Carl Akeley is most often considered to be the father of habitat dioramas in their modern form with painted backgrounds merging with a three dimensional foreground. Though, it appears several others beat Akeley to the punch. Charles Wilson Peale probably was the first. At least two of Peale's biographers write about Peale painting habitats on the back walls of the display cases. An 1822 watercolor study of Peale's museum appears to have a painted background in one of the taxidermy bird casesi. Unfortunately, the museum no longer exists and there are no photographs.
Peale's diorama idea fell dormant for several decades. Taxidermied animals in displays with samples of their everyday environs were commonly seen in other museums, but painted backgrounds were rare. Martha Maxwell, a taxidermist and naturalist from Colorado created a sensation at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 with a large display of mounted mammals and birds in a realistic setting that included running water and a cave. She developed her displays independent of Peale's influence and she had never been to Philadelphia before the Centennial Exposition. Maxwell set had up her own museum in Boulder, Colorado and later moved it to Denver. While the Centennial Exposition display had no painted backdrop, Maxwell had stereographic photographs made of taxidermy mounts in comic domestic scenes with painted backgrounds.
Maxwell may have had some indirect influence over Akeley since Joel A. Allen, an ornithologist and later Director of the American Museum of Natural History, had seen her work at the Centennial Exposition and wrote:
"Martha Maxwell is something more than a successful and enthusiastic taxidermist; she is an ardent and thorough student of nature, and her explorations of the zoology of Colorado has revealed the existence of many species in that State not previously known to occur there, and contributed many new facts regarding the habits and distribution of others."ii
Akeley started his taxidermy career at Ward's in Rochester, NY in 1886. While at Wards, Akeley worked with Frederick Webster, a taxidermist who made stereographic photographs of his taxidermy mounts in outdoor or temporary naturalistic tableaux. In some of his photographic set ups he even used painted backdrops.iii
Akeley came after Peale, Maxwell, and Webster, all who had developed fully formed habitat dioramas. The claim that Akeley made the first permanent natural history habitat display with a painted background is incorrect. This erroneous claim probably comes from the fact that Akeley's dioramas still survive; we can stand in front of his work and it is as impressive today as it was when it was first built. The 1889 muskrat diorama, Akeley's first, is still on view at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Several years later, Akeley created the "Four Seasons", a group of more highly developed dioramas of white-tailed deer portrayed during different seasons and with painted backgrounds by Charles Abel Corwin. These dioramas were purchased by the Chicago Field Museum in 1902 and, also can still be seen there today. He brought a high level of quality to the diorama right from the start. The mounts are superb, and there is an attempt to locate the animals in a seamless setting where the foreground and background merge.
Charles Abel Corwin shares a significant role in the genesis of these surviving natural history dioramas. He trained with Frank Duveneck in Munich and painted historical cycloramas, large paintings-in-the-round typically with military or religious themes, popular in Europe and the United States in the 19th century. His name is associated with many of the very first diorama backgrounds. He and Akeley would talk at length about how to create the most effective backdrops for the habitat dioramas. Corwin transferred permanently to Chicago to paint dioramas at the Field Museum and Akeley went to New York where he became obsessed with his vision for a hall of African Mammals. Akeley didn't live to see his African Hall become a reality, but his great efforts paid off. The African Hall set the standard for natural history dioramas with a commitment to realism, artistry, and overall high quality and beauty. But, Akeley wasn't the only one thinking about and making illusionistic natural history dioramas in the 1890's. Karen Wonders writes in her book, Habitat Dioramas, about this period and cites three American diorama pioneers other than Akeley: William Hornaday, John Rowley and Frank Chapmaniv. Hornaday wrote about habitat dioramas that included background paintings in 1891 and Rowley designed and built the first dioramas at California at the Academy of Sciences, though this was at the relatively late date of 1915.
However, Frank Chapman, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History, was developing and building a hall of North American bird dioramas before the advent of the 20th Century.
The importance of Frank Chapman's North American Bird Hall to the development of natural history dioramas cannot be emphasized strongly enough. Chapman came to his inspiration from the exhibits at the British Museum where the birds were mounted on botanical models prepared from local plants.v It is unclear if Chapman's ideas were independently developed in parallel with Akeley's or whether he had seen or heard of Akeley's creations in Milwaukee or Chicago. John Rowley was at the AMNH in the 1890's. He and Chapman had gone on expeditions and collaborated on photographing bird habitats. Discussions about displays of birds using dioramas with painted backgrounds surely occurred between the two men. Had Chapman read William Hornaday's book or had either Chapman or Rowley visited Akeley in Milwaukee or Chicago? Chapman would have had numerous connections to Ward's and subsequently to Frederick Webster's stereo photos. All we know is that by 1902, with the Cobbs Island group, Chapman had museum artists preparing foreground foliage, taxidermists mounting lifelike specimens, and background painters painting backdrops for dioramas in the North American Bird Hall. How Chapman came to his conception of the dioramas is not clear, but we can say with certainty that the ideas were in the air at the time.
Of the five pioneers of early American dioramas, only Chapman was not a taxidermist. Chapman had a long list of additional responsibilities other than producing museum exhibits. He was an associate curator in the Ornithology Department at the AMNH, writing scholarly papers, adding bird specimens to the collections, and traveling on expeditions. Given his other responsibilities, it is astonishing that Chapman could find time to create the North American Bird Hall, especially since there was no template for him to follow. Chapman was driven to educate the public about his beloved birds in the most engaging way possible. By pushing toward this goal, Chapman created the parameters for a new genre of museum exhibitry. The look he inspired in the North American Bird Hall, albeit in an early form, became the standard for all future diorama production.
Chapman's contributions include the following: He was the first to impart a conservation message in natural history dioramas. Chapman was one of the early whistle-blowers on species extinction and habitat destruction. He worked tirelessly to stop the killing of egrets for the millinery trade and featured egrets in a nesting colony in a diorama set in South Carolina. The Cobb's Island diorama brought attention to the slaughter and near-extirpation of the least tern at this off-shore island in Virginia . Egg collecting and killing of birds had resulted in the extinction of the Great Auk in the 1840's and Chapman could see the handwriting on the wall for the other seabirds living on Bird Rock Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence if protections weren't put in place. Hence, he chose this site for one of his groups. Chapman didn't just have generic habitats created, he chose specific localities to be reproduced in these dioramas, another first. He chose sites on the basis of their ornithological importance, but also with scenic and geographic interest. He wanted the sites to represent time before human degradation and to serve as records for what the habitat was like before the birds were endangered. With only isolated exceptions, this would become the operating paradigm for every diorama hall to come at the American Museum. Chapman was the first to have artists go with him on expedition to document diorama sites. He realized that artists could capture the experience of standing in the landscape better than simply taking photographs. Scientists will typically choose photographs as a technical means to gather information over paintings. Chapman observed, with unusual sensitivity, that artists could record the mood, the character, and color of the landscape better than photographs. His working partnership and friendship with the bird artist, Louis Aggasiz Fuertes may have had something to do with this sensitivity. In this time before color photography, painted studies were the only way to document local color. From Chapman's time on, museum administrators would not question the value of paying to have an artist to accompany collecting expeditions.
The North American Bird Hall opened in 1909 and provided a full-blown model for diorama construction that others in America would follow. The scope was ambitious; there were 25 dioramas of sites spanning North America. The habitats ranged from desert to prairie to mountains, from swamp to ocean, and from west to east coasts. The stylistic and aesthetic guidelines for the diorama background paintings began to emerge in this hall. Realism was absolute, the two men building dioramas at the turn of the 20th century, Chapman and Akeley, both agreed. Karen Wonders writes that the origins of this aesthetic was from the tradition of nineteenth-century panoramic landscape painting, which was based on the utilitarian function of the topographical view, the veristic aesthetic of truth to nature, the illusionistic portrayal of nature as spectacle, and landscape painting as reportagevi. I would add that specifically, black and white photography, scientific illustration and historical cycloramas all had a part in influencing the aesthetic of realism. Nevertheless, there were discernable differences in early diorama production between Chapman and Akeley. Chapman was used to hiring bird illustrators and dictating exacting specifications for his books. He applied the same approach with the artists hired to paint the background habitats. Chapman was a forceful curator and designer of the dioramas. He told the artists what habitat should be painted, from what vantage, and what references to use. His fingerprint is seen throughout the North American Bird Hall. He expected nothing less than absolute accuracy. Chapman produced some creative variety by choosing bird's eye viewpoints such as nests in high cliff ledges and treetops for several dioramas. These constitute the most interesting compositions in the hall. The magnitude of the historic accomplishment of this North American Bird Hall is stunning. Chapman produced, on one hand, very true diorama backgrounds with correct settings for each kind of bird depicted, a working illusion of three-dimensional space, and some design creativity, but on the whole, these dioramas were poorly composed and exhibited mediocre painting skill. The small scale of the dioramas also diminished their impact. This criticism is acknowledged from a vantage of 100 years of diorama innovation since Chapman's first hall of dioramas.
Chapman charged his artists to produce a wide array of flora and to reproduce a variety of habitats. Flowers and leaves were fabricated in paper infused with colored wax, realistic rockwork simulated in plaster. The replication of cacti, snow, large trees, and water drove problem solving and innovation in artistic production. There was experimentation with coved walls and with techniques for the successful transition from foreground to background. Many of the methods developed for this hall are still used by museum artists today. Craftsmanship levels were high and the artists' pride in the quality of their work continued into subsequent generations of museum artists.
Akeley and Clark arrived at the American Museum in 1909 right at the unveiling of this new exhibit hall and at one of the most fertile periods of innovation and creativity at the museum. A young and eager James L. Clark, would spend hours looking at these dioramas, critiquing them with his keen eye, imagining his taxidermy mounts with equivalent backdrops. Carl Akeley's vision of the Hall of African Mammals was certainly seeded in the North American Bird Hall. Akeley and Clark would have talked shop with J. D. Figgins, chief of the department of preparation and with the artists who produced the foregrounds and taxidermy mounts for this hall. New ideas were spawned and technical information on materials and processes traveled back and forth between the artists and taxidermists. Akeley and Clark, already savvy proponents of dioramas, compiled mental notes for taking this form to the next level.
Akeley had an artist's eye and his version of realism tended to have a more romantic bent than Chapman's. He chose academic easel painters, artists like Charles Abel Corwin and William R. Leigh, who knew how to paint dramatic scenes with emotion and how to create psychological moods. They came to the museum immersed in a fine art tradition that defined landscape painting in terms of the sublime and the dramatic. During the design stage of creating the dioramas, these artists were brought into the mix and considered equal partners with the scientific staff. The artists would offer suggestions in preliminary design sessions and, in the field, would gather painted references and produce scale models that would heighten the drama or emotional impact of the subject. Weather, cloud formations, and lighting enhanced the effects. Scientific truth was the priority, but with Akeley, the importance of the diorama's theatrical qualities were also recognized and encouraged. There was a serious effort to make the dioramas as realistic as possible but at the same time, the scenes were taken at the most magical moments, just as the sun is seen rising over the horizon, not at high noon when the colors were most flat. The lighting, time of day, season, and foliage were manipulated within the bounds of scientific accuracy to achieve the most dramatic situations. Record sized specimens, as well as anthropomorphically narrative groupings featuring male, female, and young were found to be very popular with the public. Dramatic encounters between animals as they fought for dominance or hunted their prey sometimes drove the dioramas beyond romantic realism to kitschvii. Akeley's form of realism in the African Hall was very popular and superseded Chapman's, becoming the operating model for most future dioramas. Some of the museum's scientific staff were put off by the theatricality of Akeley's aesthetic and openly dismissed the diorama halls.
French Impressionism, in the manner of Monet or Bonnard was denigrated as a style for natural history dioramas. Willard Metcalf, an American Impressionist with some background in scientific illustration, was asked to go to Africa with Akeley, but died before the expedition embarked. Metcalf's style was loose and he may have been as close to Impressionism as Akely would dare to go. And yet, the diorama painters discovered that they had to use much highly saturated color for the painting, when seen at a distance, to have enough richness and vibrancy. Wild juxtapositions of color daubed abstractly would blend together when seen from the viewing window. Ironically, Impressionism informed many a diorama painter's work, but like a theatre set, the effect had to stabilize from outside the diorama. Steve Quinn instructs his art students at the American Museum to view the background paintings through binoculars. They are surprised to see just how loosely the paintings are handled and how much high-keyed color was used.
Carl Rungius, painter of the Moose diorama at the AMNH, was critically "mentored" by his patron William Temple Hornaday that his easel painting style was slipping too much toward Impressionism. Hornaday saw Rungius' forms breaking apart because of his disregard for modulating the colors that lay next to each other. The effect of looking closely at such an easel painting would have been jarring to someone with a conservative view of art. The same held true with the dioramas; for the background to be successful, the landscape had to hold together from the viewing window. The painting could not call attention to itself and the realism had to be effective enough for the viewer to suspend disbelief enough for the illusion to work.
There has been a lot of discussion about whether the background painting of the Moose group by the aforementioned Carl Rungius is finished or not. Rungius left the museum in March 1940, leaving the background in a state as finished as possible without the foreground in place. He told James L. Clark that he would not be able to return until October. The director, Roy Chapman Andrews gave James L. Clark the OK on April 30, 1940 to complete and close the dioramaviii. Andrews may have known that Rungius' wife was very ill. In fact, Rungius' wife died a week later on May 7th, 1940. Whether Clark had another artist paint the tie-in is not known, but the diorama was closed and Rungius never painted on it again. Rungius used simplified massing of color and loose brushwork in all his work and this is similar to what is seen in the Moose background painting. If there are areas Rungius would have returned to paint, it is hard to tell by looking what those areas might be.
Frank Chapman wasn't content with just displaying North American birds, he shifted to an international focus in the Birds of the World and the Whitney Pacific Bird halls. He brought scientific study of birds to the fore in the Biology of Birds Hall. Given Chapman's history with museum exhibit making, it was not surprising that he took steps to have Francis Lee Jaques hired in 1924 at the AMNH. Chapman had a knack for finding and hiring extraordinary artists. Jaques, over his lifetime, would bring a high level of quality to the museum's exhibits. He quickly became established as one of the American Museum's most skillful painters. Jaques lived in Duluth Minnesota and worked as a freelance illustrator. His passion outside of work was painting and studying birds and natural history. He inquired about employment at the University Museum in Minneapolis, suggesting to the bird curator that he could enhance the curator's photographs by painterly retouching. The curator didn't take kindly to a critique of his photos and ignored the brash artist and his retouching suggestions. Undaunted, Jaques sent a letter with three of his paintings of birds to Frank Chapman at the American Museum of Natural History. This was equally brash on Jaques part since he had no connection or introduction to Chapman. Frank Chapman was possibly the most influential ornithologist in the country and a heavyweight curator at the AMNH. Jaques' painting of a black duck impressed Chapman who noted that the "reversed coverts" of the wing were closely observed and painted correctly. Chapman convinced James L. Clark, head of Exhibits, to offer a job in the Department of Preparation to this unknown painter from Minnesota. Jaques took a cut in pay living on only $125/month, but, in all other respects, he had won the lottery. Chapman enfolded Jaques into his personal domain by persuading Clark that Jaques' talents in bird painting made him most useful for the proposed bird exhibits. Jaques accompanied Chapman on his expeditions, he painted Chapman's exhibits, Chapman's colleagues had Jaques illustrate their books, and Chapman even helped Jaques sell some of his paintings. Jaques wrote that, "the doctor did a great deal for me." It goes without saying that Jaques did a great deal for Chapman as well. Jaques was thirty-seven when he started at the AMNH and, for his first job, Chapman had him paint the dome in the main bird hall. The square footage of the dome was enormous and Chapman hoped Jaques could finish it before the November1925 American Ornithological Union's (AOU) meeting at the museum. Jaques, not only accomplished the task in record time, but he also greatly impressed all who saw the finished work. Ray Potter mounted the birds that were hung from the ceiling next to Jaques' painted birds in flight. The painted birds looked so deceptively three-dimensional that some said they were indistinguishable from the taxidermied birds. Right from the beginning, Jaques showed his prodigious talent and caught the notice of the scientists and the artists in the ornithology community. A seventeen year-old Roger Tory Petersen, who would later become famous for his illustrated field guides, attended that year's AOU conference to see the annual exhibit of bird art. Petersen was very impressed by the dome and shyly inquired to Jaques, himself, who had painted the birds of the dome.
Jaques was an innovator and he claimed to have used a stipple brush for the first time on this job to reduce the shine that oil paint leaves.
"When I started the first dome (sky) painting in the AMNH the brush marks showed up horribly because of what I call shine. I went out and bought a "stipple" brush, which I still have, and with which I could give a "tooth" to the surface eliminating brush marks as such. I've used it on all my skies."ix
The stipple brush became a standard tool for museum background painters, including James Perry Wilson, who would adopt its use for the same reason and as a tool to blend color. Wilson and Jaques worked with the stipple brush side-by-side on another painted dome in the Whitney Bird Hall.x This was a large expanse of blue sky with a few cumulus clouds, featuring Jaques' painted birds. Sitting high on scaffolding or working on their backs, they painted it in 1938. This was the first and last time the two artists ever collaborated on a project together.
Jaques came to the museum with many of the skills needed for collecting specimens and foreground materials for the museum. He knew how to hunt and skin animals and he had studied birds and mammals since he was a young man. Jaques went with Chapman on his first ornithology expedition to the Caribbean and South America in1925 to collect for the Panamanian Barro Colorado bird diorama. He and Ray Potter, a taxidermist, worked together to collect the birds and foreground material for the diorama. In Jaques' unpublished autobiography, he recounts how Chapman was in the way, offering untenable suggestions, as he and Potter worked to collect a fig tree for the diorama. Many years later, Jaques and Chapman would have a more serious falling out, likely as a result of a dispute over Jaques vacation time and salaryxi. For now, Chapman, who had responsibility for the exhibits in both the Birds of the World and The Whitney Bird Hall championed Jaques as his primary artist. Scientific staff throughout the museum noted Jaques arrival at the AMNH and several department heads tried to secure his help on museum displays and even to illustrate their books. Jaques enjoyed the attention and tried to oblige all requests when he could. He commented that the museum was smaller then, more like a "big happy family"xii. Maybe not all happy though, as he thought that James L. Clark was bothered by all of Jaques extra-departmental involvements. Chapman arranged for Jaques to travel to Peru after they finished in Panama so Jaques could contribute illustrations for a projected book on South American Birds by Robert Cushman Murphy.
On his return, Jaques painted the Barro Colorado diorama in the Birds of the World Hall, his first background at the American Museum of Natural History
Jaques wasn't happy with this diorama. Rough burlap had been applied to the background wall, which made painting difficult, and called attention to itself, thereby undermining the diorama's illusion. The foreground was jungle-like and therefore, lighting was difficult. Incandescent lights, located inside the diorama, were hot enough to cause the wax foliage in the foreground to droop. Early on, Jaques began compiling information about what worked and what didn't.
James L. Clark left the country on a mammal collecting expedition in Central Asia from 1927 to 1928. In his absence, he put Jaques in charge of the exhibition department. The North American Mammal Hall proposal had recently been accepted by the museum board and while Clark was away, Jaques, worked out an elaborate design for the hall. Jaques wrote:
As acting director of exhibits, I planned the hall. [Frank] Drayton built a model of the hall on a scale of 2" to a foot. It was raised so you could ‘walk' inside and see the group models from the right viewpoint. "People said Jimmy Clark isn't going to like this when he gets home-which of course I knew, and he didn't. He never said a word to me about the [model of the] hall.xiii
Jaques, probably jumped into designing the North American Mammal Hall with great enthusiasm, but without a sensitive understanding of how close this hall was to Clark's heart. Instead, he blundered forward making a career-damaging faux pas. Jaques claimed that a long-standing antagonism between the two developed from this incident. Jaques would further assert that, as a result, Clark simmered with resentment and kept him from painting in the North American Mammal Hall. Indeed, Jaques would only paint one diorama, the Musk Ox, in this hall and it appears that it occurred only because the director of the museum, Roy Chapman Andrews, intervened on his behalf.xiv The Musk Ox diorama had no painted or photographic references. Jaques had to search in the photo archives for a reference photo. He had never been to musk ox country so he wasn't sure what to look for, but he found an old faded black and white photo that seemed to fit the habitat, and he painted the background with it. This was not one of the "plum" dioramas! Given these facts, it doesn't seem paranoid or far-fetched that Jaques assumed Clark wanted to marginalize him from work in this hall. Ironically, the layout of Jaques model corresponds closely to Clark's early layout of the hall. The design was modified later so the "corridor" dioramas were moved against the wall rather than backed up to the large central dioramas. Jaques was never given any credit for this, but according to some, Jaques design with a ring of large dioramas in the center and another ring of "corridor" dioramas was too good and innovative not to use.xv
By 1927, Jaques was on his way to the Bahamas to paint tropical fishes and to get the above-water background material for the two-tiered Coral Reef group in the Hall of Ocean Life. He was working under the scientific guidance of Dr. Roy Waldo Miner who spared no expense to get accurate studies of the underwater coral reef. Jaques wrote about the difficulty of painting live tropical fish in a goldfish bowl on the deck of the sailing ship "France". Within the context of the other jobs being carried out, he had one of the relatively easier tasks. Chris Olsen was painting underwater, diving with paintbrushes and a stretched canvas that had to be tied down so it wouldn't float away.
The following summer, Jaques accompanied the Alaskan/Arctic Ocean expedition on the sailing ship, the Morissey to collect for the Little Diomedes and walrus dioramas. Jaques, in all respects, was a wunderkind. Only at the museum for four years, he collected foreground material, made color studies of plants, shot bird specimens, skinned them, and even helped skin a walrus and brown bear. By late 1928, Jaques had collected the material for both dioramas. To secure references for a background painting, he typically would prepare preliminary studies, a small painting at the site and a series of photographs as well. On later expeditions, conditions for painting were at times close to impossible because of bad weather, tossing seas, or abundant insects. Here, Jaques developed a system of field sketching to efficiently record essential information. He drew a panoramic outline of the scene and made color notations coded to a color chart. The finished sketch has a paint-by-number appearance. At least one of Jaques biographers link these numbered sketches with Jaques characteristic painting style where broad areas are outlined and flatly painted.xvi
For Jaques, being on the Alaskan expedition was the kind of adventure that he wanted to participate in full though, he didn't join the evening poker games and stayed somewhat to himself. He felt, because of this, he didn't ingratiate himself to some on the trip. He noted that he and Harold Anthony rubbed each other the wrong way. Anthony was the mammalogist who would later become a key player, as the curator-in-charge of the large mammal diorama halls. The Jaques/Anthony antagonism would only build over the next fifteen years. Jaques had a distinct talent for letting his annoyances and resentments bubble over, souring his relationships with many of the powerful men at the AMNH. Jaques was known to be prickly and proffer his opinions bluntly. Over and over, he would shoot himself in the foot by saying something to someone that would make his placement with good jobs all the more difficult. As an example, Jaques painted studies on this trip for the Alaskan Brown Bear diorama in Moller Bay in the Aleutian Islands, thinking he might use them for the diorama he hoped to paint in the North American Mammal Hall. Anthony was the head curator for the hall and, given the tension between the two, it is no surprise that Jaques would never use these studies to paint the Alaskan bear diorama at the AMNH. Belmore Brown was hired on contract to paint the iconic diorama that greets visitors to the North American Mammal Hall. Although, Jaques' studies would not be used, he may have had them on hand as ancillary studies when he painted the Peabody Museum's Alaskan Brown Bear diorama in 1956.
Wilson and Jaques were in different worlds when it came to painting dioramas. They were two of the top artists ever to paint dioramas at the American Museum and it is understandable that there may have been a competitive jealousy that made for a difficult association between the two. Jaques wrote a short chapter on James Perry Wilson in his infamous autobiography. Here, Jaques admitted that Wilson's dioramas were very popular, but he dismisses them in the same sentence as giant Kodachromes. Jaques wrote, "He never changed anything on his backgrounds." As a young man, Daniel Varner worked with Jaques and indicated that he was a "nuts and bolts" kind of guy who likely understood what Wilson was doing.xvii That may have been partially so, but his comment about the giant Kodachromes indicates he didn't understand the full impact of what Wilson was doing and why he he did what he did. Jaques shared Wilson's concern with depicting how light, color, and atmosphere operated in the landscape. From there the two would diverge into two different camps of diorama painting. Jaques painted beautiful landscapes in his signature style using strong, flat, distinct areas with a linear emphasis. He painted dynamic compositions and, as implied, he felt no hesitation to add elements that he felt would enhance dynamism. Jaques was innately talented and he took much pride in his work. He was supremely confident in his own system of portraying natural phenomenon. To him, Wilson's mimetic and mathematically based methods seemed too fussy and time-consuming. Jaques mocked the amount of time it took Wilson to paint each diorama, specifically pointing to Wilson's methodical painting of skies, the unnecessary time spent gridding the background, and the time spent drawing animals on the side walls anamorphically. He wrote that he was able to achieve as much, if not more than Wilson in half the time.
Jaques wasted no time when he painted. He didn't like fussy methods. Although early in his career, he started with a well-defined charcoal sketch, as time went on, he used only a quick outline drawing before he would start painting. He finished each area as he went, usually starting with the horizon. He established his color there, then painted the sky. He described how he painted skies as compared to James Perry Wilson in his unpublished autobiography:
Perry's method of doing skies permitted him to graduate them from dark to light, but in the opposite dimension, from warm to cool, or whatever. With my method I could only go from light to a darker shade, thus mix enough of the lightest shade to cover the whole sky, which is usually the horizon, and add thin darker color as you go up. That is for instance, color from the tube mixed thin to a liquid. This adds very little to the volume of paint and you come out even. (If you start with a darker color and add white, you'll end up with a lot more paint than you started with) I took a fraction of time, a tiny fraction.xviii
From the horizon, Jaques would typically paint down and from left to right, though not always. Sometimes he would skip around painting an area to completion and then going to another area, painting it to completion and so on. Jaques typically painted the birds first and painted the background around them later.
He would determine the size of the birds by using paper cutouts of varying sizes. This sizing method wasn't always effective. Wilson called attention in the Roosevelt Bird Sanctuary to what is seen in several dioramas: the birds are magnificently painted, but they look uncomfortably large.xix Wilson too, had the same problem. Some of his birds look oversized in the Shoreline diorama at the Peabody Museum. Jaques came up with his own individualized methods for painting. He sometimes underpainted heavily forested areas in black enamel paint to help get the feeling of a densely shadowed or darkly wooded environment.
Jaques and Wilson could not have had more dissimilar personalities or interests. Jaques noted some of Wilson's eccentricities, such as living at home with his mother, and going to classical music concerts alone. Jaques acknowledged that Wilson used his head, but in unusual ways like figuring out where to wait for the train every day so that he might get a seat. Wilson's lack of world war service could not have played well with Jaques who resented having to give up his own time in the service. Jaques disliked James L. Clark and wouldn't be cowed by him or, for that matter, any of the other administrators. The fact that Wilson seemed to politely accept Clark's coronation as his pet painter, must have looked like Wilson was currying favor. This would have applied as well with Wilson's amiable relationship with Harold Anthony, the curator of the North American Mammal Hall. Jaques was angry that he had been passed over in that hall and he held both Clark and Anthony responsible. It certainly would have smarted to see how many of the highly visible North American mammal dioramas Wilson painted while he was given only one of the lesser ones.
Wilson's delicate nature and seeming disregard for all the defining characteristics of manhood was worlds away, unbridgeable to that of Jaques. Ray deLucia traveled with Wilson on several trips to collect material for the North American Mammal Hall dioramas and laughed about Wilson's lack of physical strength.
In the early days [on museum expeditions] we'd go out by station wagon and the things we couldn't fit into the car we'd ship by train. I spent a lot of time making crates. Perry didn't do a lot of physical work. Once I asked him to give me a hand with a crate I couldn't lift by myself. He put two fingers on it-that was about all the help you could get out of Perry. xx
Jaques, in sharp contrast, liked to join in on strenuous tasks. Physical strength was a source of pride for Jaques and a standard to which he held all men accountable. He wrote about working on the farm as a young person:
"These heavy interchangeable racks had to be lifted on and off, depending on what the wagon was being used for. You frequently had to lift something and you lifted as much as you could, if you couldn't, you got someone to help and he did and didn't charge anything for his help either. If he could lift more than you could, he felt a little proud and you felt a little ashamed. So when I hear that the unions don't want a man to be required to lift more than 50 lbs, I froth a little at the mouth. Good God, commodities were put in 100 lb bags because that was what one man could handle."xxi
It is notable that the AMNH expedition to collect the Wolf diorama had their base in Minneapolis at the same time Jaques was painting dioramas for the Bell Museum. Wilson wrote about his stay in Minneapolis and didn't mention that he had stopped at the Bell museum to see Jaques or his new dioramas. Ruth Morrill claims that there was no love lost between the two painters and that Wilson found delight in the fact that he and Ralph Morrill, the foreground artist at Peabody, got along so well. This was not so with Morrill and Jaques.xxii Ralph Morrill found Jaques to be somewhat aloof. Jaques came to the museum, painted his backgrounds, and left the tie-in for Morrill to work out at a later date on his own. While a trip back to paint the tie-in may not have been as easy for Jaques from Minnesota, this was a very different working style than Wilson who, once freelancing, would make extra trips back to Peabody to work out the tie-in by collaborating closely with Morrill to make sure the jump from three-dimensions to two was as effective as possible. While working at the Peabody Museum, Wilson was asked to improve the tie-in in Jaques' Mule Deer diorama. He obliged, repainting the entire canyon section on the right side of the diorama. Ray deLucia, hired to clean and refurbish the Peabody dioramas in the 1990's, repainted 12" to 16" at the lower edge of Jaques dioramas to make those tie-ins work better. Jaques paintings are high quality and impressed everyone, but his working style ingratiated himself to few of the museum artists who had to come behind him, forced to match their foregrounds to his backgrounds rather than the other way around.
For whatever reasons, competitiveness, lack of any common interests, or inward dislike of each other, Jaques and Wilson were not friends. It is testament to both of their character that nothing overt was said to my knowledge. Jaques comment about living at home with his mother has an edge and Wilson's polite observation about Jaques' oversized birds is the only criticism by Wilson I've seen. This was a two-way street and there is more than a little indication that Wilson had his own inner thoughts about Jaques that he kept well-censored.
Jaques wrote two technical papers about diorama construction in the Museum News in April 1931. Here, he codifies information diorama builders had developed over thirty years. Jaques gave us dimensions for the ideal diorama shape (6' deep by 10' wide). He discussed the ideal curvature for coved walls and ceilings to reduce glare. He outlined how the edges of the viewing windows can best be determined and that they be installed at an angle to reduce reflected light. Most of these guidelines are still applicable today for the construction of dioramas. It is remarkable that these short articles demonstrate that Jaques, without vast experience having only painted three dioramas, was very aware of the problems artists have when attempting a viable illusion in dioramas. He wrote that horizontal lines should be avoided at the sides of the background because the distortion is most severe there. He suggests using a horizontal stick at the plane of the glass front if horizontal lines are necessary.xxiii While Jaques' method for compensating for the distortion is not perfect, his description of the problem is accurate. He understood that if a photographic image of the diorama looked correct, the eye of the viewer might not see it so. Equally astute, he notes that the distortion on the sides of the diorama background can appear to enclose the diorama, lessening the illusion. Ironically, Jaques was never able to completely solve these problems. He did his best to compensate for them, but was bedeviled by distortion in his paintings that, more often than not, wrap like a shower curtain with the curve of the background.xxiv
James Perry Wilson devised methods that perfectly solved these problems. The Nile River diorama in 1937 seems to be the first time Wilson used the method on a large scale, but the earth didn't shift at the AMNH. Jaques was well established having already put in thirteen years as a highly praised diorama painter. In truth, the distortion problem in background paintings of dioramas is somewhat subtle. Landscapes are a forgiving subject when distorted as there are no straight lines like those found in architectural subjects. Jaques adjusted his paintings, mostly by eye to reduce these problems, so he felt he had no reason to look for better methods, especially when the new methods seemed overly mathematical and time-consuming. Still, Jaques could not have helped noting that Wilson's backgrounds didn't hug the curve of the diorama and that even though he denigrated them as enlarged Kodachromes and they took twice the time, the results were undeniably impressive.
By 1934, when James Perry Wilson started at the AMNH, Jaques had spent six years working out plans for the Whitney Bird Hall. As an integral member of the Whitney Bird Hall Committee, Jaques and Robert Cushman Murphy had sketched a plan for 18 groups. The dioramas were designed to be two different sizes with smaller ones alternating with the larger. Frank Chapman at 70, had delegated day-to-day oversight of this hall to Murphy and Ernst Mayr. Still, Chapman remained active in designing and curating the hall. Chapman wrote to director Sherwood, from a Florida address, asking him to consider his own plan of 14 dioramas rather than the "Murphy-Jaques" plan, as Chapman called it. Chapman thought the proposed 18 dioramas crowded each other and that there were too many groups devoted to New Guinea.xxv
The Whitney Bird Hall committee made a decision to go with the Murphy/Jaques plan of 18 dioramas and asked Jaques to build a scale model of the hall. Jaques obliged by recycling his earlier model of the North American Mammal Hall which already had a dome and indirect lighting!
The design and planning stage took many years; it was September 1934 before Jaques took the first step in the actual diorama making. He joined the expedition to the South Seas on the sailboat, Zaca to collect at Marquesa Polynesia (where Herman Melville was held captive), Tuamotus Polynesia, Tahiti, French Polynesia, Pitcairn Polynesia (where the descendants of the HMS Bounty mutineers resided), Easter Island Polynesia, Valparaiso, Chile, Chinchas Islands, Peru, and the Galapagos.
Members of the expedition included the donor, Templeton Crocker, Harry Shapiro, from the division of anthropology, James Chapin, from ornithology, and Toshio Aseada, a photographer.
The responsibility of painting all of the Whitney Hall backgrounds went to Francis Lee Jaques, though this wasn't fully decided until 1936. The Whitney Bird Hall committee, with strong urging from Frank Chapman, recommended that Jaques paint all of the dioramas for the following reasons:
"The question having been raised concerning the desirability of employing some artist other than or in addition to Francis L. Jaques in painting the backgrounds for the bird groups in the Whitney Memorial Hall, the members of the Bird Department wish to express their belief in the undesirability of this proposal for the following reasons:
This was a significant affirmation of Jaques' talents and he realized that this would probably be his final opus magnum of his employment at the AMNH. It is somewhat ironic that James L. Clark recommended him for the work in the Whitney Hall and Frank Chapman signed the preceding minutes; both of whom Jaques felt had undermined him in the past.
In the Whitney Hall of Birds, Frank Chapman, with characteristic brilliance, expanded the concept of what a hall of dioramas could look like. His idea of unifying a hall of dioramas, with all dioramas seen as one multifaceted totality representing Pacific landscapes and associated bird life was unique. The layout of the dioramas in the hall mimicked the geographic arrangement of the sites in the Pacific, another first. Finally, his idea to create a continuous overall look by using only one artist to paint the backgrounds ties this hall into a tightly wound conceptual entityxxvii. It is extraordinary that, over the years, Chapman continued to think intelligently about and hone concepts that would continuously set new standards for the most effective and attractive hall of dioramas. Because of Chapman's vision and the consistently stunning painting of Francis Lee Jaques, the Whitney Bird Hall stands as a high water mark in diorama creation and an over-arching legacy for both men.xxviii
By 1940, the first seven dioramas in the Whitney Bird Hall had either been completed or were underway. Two brothers, Sheridan and Bruce Fahnstock, stepped forward to fund an expedition to Australia and Polynesia to collect for five more groups. James L. Clark's first choice to go on the expedition was Jaques. He believed the somewhat higher cost, due to Jaques' salary, would be more than absorbed by the greater rapidity with which the painter would transfer his own field studies to the background.xxix Chapman expressed a counter opinion that it would not be necessary, or even desirable, to have Jaques represent the AMNH on the Fahnstock expedition. He felt the services of Mr. Jaques were needed for other work in the Museum and Jaques stayed in New York.xxx Chapman's opinion appears to have been wishful thinking because in early 1940, Jaques' work was stalled at the AMNH and he asked for and was granted a leave of absence to paint a diorama background at the Bell Museum in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This leave was extended in May 1940 so Jaques could paint a second diorama there. Jaques was on leave through most of 1940.
Jaques' 1940 leave of absence is surprising because throughout 1940, James L. Clark was negotiating with Belmore Brown to paint the White Sheep and the Alaskan Brown Bear, each for $1500 apiece. As noted above, Jaques already had the studies for the Alaskan Bear. Regardless of what motives Clark had taking this action, it makes no sense financially. Additionally, James Perry Wilson, at the same time, had more work than he could handle. James L Clark's impossible scheduling of Wilson's time created a tug-of-war for Wilson's services between some of the richest and most powerful men in the museum. Wilson was scheduled to paint three dioramas in the North American Mammal Hall and four in the African Hall of Mammals. Wilson went on the expeditions and painted references for all three dioramas in the North American Mammal Hall, so it seems reasonable that Clark would want him to paint those backgrounds, but with so much at stake with the donors, why wouldn't Clark bring Jaques in to paint the African Hall dioramas? Wilson had the Libyan Desert, the Vulture/Hyena, the Ostrich/warthog, and the Cheetah to finish. All four dioramas had photographic references with which Jaques was comfortable working. By 1941, Wilson had finished three of the four African Hall dioramas and Daniel Pomeroy, the chairman of the African Hall committee, wanted Wilson to finish the final one, the Cheetah group. At the same time, the Bison group donor, Robert McConnell, wanted Wilson to paint his diorama and William Honnold, the donor for the Elk (Wapiti) group, had been waiting a year for his diorama to be finished. All levels of the administration from Clark up to the director, Roy Chapman Andrews were concerned that these donors were upset. The administration wasn't talking to one another and they bungled their response, putting up a disorganized front to placate them. Clark wrote aggrandizing letters to both Honnold and McConnell trying to work out an acceptable schedule. Perry Osborn wrote to Pomeroy with another schedule and even Roy Chapman Andrews, the director, overstepped everyone's domain to dictate where Wilson would paint. McConnell threatened to bring a "recommendation" to the board if Andrews didn't back down (Andrews didn't and the trustees asked for his resignation one month later). Clark responded to an angry Robert McConnell after receiving his letter demanding to know why Wilson was not painting in the Mammal Hall:
"It is just too bad we haven't more Perry Wilsons. While some of our other artists are very good, their particular style and technique do not always apply to the type of background to be painted. Please rest assured that we are eager not only to fulfill your wishes but also our own in carrying your Grizzly Bear Group forward with all possible speed"xxxi
Wilson was clearly in favor with the donors, (and Clark), but letters written from Pomeroy to Clark were adamant about opening the last section of the African Hall as quickly as possible. By keeping the African Hall closed until 1942 meant a significant loss of revenue that must have smarted to the businessman, Pomeroy. With opening both halls as a priority, it seems the logjam caused by the overscheduling of Wilson's time could have been avoided if Jaques had been brought in to finish the final African Hall dioramas. As it played out and for reasons unknown, Belmore Brown painted two dioramas for a total of $3,000 and Wilson painted all four African dioramas as well as those in the North American Mammal Hall with the last one, the Cheetah group completed in 1942.
In January 1942, Chapman's vision for the hall was threatened when Jaques, who was finishing the thirteenth diorama in the Whitney Hall, announced his retirement. Chapman made it a priority for the Whitney Bird Hall Committee to do all they could to hire Jaques back from retirement to finish the last five dioramas, citing again, the necessity of producing a unified look to the Whitney Hall. Chapman, not sounding like a man with a grudge, praised Jaques at length as an "extraordinarily sympathetic collaborator, peculiarly well fitted to carry out the ideas of members of the ornithological staff and unique in his ability to paint both backgrounds and the birds that occupy them in a manner to please equally the scientist and the artist..xxxii
The committee debated how to insure that Jaques would return to paint the dioramas after the war in the Pacific was over and the final five dioramas collected. They decided a gentleman's agreement wouldn't assure them that Jaques would return, so they agreed to put Jaques on a retainer of $100 per year for five years. The terms of employment were also worked out where Jaques would be paid $1000 per group. It wouldn't be until 1952, after Frank Chapman's death, that Jaques would finish the final Whitney Hall dioramas.
By 1949, the AMNH began negotiating with Jaques for another diorama in the Forestry Hall, the Olympic Rain Forest. Clarence Hay, the donor, arranged a visit with Jaques at the Bell Museum in Minneapolis to look at his diorama painting in order to determine the kind of treatment that might be best for his diorama in New York. They came to a decision and Jaques signed the contract for the Olympic Rainforest diorama in April 1951. By that summer, he was in New York working on the scale model while the diorama, itself, was under construction. This diorama has an extraordinary design where the viewing windows enclose the visitor on three sides. The foreground has seven large trunks of different species of rainforest trees that impart an effective illusion of standing in the middle of a rainforest. Jaques is at his absolute best as a painter, controlling the background painting with operatic verve, and showing his enormous talent for diorama composition. The left side is generally dark with some bits of light streaming through the understory. A beautifully mounted deer by George Adams peeks out from around a tree and a break in the trees pulls the viewer's focus to a distant view of a stream in full sunlight through the haze of the forest.
The foreground work by Ray deLucia and Tomas Newberry is magnificent and Jaques painting glows with otherworldly light. This diorama is so effective that I found myself drawn to looking up toward the treetops. Jaques devised a creative use of mirrors on the ceiling to give the impression that the fabricated trees extend up into space even though they stop at a ceiling mirror nineteen feet high.
The Olympic Rainforest is a tour de force for Jaques and stands as one of the American Museum's best dioramas. Unfortunately, it is located in a hard to reach wing of the museum and many visitors have never seen it. On my last visit, the diorama was closed because the museum was using it for storage of construction materials.
The last diorama Jaques painted at the AMNH was the Glacier Park Timberline group. The contract for his painting of this diorama was signed on June 12, 1952. The contract stipulates that the prepared canvas background would be ready for him to paint no later than January 1st, 1953. Jaques finished the painting in 1954, but sometime between then and March 27th, 1957, Matthew Kalmenoff repainted substantial parts of it. On March 27, 1957, Jaques revisited the AMNH, saw the Glacier Park Timberline diorama as repainted by Kalmenoff, and wrote this letter to Clarence Hay, the donor for this diorama:
It has been my misfortune today to see what has been done to the Glacier Park Timberline background. While it is perhaps presumptuous on my part to assume that any credit might be given me for this, please see that no credit whatever is given me. I am sorry that my long association with you and the Museum ends on this sour note but that is the way it has to be.
Hay copied the letter to the director, Albert Parr asking how to handle the correspondence with Jaques. Parr replied:
According to Jaques, Harold Anthony, the mammalogist with whom he had a long-standing gripe, asked Kalmanoff to repaint it as an act of spite while Anthony assumed a short-term position as acting director of the AMNH. Given that no further correspondence or clarification was made to Jaques, his explanation cannot be taken seriously, especially when couched against what Kalmenoff recounted as happening.xxxiii According to Kalmenoff, the donor requested that there be more wildflowers in the foreground. A photograph of the Glacier Park background as painted by Jaques is available in the AMNH archives to compare with what Kalmenoff painted. Kalmenoff did paint more flowers in the foreground, but he didn't stop there, he repainted the meadow in the mid ground and also the rocky mountain cliffs to the right. The original photograph of the Jaques background shows a smallish stunted pine in the center left that Kalmenoff also repainted. Steve Quinn heard that Jaques stylized trees caught the criticism of someone and was additionally one of the reasons Kalemenoff was asked to repaint the background. Given that Parr wrote about the improvements we made in the Timberline group, it seems possible the critique came, in part, from Parr himself. Jaques would go on to paint at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, the Bell Museum, the University of Nebraska, and the Boston Museum of Science, but he never set foot in the American Museum of Natural History again.
i Roger Stein in the Artist and His Museum (in New Perspectives on Chas Wilson Peale, 1991 U Pittsburgh press) and Sidney Hart and David Ward in the Waning of an Enlightenment Ideal-Chas. Wilson Peale's Philadelphia Museum 1790-1820.
ii Maxine Benson, Martha Maxwell, Rocky Mountain Naturalist, University of Nebraska Press, 1986, p. 171
iii Mary Le Croy at the AMNH called my attention to this reference: Frederick Webster, The Birth of Bird Habitat Groups, Annals of Carnegie Museum, Vol XXX, 1945, p.97-118.
iv Karen Wonders, Habitat Dioramas, Upsalla University Press, 1993 pp. 126-147
v Stephen Christopher Quinn, Windows on Nature, Abrams/AMNH 2006, p. 16
vi Karen Wonders, The Illusionary Art of Background Painting in Habitat Dioramas, Curator, 33/2, 1990 p.96
vii I again acknowledge this critique from my 21st century viewpoint.
viii Letter from Roy Chapman Andrews to James L. Clark, April 30, 1940 AMNH Archives
ix Frances Lee Jaques Unpublished autobiography, Ch21 p. 5
x James Perry Wilson, Unpublished interview with Rudolph Freund and Rudolph Zallanger at the Peabody Museum, circa 1959, AMNH archives.
xi Mary LeCroy, Interview, Nov. 12, 2010. According to LeCroy, Chapman didn't think artists' work justified high pay. LeCroy thinks he also took advantage of his friendship with Louis Aggasiz Fuertes, not paying him well for commissioned paintings of birds.
xii Francis Lee Jaques, Unpublished autobiography, Chapter 20, p.3
xiii Ibid. Chapter 33, p.2. The unpublished autobiography of Jaques is an uneditted, uncensored view of
Jaques inner thoughts. Dorcas MacClintock, who knew Jaques well and liked him wrote, after reading the manuscript, that these are the types of memoirs that should be burned when finished. I am glad that they weren't because it is of interest tangentially to the history of the American Museum and it helps explain why the two best painters at the AMNH were polite to each other, but essentially not on speaking terms.
xiv Ibid., Chapter 33, p. 2
xv Steve Quinn, e-mail, September 30, 2011
xvi Don Luce and Laura Andrews, Francis Lee Jaques, Artist-Naturalist, University of Minnesota Press,1982
xvii Daniel Varner e-mail correspondence, 12-28-03
xviii Francis Lee Jaques, Unpublished autobiography, Chapter 22, p.1
xix Jaques had the same problem with the mammals as well: H. S. Mudd visited the North American Mammal Hall and criticized the painted musk ox in the foreground as being too big. Wayne Faunce took up the matter with Anthony and Clark and consequently, it was decided to have the artist experiment further and finally scale down the animal or eliminate it entirely. Wayne Faunce to H. S. Mudd (donor) Feb. 26, 1942 AMNH archives, file 1178.4
xx Ray deLucia, interview, August 24, 1994
xxi Francis Lee Jaques, Unpublished autobiography, Chapter 3, p.3
xxii Ruth Morrill, conversation 4-30-01
xxiii I have cited in my last chapter, Nat Chard's dioramascope test which points up the weakness in this method.
xxiv Jaques' palette may have also contributed to this problem. His colors are grayer and more flat as a rule it has been suggested by Nat Chard, that his paintings wrap more strongly with the curve of the wall than a painter's palette that uses no black and has a less linear style.
xxv Frank Chapman to Sherwood, Letter dated Feb 26, 1934
xxvi Minutes of the Meeting of the Departmental Committee on the Whitney Wing, May 12, 1936, AMNH archives file 1178.9
xxvii Henry Fairfield Osborn may have introduced this idea before Chapman. In a letter from Harold Anthony to James L. Clark, March 17, 1933 Anthony wrote: [Osborn] expressed his desire to have the dolphin dioramas painted by the artist (Jaques) who painted the background of the Coral Reef group. Prof. Osborn believes that because the three backgrounds will be seen from the far end of the hall, it is very important to have them all done by the same artist in order to secure an harmonious effect.
xxviii Unbelievably, the Whitney Bird Hall dioramas are closed to view today because a live butterfly exhibit has been installed in this hall.
xxix Whitney Hall Committee Minutes, 1-3-40, AMNH archives, file 1178.9
xxx Whitney Hall Committee Minutes, 1-11-40, AMNH archives, file 1178.9
xxxi James L. Clark to Beverly Robinson, March 29,1940(AMNH archives 1178.4)
xxxii Minuites of the Forty-Fifth Meeting of the Ornithological Committee On the Whitney Wing, Feb. 5, 1942, AMNH archives, file 1178.9
xxxiii Steve Quinn, e-mail, June 2011