it recedes farther and farther away.
f you are looking toward the setting sun, the atmosphere may become so strongly colored by the reddish sunlight that everything takes on this tone. Do you remember the band of pinkish light across the top of the mountain in the Jaguar group? What happens here is that all the blues are filtered out high up in the sky, and by the time the sunlight reaches the lower air and falls in front of the mountains; it is decidedly reddish. So you are looking at the mountains through a reddish veil instead of a bluish one.
The most important thing to remember in painting a sunset effect is to keep all your tones harmonious and consistent. And if you have bright clouds, yellow or rose-colored, in the blue sky, don't paint your sky too blue. Keep the blue very quiet. That way your clouds will appear much more brilliant and luminous.
July 2, 1944 (letter- Thanos A. Johnson)
THE INFLUENCE OF LIGHT ON THE COLOR OF FOREGROUND OBJECTS
"We have seen that, in distant landscapes, the most important factor influencing the color of objects is the veil of air through which they are seen; that this veil affects the darkest tones first, and, as the distance increases, affects lighter and lighter tones in succession. It begins to affect the darkest tones at a comparatively short distance. In the immediate foreground, however, the most important influence affecting the local color of objects is the color of the light falling upon them.
Let us consider first a landscape on a clear sunny day, with the sun two hours or more above the horizon.
Sources of Light. Under these conditions there will be three principle sources of light:
1. The direct light of the sun
2. Diffused light reflected from the sky
3. Light reflected into shadow areas from surfaces in direct sunlight.
Direct Sunlight. With a high sun, this will be the strongest and most important source of light. In color it will (be) a slightly yellowish white, warming the local color slightly, but producing little change in its hue. On exceptionally clear days, or at high altitudes, it will be more intense and whiter. Capt. Stevens, in his stratospheric ascent in the balloon ExplorerII reports that at 73,000 feet there was a notable increase in the intensity and whiteness of the sunlight. In other words, its usual yellowish color is due largely to atmospheric absorption; not entirely, however. Even outside the atmosphere altogether, the sunlight would retain a slight yellowish cast. Astronomers class the sun as a yellow-white star, in contrast to some pure white or blue-white stars.
On a hazy day, or with a low sun, the yellow color is greatly increased. At sunrise or sunset the sunlight may even become definitely red. This may be seen most conspicuously when the sunlight touches lofty mountain peaks, or high-level clouds.
Diffused Light Reflected from the Sky. This, like the third source of light (reflected sunlight) is felt only in areas shaded from direct sunlight; the direct sunlight being so much more intense that it overcomes the effect of the secondary sources. On a cloudless day the light from the sky will impart to surfaces facing upward, but shaded from the sun, a notable bluish cast. It may sometimes be felt, to a lesser extent, even on vertical surfaces.
Reflected Sunlight. A light colored surface in sunlight may reflect a considerable amount of light into shaded areas. This is usually strongest on vertical or overhanging surfaces, the latter of which will receive reflections from the ground or other horizontal surfaces. If the reflecting surface is strongly colored, this color will make itself felt in the reflected light. In general, however, the reflected light will be warm; often noticeably warmer though of course much less brilliant, than the direct sunlight. I once passed the Morgan Library about noon on a bright summer day, with a very high sun. The projecting cornice cast a long pale shadow on the white marble walls. This shadow was bluish, due to light reflected from the sky. But the underside of the cornice itself was a light yellow-green, due to sunlight reflected from the grass which surrounded the building.
We have seen that the veil of air affects the darkest tones most strongly. But the diffused and reflected lights, on the contrary, show their greatest effects on light-colored surfaces. It follows that in the distance the darkest tones will be the bluest. In the foreground, on the other hand, the top surfaces, reflecting the sky, will normally be the bluest; while the deep shadows receiving hardly any light, may appear quite warm. This distinction is one of the most important factors in producing good aerial perspective.
The effect of diffused and reflected light is most noticeable when looking into the light, which gives large shadow areas; and when the objects are light-colored. In my experience, the most conspicuous example was the Canyon of the Yellowstone, where light is intense and the rock very light in color. My first view of the Canyon was looking upstream, into the sun, in the afternoon. The canyon walls are worn into deep gullies, leaving a series of projecting buttresses or fins between them. As I stood on one of these projections I could see several more, one behind another. Each one had the side toward me in shade; but on this shaded surface was reflected a flood of light from the sunlit side of the next buttress. Aided by the yellowish color of the rock, the effect was extraordinary. You could imagine that the rock was translucent, and was lighted from within. I have never seen anything like it.
In contrast with this warm reflected light, the upturned surfaces took a cool bluish light from the sky. In this case the cool top light was less strong than the warm side light. This is usually, though not always, the case.* (in the margin:) Imagine a narrow gully into which no direct sunlight falls. Then the sides will be dark, while the top surfaces of projecting rocks will be bluish, and much lighter than the vertical surface.
If you have a chance to visit a bathing beach on a bright sunny day, you will have an excellent opportunity to observe these effects on the foreground figures, especially if the subject has a fair skin not much tanned. The light sand acts as a strong reflecting surface. Consider a figure seated on the sand, facing you, the sun being in front of you and behind the subject. Notice the direct sunlight, strong but not very warm in color, on the shoulders. Look at the shadow of the head on the shoulders. See how cool it is, being lighted by the blue sky. Observe how all the under surfaces-eye sockets, bottom of the nose, lower surface of the chin, and projections of the arms and torso-take a warm reflected light from the sand. (I have been doing this very thing recently)
This play of diffused and reflected lights, producing luminous shadows, is one of the most effective means of creating an effect of intense light. I stressed it in painting the Yellowstone Canyon in the Grizzly Bear background.
Foliage In close-up foliage, five different tones may usually be distinguished, especially when looking toward the sun.
More of Wilson's notes address an aspect of painting known as tonality. Tonality is not a term heard often to describe paintings and that Wilson titled a section on painting technique "Tonality" is of some interest. The term does have a history, first appearing in the late 19th Century in writings about art. Later, in the 20th Century, the painter, Henry Ward Ranger used it to define a cohesive approach to modern American landscape painting. Afterwards Tonalism became the name for a group of Americans who were influenced by the moody and poetic French Barbizon school of landscape painting. Ranger, Tonalism's spokesman, defined tonality as harmonious modulations of color. Other writers distinguished two separate meanings of tone: one where a single color predominates and the other in which forms were perceived through an overall colored atmosphere or mist which produced an evenness of hue throughout.
May 22, 1945-(Letter to Thanos A. Johnson):
The underlying principle of tonality is awareness of the effect of atmosphere and light on every part of the picture. We have already considered, in some detail, the effects of atmosphere on the various planes. These effects are of course more obvious in a soft hazy air, and consequently tonality may be more difficult to obtain in the clear air and brilliant light of the high country; but even there tonality is ever-present, and careful consideration for it should produce a painting that will have the unmistakable character of that pellucid air. Let us consider what some of these characteristics are. Due to the thin clear air, the lights will tend to be brilliant, and the shadows (due to the deep blue of the upper sky, which scatters less light) sharp and dark. However, if you are in a region of light-colored rocks, the sunlight reflected from their surfaces may cause very luminous shadows, glowing with color. This was very noticeable at the Yellowstone Canyon. But even under such conditions, watch your reflected lights carefully, to make sure they don't get out of control! They may seem to glow, and they may be considerably warmer in color than the areas of direct sunlight; but they will be much lower in value,and you must keep them so, or the whole picture will be in danger of falling apart. And even in color, in these reflected lights, practice restraint, and the result will be much more plausible.
If you have trees in the foreground, the shadows in clear air may be very dark; and in the middle distance they may begin to assume a bluish tone while still quite dark. Note that I say "bluish", not blue! In other words, again observe restraint. But in general, the bluish tone of the shadows is much more pronounced in clear air than in the hazier air of the seacoast, where they tend to be grayish.
It is under the low sun of late afternoon, or very early morning, that tonality becomes more obvious than near mid day. At these times the sunlight assumes a golden hue that affects every color on which it falls. Then the difference of color between sunlight and shadow becomes more pronounced. The golden glow of the sunlight accentuates, by contrast, the cool tone of the shadows. As the sun sinks lower so that its light turns from gold to rose, the complimentary hue in the shadows is intensified. I have seen the shadows cast on the white wall of a house, under these conditions, appear a clear greenish blue, and not in Colorado, at that, but on an exceptionally clear evening in Vermont!
Toward sunset time the warmth of the light will affect the sky itself. There may very likely be a greenish tone near the horizon, but it will be a warm green! That is when cadmium yellow deep (rather than light or lemon) is useful in the sky. If you are looking toward the sun, just before sunset, distant planes in shadow may turn a warm rosy tone due to the sunlit air in front of them.
Equally important with color, in establishing tonality, are values. Watch them carefully to keep them consistent. In fact, that one word, consistency, pretty much sums up the whole question of tonality. If every part of the picture is consistent in its representation of the effects of light and air upon the several planes of distance, then the picture will have tonality.
James Perry Wilson cautions his student several times to observe restraint, to make sure control is not lost in the painting. This is an important component of his methodology: a constant and consistent modulation of color and value such that nothing stands out of character. Wilson was trying to record very subtle changes of light and color in the visible landscape, so subtle that a higher level of sensitivity must be brought to his work to see what he was doing. When he notes that the color is bluish, not blue. This will be a subtle change of hue, barely, if at all, perceptible to the viewer. In an earlier letter he points to the shift in color of the clouds in the Bison group at the American Museum of Natural History as they approach the horizon. This color shift in the Bison group is unfortunately no longer visible due to ultraviolet light damage, but this kind of transition is still visible in the clouds in the Wart Hog/Ostrich diorama in the African Hall on the third floor mezzanine. There, the viewer must look closely to see the subtle color changes in clouds that recede illusionistically into the background with complete believability.
It is worth noting one of the differences between Wilson's plein air painting and his diorama work. Accuracy was possibly more pronounced in Wilson's diorama work than in his plein air studies, but in both, he tried to paint himself out of the painting to allow the viewer to focus on the illusion of reality and not the artifice of its creation. Wilson sought to make the artist transparent. In his own words derived from Latin, he intended for art to conceal art.xi Wilson's colleagues at the American Museum sometimes used thick paint, especially at the tie-in between the three-dimensional foreground and the two-dimensional background painting. Wilson, too in his diorama work, experimented with this technique early on, but rejected it for a smooth, matte surface that he determined produced the best illusion of depth and availed the most effective tie-ins. In contrast with the diorama painting, Wilson sought in his plein air studies to capture the spirit of the moment using mimetic painting techniques to animate his painting. Here, he intentionally makes the brushmarks in the paint to be seen by the viewer. He used the technique both for descriptive purposes and for emotional effect. Wilson's brushwork was thoughtful and deliberate. He attempted through the materiality of the paint to describe all the characteristics of the landscape. Typically, he painted thinly, but opaquely and controlled the brushwork to a high degree. If a painting showed foggy or hazy conditions, Wilson would feather his brushstrokes away or stipple them out, since any evidence of the physical marks of the paint would diminish the softness of the illusion. Similarly, Wilson expressed cloud movement with complimentary movements in his brushwork. Skies sometimes indicate the direction of the wind or the direction of the sunlight. This effect was especially prevalent if the sun had set or was located off the picture plane. He took the time to apply paint to mimic the speed, motion, and texture of each type of cloud he painted. Wilson's control of the paint is also noticeable in his treatment of water. He used horizontal brushstrokes, narrow in the distance and broadening toward the foreground to enhance the perspective. Wilson's techniques result in descriptive, realistic paintings that create an illusion where rocks look solid, water shimmers, and the clouds float out into the distance.
The Towaco farmland, a favorite locale for Wilson in the early 1920's was somewhat plain, in contrast to Monhegan. The farm fields and low vantage points were quite different from the dramatic vistas Wilson usually chose. Wilson traveled to Towaco often to paint with Lucy VanDuyne's son, Frederic. Lucy, trained in painting at the Arts Students League, was an intimate family friend and responsible, I believe, in large part for training Wilson in painting as a young man. Now Lucy was busy tending to her young children and unable to paint, so Wilson stepped in and returned the favor, teaching her eldest son how to paint the landscape. The relationship between the VanDuynes and the Wilsons was a close, long-lasting friendship and it is likely that Frederic, 14 years younger than Wilson, referred to him as "Uncle Perry"xii. Wilson probably wouldn't have chosen the VanDuyne farm as the subject for his paintings, but the friendships drew him there and it was there he painted.
Regardless of the lack of drama, Wilson chose his painting sites for the challenging effects created by light and shadow. He studied the landscape in all its forms. He would say, "When you paint trees you have to know the anatomy of a tree because they're all different."xiii He was an empiricist, calmly gathering information about the view in front of him, no matter where it was, using paint and painting technique to record his intense and focused visual perception as accurately as possible. The Towaco paintings are powerful studies of atmosphere, clouds, and the changing seasons.
While his plein air paintings are documents of various sites, they are also soft-edged luminous creations, reflecting his sensory engagement with the subject beyond the bounds of science. Even though precision was Wilson's objective, there is a softness to the line, a mark of the hand in the brushwork that imbue his landscapes with a sensuality and life that go well beyond data collection. Fred Scherer, diorama painter and colleague at the American Museum of Natural History recalls that Wilson said he spent more time watching the action of the waves than painting them. Fred Scherer, who painted under Wilson's tutelage at the AMNH, recounted how Wilson painted backlit leaves to get a "stained glass" effect. Scherer knew Wilson as a religious man and that this type of effect translated into spiritual terms. He went further to note, "He put his heart into the landscape. It's almost spiritual in a way. You can sense it and see it. When he looked out over the landscape, I'm sure he felt it"xiv.
Friends who went out with him to paint describe a painter with a singular focus. He would start to paint with his knees slightly bent and would not move for several hours until the painting was finished. There is a common description of how artists can go into a "zone" where everything drops away and hours can pass without notice. It seems clear that from the description by others of Wilson painting that he would drop into the "zone" more often than not while painting. Wilson never felt particularly comfortable in social situations. In contrast, it's as if he could be completely at ease in the secluded landscape, his most direct form of communication was realized there in the language of the paint. A deep connection was made with the landscape imparting an intimate quality to his paintings that comes across in the finished works. Even though the technique was methodical and restrained, an intimacy whispers throughout.
Ruth Morrill had been observing Wilson paint in the Desert diorama at the Peaqbody Museum in the early 1960's and asked to go out with him in the field to observe him as he painted. She describes it below:
I had just begun to try to paint and wanted to watch Perry at work in the field.. I was running grouse lines at the time, so it was in early October. I was working in Naugatuck and I called Ralph [Morrill] and to tell him where I would be and then hustled through the line to be ready when they arrived shortly after noon. I had picked a fairly tall and narrow waterfall spilling over gray rocks and surrounded by
trees. [It was] a deep and shadowy ravine sort of place. Perry felt it was too complicated and so we went riding. Finally he selected an open field with some red foliage spilling along a hedgerow in mid-distance. It didn't look very spectacular to me, I think he had decided he had better pick SOMETHING, or the light would be gone so he grabbed the next open field with a vista we passed. He set up his easel,
made a few sketchy lines and started with the distant tree line and painted slowly down the canvas. To my surprise, he waited to paint the sky until after the main body of the painting was complete. It was not a matter of developing the whole thing at once but rather knowing exactly where he was going and moving directly along. It took him a couple of hours and my strongest memory of the day was that is was hot. I had rushed through a grouse census line that went up and down hill, over and under deadfalls and through swamp and laurel thicket for five miles and all I wanted to do was sit down, but Perry stood there silently painting away, knees slightly bent in relaxation happily spreading paint although the day dripped with humidity. I remember being impressed that he could stand there oblivious to everything except the painting at an age he should have been resting somewhere, while athletic me was dying to find a rock or something to sit on.xv
In the photographs of Wilson painting outdoors, if the sun was out, more often than not, his shirt was off. He was known by many of his closest friends as a sunworshiper. Wilson's worship of the sun may be related to his infection with typhoid as a teenager. Fresh air and sunshine was a prescribed therapy for all kinds of illness in the late 19th century and painting excursions may have been part of the cure. If he felt safely secluded, he might even shed the rest of his clothing to paint completely unencumbered. In his desire to have a direct and immediate connection with his subject, he may have felt even his clothes to be a barrier. Fred Scherer describes a plein air painting expedition with him:
"We were up in a secluded area and I looked over at Wilson and found him to be totally naked. I went on painting, but a little later I saw two women on horseback coming up over the hill. I yelled over to Wilson, who reached down, whipped his pants on, and then continued painting as if nothing had happened."xvi
James Perry Wilson continued an academic tradition of plein air landscape painting, preferring to paint outdoors and not spending much time working up paintings in the studio. He had a Romantic's commitment to dramatic, sublime, or serene landscape subject, with an intention to evoke an emotional response in the viewer. Yet, the vast scientific knowledge of the physical world that Wilson brought to the work, combined with his facility with paint, imparted a realism that approaches the realm of optical vision. Throughout his life, Wilson maintained the superiority of human vision over photography. Wilson was critical of a photograph's capacity to record the color exactly as the eye sees it. He experimented with color film and concluded that it increased contrast and did not impart the sense of depth he could get in painting. Instead, he modified the clarity of distant forms in his paintings to the human eye's real world capacity to comprehend such forms. He mixed his colors to match closely what was seen optically and modulated the values to depict how the veil of atmosphere physically affects color. He would go out to sites, whether on Monhegan Island or an elevated vista on the mainland, make careful observations, closely assess the play of light and values, and then translate it all quietly and confidently to paint. The results are highly accurate, dramatic land and seascapes with an underlying sense of calm; some might say even a sense of devotion, and always a quality of rightness.
i There are 549 dated and undated paintings in all
ii Fred Scherer, personal conversation 11-25-97
iii Ralph and Ruth Morrill, personal conversation, 1994.
iv James Perry Wilson, letter to Thanos A. Johnson, 25 September, 1944
v John Carlson, Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting, Dover Books, 1932. p.62.
vi James Perry Wilson, letter to Thanos A. Johnson, 14 August 1945
vii James Perry Wilson, letter to Thanos A. Johnson, 15 July 1945
viii Sir Winston Churchill, Painting As a Pastime, Odhams Press, London, 1948, p.29
ix James Perry Wilson, letter to Thanos A. Johnson, 29 August, 1944
x Wil and Jane Curtis, Monhegan, Artists' Island, Downeast Books, Camden, ME,1995, p 114.
xi James Perry Wilson, unpublished interview by Rudy Freund and Rudy Zallinger, circa 1958, American Museum of Natural History Special Collections.
xii Ruth Leuzarder Maier, personal conversation, may 2003.
xiii Ralph Morrill, Unpublished obituary, 1977.
xiv Fred Scherer, personal conversation, 11-25-97
xv Ruth Morrill, e-mail, July 4, 2010
xvi Fred Scherer, personal conversation, 10-9-98