James Wilson was not one to complain about his lot in life. While he painted the landscape with an undivided passion from the time he was a child, it is unclear, if he had his own way, whether he would have followed in Lucy Van Duyne's footsteps and attended art school after he graduated from high school. His high school transcripts make clear that he was being groomed for a rigorous academic college curriculum. The dearth of art classes in his high school transcripts indicates that either he or his parents or both considered art to be an avocation, not a vocation. Architecture probably appealed to him because it was one of the few art and design curricula leading to a professional career. Though in a rare moment of candor late in his life he said, "I never really wanted to be an architect anyway. It just seemed like it was an easier way to make a living."i
This is all we know. We don't know whether there were conflicts at home over the choice of profession or whether Wilson lacked enough confidence to push his parents to let him go to art school or whether there was just no bucking the system and he accepted his life as outlined by others. Regardless, when the time came to choose a college, the coursework would remain practical and would be a means to a paying profession. It's doubtful Wilson held out any hope that he could develop his love of painting by following a fine art college curriculum. He would have to pursue painting as a hobby, only to be indulged on weekends and vacations. Judging from the large number of paintings he painted on these occasions, it was a very serious avocation.
Wilson planned painting vacations throughout his life. His vacations were mostly solo ventures with the primary intention of painting every day. If anyone went with him, they would have to be as serious about painting as he was. Lucy Van Duyne's son, Frederic Jr. often painted on weekends with Wilson on the Van Duyne's farm in Towaco, NJ and on one occasion, he accompanied Wilson to paint on Monhegan Island in Maine. It was a memorable trip for Frederick Jr. because he met his future wife on the trip. Wilson started going to Monhegan Island for two or three week painting vacations in 1919 and continued every summer until 1940. There were three years in which he didn't go; 1934, half of Monhegan burned and Wilson had just started work at the American Museum of Natural History, 1935, he postponed his summer vacation to help speed progress on the AMNH's African Hall, and 1936 was a year he painted the farmlands of Pownal, VT. Ruth Morrill underscored how seriously he took his painting vacations by recounting that he booked a vacation at the Lake Louise Chateau and spent his entire time painting inside his room overlooking the lake.ii Painting en plein air is how he would take a break from his diorama painting!
His older brother, Robert Clifford, attended classes in civil engineering at Columbia's School of Mines from 1901 to 1905. When the time came for Wilson to think about college, it appears he looked no further than his brother's alma mater. R. Clifford had a confident, assertive personality and Wilson looked up to him. His older brother took classes and worked at a job in his last two years at Columbia before jumping into a very lucrative career with Turner Construction Co. one year shy of completing his degree. The school of architecture at Columbia loomed large for Wilson as an option for college study. The fact that his older brother had fared so well at Columbia probably sealed the decision.
Another draw to Columbia was that Wilson's uncle, Edward Delavan Perry was a professor in Columbia's classics department. As an insider on the faculty, Dr. Perry would have been able to make university life a bit easier for both of the Wilson brothers. R. Clifford boarded with his uncle at 542 W.114th St. for 3 of the 4 years while he attended the university. Nevertheless, it is likely that their uncle Edward would have expected professorial standards from his nephews; both seemed to rise to the occasion doing very well at Columbia. It is evident that Wilson worked hard at his classes. Under his class photo in his 1913 Columbia yearbook, a caption reads, "Talk about your grindstones, he would wear one out the way he grinds".
He had no other social or intellectual affiliations at Columbia other than his election to Phi Betta Kappa for outstanding academic performance. It appears, in addition to his studies, he was quite busy at home; he continued to paint and in June of 1910 he gave a formal piano recital in Newark.
In 1911, Wilson published an article entitled "The Hyperboloid as a Ruled Surface" in the American Mathematical Monthly Vol. 18, no.8-9 (Aug.-Sept. 1911). The editor wrote the following footnote: "This paper was presented by a student in a beginner's class in solid analytical geometry. Its extreme simplicity seems to warrant its publication." It is evident that Wilson had a mathematical gift that can be seen later in his calculations for the grids on his camera and the curved background surfaces that he used in the diorama painting. His strength in astronomy and music is more evidence of an innate and extraordinary power in mathematics. This publication was a remarkable achievement for a second year undergraduate student and especially remarkable for a student in the architecture program. Grinding stones indeed!
Wilson may have had few options at this time in his life. His choices indicate that he was not about to rock the boat or stand up to his father. While he may not have been completely satisfied with the academic and career choices he was making, the security of his relationships at home seems to have been a priority. The choice to attend Columbia was surely based on its noted architectural curriculum, but it also afforded Wilson the ability to stay nested at home. He would live at home, commute to Columbia every day, and return to the familiar surroundings at night. While it may have been convenient for Wilson to live with his uncle in Morningside Heights as his brother had, it appears he felt most at ease at home with his family. Wilson continued to live at home after he got out of college and went to work in New York City. Even after his sister died and his brother married and left home, he lived with his mother until she died in 1944.
The need to be secure in his home may have kept Wilson from joining any extracurricular groups, but even after he was on his own, he affiliated with no artist's organization, museum, or professional group. Later in his life, he would sometimes give lectures to these groups on such subjects as stereo photography and diorama painting and he participated in several art exhibits, but there was never any active organizational involvement.
James Perry Wilson has been described socially as a loner. While he had numerous good friends, there is no evidence of any intimate relationships. Those who knew him usually refer to him with warmth and describe him as a good friend. Many people assumed he was homosexual. It is clear he was infatuated with several young men throughout his lifetime, but each of them, when asked, noted that he never made any suggestive remarks or advances of any sort. The relationships were strictly platonic. He went painting with them on a Saturday or Sunday to his favorite painting locales, they attended the opera or the symphony together, or they visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. When painting together Wilson might gently make comments about what they were seeing and how one might depict such phenomenon in a painting. These comments usually were offered only when asked for and the critiques were given with encouragement and humility. His vast knowledge of painting techniques and visual science was never flaunted or pushed on anyone. Paintings would many times be exchanged at the end of the day. It seems he could safely express his affection in this manner and the young men could reciprocate as if he was a loving uncle or an inspiring and perceptive teacher.
It is speculation as to whether his presumed homosexuality was a factor contributing to his being a loner. It is evident that he was socially sensitive to other people's feelings, but there was also a level of formality to his relationships. He displayed a high moral standard and a social politeness that had origins in his family. One young man visited Wilson at his apartment where they listened to music and discussed painting. As he was leaving, the young man dropped a hint to Wilson that he was willing to talk about, "his [homosexual] problem" if he so desired. Wilson mutely looked at him as if he hadn't understood a word said and the subject was never broached again. iii
On the other hand, Wilson was irrepressible. There are several accounts of his penchant for nudity. This was not a lewd or sexual activity for Wilson, he grew up in the "Fresh Air" generation where getting outdoors and sunbathing was associated with health. He may have been encouraged by his mother to get outdoors and soak up sunshine given the amount of life-threatening and mortal sickness experienced directly in his family. His interpretation of how to soak up sunshine may not have been the same as his mother's, but the pairing of plein air painting and healthful sunbathing was probably shared and encouraged. Fred Scherer recounts that they were painting together in a secluded area when he looked over and found Wilson to be totally naked. At some point later that day, Fred noticed two women on horseback coming up over the hill. He whistled to alert Wilson, who reached down, whipped his pants up, and continued painting as if nothing had happened.iv
In 1905, while Wilson was still a junior in high school, the Columbia school of architecture instituted new rules for incoming students. New students were to present 2 years of college or scientific schoolwork or the equivalent, including languages, ancient and medieval history, and allied subjects before they could start in the architecture school. This was an attempt by the new executive head, Alfred Dwight Foster Hamlin to raise the intellectual caliber of the student body and to free up more time for students to devote to classes in design and those classes immediately related to the professional practice of architecture. v
Wilson graduated from high school in June of 1906 and contracted typhoid in the same year. The illness likely set him back an additional year, possibly longer because he didn't start his undergraduate studies at Columbia until 1909. In 1911, after finishing two years of liberal arts courses in the undergraduate college, Wilson started in the architecture program at Columbia.
William Ware started Columbia's architecture school in 1881. At this time there were only three architecture schools in America and they didn't have much influence. The architecture school at Columbia was Ware's second effort to start a program; he also started the architectural school at MIT in 1867. There were enormous growing pains in Columbia's architecture program during the first 30 years before Wilson's enrollment in 1911. Ware had little to go on to create a curriculum. He felt that students needed to be well rounded in a liberal arts education before learning the skills of architecture so he made mathematics, professional practice and history preliminary to the work in drawing and design. In design courses Ware showed little interest in the production of highly finished drawings, placing more emphasis on composition. His aim was to teach students to think as well as draw.
At that time, most aspiring American architects went to study architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. It was the leading educational institution for architects and the standard by which Ware's program at Columbia was judged. In 1892, Ware realized that his graduates had only enough skill to gain entrance to the Parisan school. The Ecole made competition a major aspect of the training of students and Ware was trying to keep Columbia non-competitive. Critics of American architecture put pressure on Ware to introduce the competitive atelier system in his program because the Ecole students were so much better trained than their American counterparts. Ware realized the discrepancy and hired three graduates of the Ecole in 1894 to improve the students' drawing skills. Ware was forced to retire in 1903 amidst continuing criticism, yet it was widely recognized that he had formed one of the most influential school of architecture in the country.vi
A.D. F. Hamlin was appointed as Acting Director of the program. Hamlin began teaching at Columbia in 1882. He taught architectural history, shades and shadows, and design. His philosophy of architecture education was similar to Ware's; he wanted the students to have a more than just technical training. He too, was interested in additional liberal arts education. The faculty, on the other hand, thought the school should focus more on having a logical sequence of classes dictated by the demands of the profession rather than the liberal ideals of Ware. Hamlin was strongly urged to reorganize the school with these changes in mind. In response, Hamlin instituted a visiting committee of practicing architects and brought more classes in drawing, design, and office practices into the curriculum. This trend continued into James Perry Wilson's tenure as a student. For example, math and engineering credits dropped from 22 to 17 and design credits jumped from 33 to 58. Hamlin also eliminated the four-year curriculum Ware had rigidly imposed. A student would now acquire "points" in given categories and could proceed at their own pace. The fourth year was intended for intensive design work. Wilson took advantage of this system, graduating after only 3 years in the architecture program and skipping the final year of design work to begin paid employment in the architecture offices of Bertram Goodhue.
Hamlin also introduced the atelier system of instruction in design in 1905. There were two ateliers downtown and a third in Havemeyer Hall on Columbia campus, maintained by the University. Here, upper level students could work with established architects on final design projects. Charles McKim and Thomas Hastings, assisted by John Russell Pope and John V Van Pelt, directed downtown ateliers. In addition, advanced students had the option to enroll in private ateliers headed by practicing architects, Henry Hornbostel, George Barber, Dwight H. Perkins, Whitney Warren, and Grosvenor Atterbury.
Despite Hamlin's best efforts to bring about a program of study that readied students for work in the field of architecture, pressure to do more came from the students and the profession at large. The period up until Wilson's second year in the architecture program, 1912, has been described as a time of confusion. Rumblings of discontent focused on the need to broaden work in design and to bring the school more closely in touch with the profession.vii Hamlin held firmly to his academic convictions that including history and theory classes would keep the school from turning into a trade school. Nevertheless, the cries of dissension reached the governing board and by 1912 the University's president and the Trustees looked to appoint a new director, not a professor of architecture, but a working architect to restructure the school to be in closer touch with the profession.
In May of 1912, Austin Lord was hired as the director. Lord's tenure was contentious and brief, for only two years, but in that time, he proposed that all courses that bore no relation to professional practice be taken from the required curriculum. In reality though, very little curricular change actually took place. Lord also, in seeming contradiction to his desire to create a more professional practice, disbanded the downtown ateliers.viii This change occurred at the very time Wilson had reached upper class status and could have elected to attend one. It is unclear how he felt about the removal of this option, but if it is any indication, Wilson later went to work in the architectural offices of Bertram Goodhue who despised the French ateliers of the Ecole. Regardless, one gets the feeling that Wilson wouldn't have cared where he was located to immerse himself in the work at hand; staying at the University for his final projects was as good a place as any. This was a tumultuous and political period in the architecture school with voices from students, faculty, and outside professionals calling for change. The look of the school changed every year with new faculty and new directions. Wilson probably sought and received counsel from his uncle for how to find his way, but the training was rigorous and his focus most likely remained on his coursework. Nevertheless, Wilson attended Columbia during the historic period when American schools of architecture, and specifically Columbia, had fully established themselves as high-quality schools separate and distinct from the Ecole. The fact that Wilson came out with such a strong foundation in architectural practice is evidence of the quality of the Columbia program.
Most of the classes were part of the schedule that every student was required to take. Only a few classes were not mandatory: Isometric and Advanced projections, Specifications, Office drawings, Graphics. The total points for graduating shifted only a bit from 153 in 1910 to 150 in 1914. Despite the turmoil, there actually seems to have been very little curricular change during the time Wilson was in school. Wilson's Columbia coursework included descriptive geometry (formerly known as projective geometry), shades and shadows, perspective, stereotomy , and probably the additional coursework in isometric and advanced perspective, set him up with high level formal training in perspective and projection techniques.
One of his classmates, Chesley Bonestell, the renowned space illustrator, remained a lifelong friend. Bonestell used the same training in perspective to produce stunning illusions of space that Wilson would use to produce his unique illusions of earthly landscapes in the painted dioramas. They also shared an obsession with space and astronomy. Bonestell described some of his impressions of Columbia: [I was]"fortunate in having Frank Dempster Sherman-poet and mathematician-to teach me perspective, shades and shadows, and stereotomy... One examination at the university required [students] to draw a mirror tipped at an angle of 10º from a wall and a chair tipped 10º from the mirror.ix The math requirements [were] unbelievably difficult. (As it turned out, the math requirements would eventually cause Bonestell to drop out of school in 1910.)
Bonestell witnessed the appearance of Halley's comet in 1910 taking several photographs of it. He and friends from Columbia sat up all night on the Pallisades overlooking New York waiting to see the comet rise over the horizon, often mistaking an illuminated beer sign for the celestial sight. When it finally appeared it was a spectacular sight - at least 2 degrees long, the length of 4 full moons.x It is almost certain that James Perry Wilson was one of those friends from Columbia sitting up all night with Bonestell. It was just like Wilson to go to great lengths to watch and photograph celestial events. He would later go on to write and illustrate a monthly column on astronomy for Junior Natural History magazine. He also painted over 75 canvases with astronomical subjects; one, a solar eclipse, was painted on a gigantic scale (approximately 9' X14') for the Boston Museum of Science. Both he and Bonestell would provide astronomical illustrations for Time/Life book, "The World We Live In".
I include the coursework from 1909 to 1913 to show the kind of training he received at Columbia.
1st year (37 points total):
Math: Descriptive Geometry, Calculus 10, and Analytic Geometry, all meeting three times a week, total 11 points
Shades and Shadows four times a week, 4 points
Drawing, two times a week for two hours, 4 points
Elements of Architecture, nine hours a week, 12 points
Ancient Ornament, Theory of Architecture, History of Architecture, each 2 points=6 points
2nd year (37 points total):
Perspective A7, three times a week, 3 points
Stereotomy, 8, 2 points
Drawing (watercolor), A73,74, 4 points
Building materials, A13,14, 4 points
Medieval Ornament A33,34, 2 points
History of Architecture, A23,24, 2 points
Theory of Architecture, A 53, 54, 2 points
Design, A61, 62, 18 points
3rd year (39 points total):
Structural Design, A 15, 16, 4 points
Civic Design, A 81,82, 4 points
Mechanics, Mech. 9, 3 points
Drawing, A 75, 76, 4 points
Modern Ornament, A 35, 36, 2 points
Decorative Arts, A 41, 42, 2 points
Theory of Architecture, A 53, 54, 2 points
Design, A 63, 64, 18 points
4th year (34 total):
Electives, 6 points
Design, including thesis, 22 points
Theory, A 57,58, 2 points
Drawing, A77, 78, 4 points
The architectural school published a bound annual each year with reproductions of student design work. Each reproduced work was given an award, which translated into points needed to graduate. By 1914 each student needed 58 points in design to graduate. Wilson had 11 of his projects published in the 1913 and 1914 annuals for a total of 20 points. The drawings and design are all in the style of the Beaux-Arts. This was hardly surprising since Society of Beaux-Arts architects judged student work and gave out the awards.xi Each class designed public memorials and other governmental projects for critique. These were designed on a grand scale, where formal symmetry and orderly planning reigns supreme. The designs, professionally rendered, reflect the (Beaux-Arts) standards of the day and are conventional and academic in nature.
It is ironic that within a few months of graduating, Wilson would start to work in the architectural offices of Bertram Goodhue who openly despised the Ecole de Beaux-Arts, as well as any formal training in architecture. Goodhue, who learned architecture as an apprentice, good naturedly derided Wilson for his academic training at Columbia University. More ironic still is that one of Wilson's student drawings reproduced in the 1914 annual looks very similar to one of Goodhue's most famous buildings, the Nebraska State Capitol building.
Wilson's artistic colleagues at the AMNH had only the most rudimentary perspective training and would refer to perspective as a dirty word, something to be avoided so as not to kill the spirit of their paintings. Wilson was able to see it as a tool to be used to perfectly solve the problem of distortion of painting on a curved background surface. He understood that the perspective of a diorama could be significantly different than that of an easel painting if its coordinates were plotted correctly. Wilson developed a gridding system that put the viewer in the same relation (or the same angle of view) that he actually had at the site when painting his reference painting and taking panoramic photographs. Wilson was producing "virtual experiences" for museum visitors as far back as the mid 1940's!
Most other diorama artists were trying to get the same thing with their artistic intuition, but without the system of grids, the wings of the diorama conspired against them to wrap with the physical wall of the background. So they tried to hide them with hills, mountains, rock outcroppings, trees, bushes, or whatever else they could find. Many of the traditional diorama designs hid the edges and produced a viewing "alley" down to the center of the diorama where the long distant view could be seen without distortion on the center wall. Wilson, as he gained confidence in his system, painted some long distant views right on the encroaching side walls and probably felt great delight to see them contradict the physical surface of the wall and recede into the distance. Wilson painted a mountain valley confidently stretching off for miles and miles on a wall merely 6 feet from the glass in Peabody Museum's Bighorn Sheep diorama. No other diorama artist was attempting this and it is what makes Wilson's dioramas distinctive. There is a level of verisimilitude never before seen in diorama painting and Wilson proved that with this level of accuracy, he could actually enhance the ineffable, spiritual feel of the landscape. While artists untrained in perspective can adjust distortions at the corners of the diorama by eye, they could not get the landscape to contradict the curve of the wall. This is what Wilson was able to innovate with his training in perspective.
Another signature aspect of Wilson's dioramas is his ability to confidently paint a scene with the sunlight (or moonlight) coming from exactly the correct angle specified by the date and time depicted in the diorama. This is directly related to the shades and shadows coursework and his solid knowledge of projection perspective and astronomy. The following is a description of his painting of the sunset in the Wapiti diorama:
"The sunset on Himes Peak was not an improvisation.As you remember the group was originally planned for about 4pm and the field study and photographs showed the lighting at that hour. When it was decided to change the time to sunset, I worked out the new lighting as carefully as I could on the basis of the photographs taken about an hour and a half earlier. If you could get a look at the group, you would find that the sunlight on Himes Peak is not from the front, as you seem to think, but from the side. It was done with considerable care. The only question on which I had to do considerable guessing was where the edge of the shadows from the peaks on the right side of the valley would fall on the opposite side, over by the Chinese Wall. The item which received the most intensive study, and about which I am entirely confident in regard to its accuracy, is the position, phase, angle, etc. of the rising moon. That I will guarantee without hesitation." xii
Wilson was asked whether his attention to detail and scientific accuracy diminished his creativity. He could have pointed as an example to the Libyan Desert diorama at the AMNH where he used interesting shades/shadows perspective to enhance the flat, featureless landscape of the desert. Wilson dropped the sun down low behind the rocks at the left, producing deep red shadows on all the objects in the desert down to the smallest pebbles. The shadows from the rock outcropping recede into the distance in dramatic compositional polygons. If Wilson had chosen to paint the landscape with the sun were higher, the background would have been bleached out and the drama much lessened.
Ray deLucia knew that Wilson was a good person to ask for help if he had a confounding problem. Ray had to fabricate a tree in one of the American Museum's unusual African Hall dioramas. It had been designed it so there would be backlighting in the group and the light box was not overhead and front and center like most, but was positioned at the rear of the diorama and behind a slanted glass ceiling. Ray had to cut the wire mesh flat on the ground so that when he rolled it into a column to a designated diameter for the trunk of the tree, it would also meet the slanted ceiling. Wilson's fluency in using drawings to understand three-dimensional objects was demonstrated as he quickly sketched out the following drawing that Ray used as a pattern to cut out the mesh so that it rolled up and met the slanted ceiling perfectly.