By October of 1935, James Perry Wilson was finished with the Plains diorama and had worked at the American Museum of Natural History for over a year. It was a year not to forget. He had come in as an apprentice and emerged as a primary background painter. He had worked with one of the strongest painters of the genre, William R. Leigh. He had learned an enormous amount in a short period of time and had successfully completed a large and prominent diorama background. He was analyzing the problems he encountered and he was already devising new methods that would challenge and overturn several major paradigms of creating natural history dioramas. After the Plains diorama, Wilson went to work on the Klipspringer diorama on the third floor African Hall. Wilson had Leigh’s painted studies and Arthur Jansson’s paintings, as well as the photographs from the site in Kenya. Robert Rockwell wrote about how the reference material was collected in 1926: "Carl Akeley completed his miniature sketch of the Klipspringer group and then collected the four animals to be used in the habitat display. In order to aid us later in refreshing our memories, he also made a motion picture film of these neat and elusive little antelopes."i Wilson had every reference he could desire at his fingertips. Leigh was now gone, but Arthur Jansson was still at the museum for consulting. References like this wouldn’t be available for many of Wilson's later African dioramas. The Klipspringer background, like the Plains was transcribed quite closely to Leigh’s original study and to the scale model. Some details like the tree in the midground, the skyline, even the cast shadows of the clouds on the distant plains are exactly reproducedii. The color is close, but features like the rocks are more restrained. As in the Plains background, Wilson would paint his own sky, in this case with fifteen bands of color.
Wilson developed a rigorous method for painting skies in his large scale dioramas that had its roots in his plein air paintings. While painting outdoors, he would carefully blend progressive tints of his three main colors, the horizon, mid-sky, and upper sky, into a graduated, light-filled sky coloriii. In a typical diorama, the Wilson sky was planned with care and usually painted with thirteen bands of color. These colors were pre-mixed to the determined quantity so there would be no color matching midway through the painting of the sky. The square footage of each band was calculated giving Wilson an accurate estimate of how much paint he would need to cover each surface, allowing one ounce of paint to one square foot. Each band would be painted and carefully "feathered" into the next band using a large stipple brush to blend the colors. Ruth Morrill describes this stage as tricky; you have to feather down and feather up just enough, because if too much paint overlaps, a dark band results. Careful planning and careful painting produce a seamless blending of the sky.
In Wilson’s own words:
“A typical fair-weather sky, especially at high altitudes, graduates smoothly and evenly from a deep blue (cobalt or ultramarine) overhead, to a clear and much lighter blue, usually a turquoise hue, at perhaps one quarter of the distance from the horizon to the zenith. Below this level the tone usually lightens still more, but the blue color is modified by ground haze. The hue may be somewhat greenish, in very clear weather, or purplish, on hazy days, especially at low altitude. These three tones-upper part of the sky, clear turquoise band and horizon color-may be considered as the key colors for the entire sky. If they are carefully prepared, all the intermediate tones may be obtained automatically by mixing these. This will insure a smooth, even gradation. The process of repeated subdivision naturally results in 13 bands, as the following diagram will indicate.”iv
Fifteen appears to be a variation of thirteen bands with two darker and more saturated blue bands at the zenith. Additionally, Wilson had a lighter series of fifteen bands that he had labeled as 1A through 15A. In large backgrounds, like the Klipspringer or those with strong directional light, Wilson mixed a lighter series and blended it, not only vertically, but horizontally as well. Such details as mimicking structurally how light disperses across the sky, is why Wilson’s dioramas have such an innate and extraordinary quality.
Wilson was still experimenting with paint texture at the tie in. In the Klipspringer diorama there is not much area to tie in except in the extreme corners. Wilson used paint texture conservatively to mimic the surface of the lichen on the rocks. He would eventually eliminate texture at the tie-in, but he must have seen that sometimes texture used in a controlled way succeeds in enhancing the jump from two to three dimensions
By mid-year 1936, Wilson had finished the Klipspringer group and had started on the Impala, also on the third floor mezzanine. The site is the Serengeti, where William R. Leigh painted studies for the Plains diorama in 1926. No painted studies by Leigh are directly linked to this diorama, but the trees and coloration of the fog look like they have been transcribed from Leigh’s studies. James L. Clark’s photographic files contain a stereo photograph from this site with the same corridors of trees receding in back of an anthill .
Wilson would have had many photographic references such as this from which to paint. The donors of the group were Martin and Osa Johnson. The Johnsons lived part-time in Africa and made movies and documented African flora, fauna, and culture. Their movies and presentations were highly sought after in the United States in the 1920’s and 1930’s and an archive of photographs would have been available for use in the painting.
The Impala background is important because it reveals Wilson grappling further with the problem of painting on a curved surface. He has already seen the problem confronted in the Plains diorama where one side of the diorama is almost twice as deep as the other side. In the Impala group with symmetrical sides, Wilson had identified another related problem, that without some way to contradict the physical curve of the background wall, the painting tends to wrap along with it as though it was a shower curtain, weakening an illusion of three dimensional space. It appears William R. Leigh was also aware of this problem and noted that he could employ some perspectival tricks to make the illusion of space contradict the curve. For example, in the wings of the Waterhole diorama, Leigh painted a line of animals disappearing into the distance to contradict this wrapping phenomenon. In the Impala background, Wilson saw the corridors of trees diminishing into the distance as a perfect way to create the same effect. In this diorama, the visitor can look to the left and see a corridor of trees running off into the distance, face forward, or turn to the right and see other corridors receding in those directions. The experience mimics real life and standing in the landscape with a 360º multiple perspective points of view and it effectively contradicts the curve of the wall.
In two years, Wilson had come up against two of the distracting problems of painting on the curved diorama walls, that unless the curve of the background is exactly circular from the viewing pointv the images will distort because of the variable distances from the viewpoint and also that unless the distortion from the curved background is accounted for, the painting, not only will look wrong, but will tend to wrap with the wall. He hadn’t developed a systematic solution yet, but unquestionably, he was working on it.
In December of 1936, James L. Clark wrote to the director, Roy Chapman Andrews, that the Impala was one month from being completed. He also mentions that the South African group by Francis Lee Jaques on the second floor was also almost completed. Jaques, after finishing this diorama, would switch over to work almost exclusively on the Whitney Bird Hall and the Birds of the World Hall for the rest of his career as a staff member at the AMNHvi Jaques was resentful that he didn’t get more of the prize dioramas in the African Hall and the North America Mammal Hall. The fact that James Perry Wilson walked in off the street and became James L. Clark's primary painter in Clark's cherished African Hall could only have added to Jaques’ resentments.
Jaques, maybe as a dig toward Wilson, wrote that perspective was a dirty word. This reflects a widespread bias among painters that mathematical formulas and techniques deaden the “spirit” of the painting. This disagreement goes to the heart of a conflict other painters had with Wilson's methods and even with him as a person. Wilson overturned the applecart by relying on math and formulas for painting backgrounds that were as good, and arguably better than anything done previously. Additionally, Wilson’s methods were more closely aligned with the science that informs the dioramas. The polemic has a broad base with landscape painters, but it is focused most sharply in the natural history museum where a scientific standard of realism was sought. It must have confounded the other painters to see Wilson use these methods and get such strong results.
The following is an attempt to capture the essence of how museum artists from the tradition of fine art thought about painting the dioramas. I cite an influential book from 1932, Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting as a way in to some of this thinking. Carlson was very suspicious of any methodical transcription of a landscape. He proclaimed that mere visual correctness, in itself, never produces a work of art. For Carlson the outdoor sketches were to be used only by the artist in a studio composition, never as a primary reference from which to transcribe. And the use of photographs were to be especially avoided. Inspiration, the artist’s emotion and creative abilities were of utmost importance. Anything that might diminish these would be suspect.
James Perry Wilson owned Carlson’s book and surprisingly, attended one of his landscape painting classes at the Art Student's League in New York just before he started working at the American Museum. It is surprising because Wilson’s science-based approach to painting would not have fit well with what Carlson was teaching. Equally surprising is that by 1934, Wilson was 45 years old and had already fully established his mature painting method and demonstrated that he was not swayed in the least by any other painter’s methods or styles. As an indication of Wilson’s mismatch with Carlson, he wrote only one note in the margins of his copy of Carlson’s book, a correction of a misspelling in the chapter on aerial perspective. Wilson single-handedly challenged this school of painting in the Natural History Museum. The following quotes from Carlson’s book are the kinds of things Wilson was setting on their heads:
"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....[The artist] is manipulating the physical natural truths to his artistic "needs". Were it not for this vital truth, the man who could slavishly imitate or copy nature as he "saw her" would be the greatest artist-but he never is. (Carlson, Guide To Landscape Painting, 62)
He warns about over-reliance on perspective-otherwise it becomes a detriment to the expression. Perspective, when rightly used, is an auxiliary in a worthy cause; when unartistically used it is only a mathematical equation. (Carlson, Guide To Landscape Painting, 113)
Linear perspective: It is best however not to become too scientific, and after this rudimentary treatise I recommend that you rely upon your feelings rather than your upon your rules. Learn this rule, try it and then forget it. (Carlson, Guide To Landscape Painting, 119)
Carlson makes a distinction between the sketch as a true statement of things as they are and the picture that is an arrangement of these things as you wish them to be. The picture may be a work of art, the sketch seldom or never is. (Carlson, Guide To Landscape Painting, 20)
Reason never produced a work of art, but in all true works of art there is a certain amount of very sane reasoning (subconscious though it be). (Carlson, Guide To Landscape Painting, 59)
Remember that the most realistic landscape in the world can be a work of art but do not think that because a landscape is 'real' that it is a work of art. A true picture is one where so-called natural elements are made to function in an idea. The idea without nature, and nature without the idea are equally nil. (Carlson, Guide To Landscape Painting, 153)
Francis Lee Jaques and William R. Leigh would have aligned themselves closely with the ideas expressed by Carlson. As we have already recounted with Leigh, he seemed to have minimized the importance of his painted references made in Africa and relied more heavily on his memory of the place and his personal aesthetic criteria to paint his backgrounds. As an easel painter, Leigh was thinking about how to produce color harmony in the dioramas. He did this through knowledge of color theory rather than relying on color strictly from his painted references from Africa. To Leigh, the mood and temperament of the landscape was important, but how well it held together as a painting was considered equally as important. Jaques believed first and foremost in the power of good painting and good composition to carry his dioramas. He would make the painting as accurate as the scientist in charge dictated, but Jaques felt that the art, itself, was of primary importance. On collecting expeditions, Jaques would make a small oil sketch or a schematic drawing on-site that was keyed to a color chart with numbers to use back in the museum. A series of photographs were taken as well. His references were there to guide his painting back at the museum, they were not meant to be copied.
In contrast, Wilson brought to his diorama painting a complete reliance on his references. He took great pains with his painted and photographic references. He spent much time, at first, looking for the right composition in the field. He then made careful reference studies, both in oil paint and in photographs on site that were intended for direct transcription to the full-scale diorama. He always deferred to the information in his studies and rarely deviated from them. This was a primary difference in Wilson’s technique. He preferred to use a single panorama from one site for his backgrounds, but occasionally, he would have to merge multiple sites into one background as seen in the Shoreline diorama, Peabody Museum and the Florida Black Bear at the American Museum. If this were necessary, he would try to mask the “seam” between the two sites with a tree or large shrub so he wouldn’t have to compose this interstitial area out of thin air. Other painters criticized Wilson for this and they didn’t believe he was a “real” artist who could paint confidently without his references. These same painters prided themselves in their ability to transcribe the landscapes without over-reliance on the references. Wilson let all criticism of his method roll off his back. He was unshakably confident in his method and ultimately; the results he was achieving were powerful as well as discernably accurate. Wilson’s method relegated his subjective interpretation of the landscape to a secondary status. He sought to understand what he saw in front of him with the aid of his meticulous references and to use those documents to transfer visual data to the background wall.
The White Rhino group was the next diorama for Wilson. There seem to be very few references available to Wilson for this diorama. I have found only five black and white photographs from Clark’s photo file.
There were no painted studies made from this area so Wilson had to use other studies for color. The sky is particularly dramatic and hearkens to sky studies by Leigh.
The tie-in, or the jump from three dimensions to two is notable in this diorama, especially at the muddy pool. There is nothing in the foreground to hide the transition and Wilson uses the cracks in the mud to span the gap. It is counterintuitive that the lines would read correctly from the position of the viewer since they start on the horizontal foreground and extend up onto the vertical wall. Wilson’s grasp of perspective and anamorphism was encyclopedic. He would have known how the 17th Century students of Rembrandt experimented with painted anamorphic interiors and such details as furniture cutting across three-dimensional corners like this in their miniature peep boxes.
It is one of Wilson’s best tie-ins. It is so effective that viewers are unaware of the subtle illusion playing out in front of them. The pool of water in the White Rhino with the reflections of the sky and a shorebird is a precursor to the pool in the 1946 Coyote diorama in the North American Mammal Hall that not only reflects the sky, but reveals what lies under the water as well.
Herbert Lang and James Chapin collected the animals in 1915. Clark mounted the rhinos, but a donor had not been secured for this group. Since only the Lion and Giant Eland dioramas had taxidermy mounts by Clark, he may have pushed this diorama forward for personal reasons. The glass was installed in September 1937.
Between September 1937 and March 1938, Wilson tried out his gridding ideas on a large scale in the Nile River diorama. The Nile River is a corner diorama and the dimensions are not symmetrical. Robert Kane was the background painter for this group and he asked Wilson to help him lay out a grid to transfer his reference painting. The left wall is twelve feet from the central viewing point and the right side is twenty-six feet away. The grid Wilson devised for this diorama makes every square, whether twelve feet away or twenty-six, look the same size as seen from the central viewing point. Wilson referred to this as a grid of unsquare squares because, in reality, the squares at twenty-six feet would measure more than twice as large as the squares at twelve feet. Earlier, Francis Lee Jaques devised a grid that did the same thing, but there is a significant difference between Wilson’s and Jaques’ grids. Jaques set up his grid system as if he projected a flat gridded painting to the curved diorama background. Wilson did something profoundly different, he projected his reference painting as though it was bent into a semicircular curve. The reference painting was not actually bent, Wilson did it with an architectural projection drawing. This is another example of how Wilson’s architectural background and his grasp of perspective and projection geometry gave him the ability to fully understand the problem and devise a much better solution. In only his third year at the AMNH, the key components of his grid system were already established.
Nat Chard, an architecture professor from the University of Manitoba and a passionate student of natural history dioramas, constructed two miniature diorama enclosures or, “dioramascopes” as he calls them, to simply and beautifully illuminate the differences between these two grid methods. Chard literally projects a small LED light through a tiny grid to a miniature curved diorama background holding photographic paper. In one instance he projects the light through a flat grid mimicking how Jaques constructed his grid. And in another, he projects through a curved grid as Wilson did.
The projected grid captured on the photographic paper clearly illustrates how the projection process works. What can be seen is that Wilson’s grid covers more of the background area and that Jaques constricts dramatically on the sides. This is one difference, but another game-changing difference is that Jaques’ grid would only look correct if the viewer stayed exactly at the center of the diorama and didn’t turn his head. Another way to think about this is that Jaques’ gives the visitor a view through a window frame and Wilson’s is spatial, more like standing in the landscape and being able to look to the left and right. Jaques correctly writes that the squares of his grid would all look uniform if photographed, but Wilson knew that using a two-dimensional photograph as a test was flawed. The test had to be three-dimensional. Wilson would later devise a grid that would mathematically put the viewer in the same angle of view looking at the diorama as he had on site taking his photographs and painting references. While his early grids weren't as precise in this way yet, they did produce a panoramic background that more closely recreated the experience of standing in the landscape than any other technique used before.
The Nile River diorama has been incorrectly attributed to Wilson. We know he painted some of it because there is a photo in the AMNH archives of him painting the sky in a torn t-shirt with Fred Scherer. There is also movie footage of Wilson painting here in the AMNH film, “Men of Science”. But on close inspection, the painting doesn’t look to be all Wilson’s. The acidic green color of the lilies stands out in such a way that wouldn’t have passed Wilson’s tonal sensitivities. Also, the spit of land with crocodiles doesn’t appear to lay flat on the water and would have been corrected by Wilson. In the Mammalogy archives there are handwritten notes about this diorama from an interview, “R.K 2/3, JPW 1/3” which confirms what is seen. Robert Kane (RK) painted the lion’s share of this diorama with Wilson probably painting the distant horizon and sky. Francis Lee Jaques painted some of the birds and Fred Scherer painted the papyrus and some of the tie-in.vii
In January 2003, I was a member of a team assessing the American Museum’s African Hall dioramas for a conservation grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The glass was removed from the Nile River diorama and I was able to walk into it on planks raised up over the foreground. I noticed that behind the walls, not visible to the public, there were bird and antelope cutouts left behind probably by Kane. Nothing seemed to have been moved since 1939. There was also writing on the walls. I looked closely and noticed that there was a diagram left by one of the diorama artists that illustrated how Wilson’s grid system was made. No question about it, this was the diorama in which Wilson introduced his grid method and by doing so, he quietly raised the bar for all future diorama paintings.
I was careful not to touch the foreground, but I climbed down to the lower cement floor not viewable by the public. The floor had been lowered originally for this diorama by 24 inches to give the sense that the viewer is looking down into a swamp. This lower level is where the hippo is located. The horizon line, usually 5’2”, extends up from the floor 86 ½ inches. From this vantage, I looked back into the diorama and noted that the foreground was built up on a raised platform comprised of wire mesh, burlap, and plaster. A construction of two-by-fours supported it three feet off the floor. Underneath was a dark, open cavern splattered with plaster where I could see old paint tubes, scraps of paper, and some long wooden sticks laying on top of the dusty, plaster-covered floor. I crawled in on my hands and knees and brought the debris out into the light. It turned out that the long sticks had charcoal marks every 5 inches and I recognized they had been used by Wilson to lay out the gridviii. The crumpled scraps of paper held another surprise. Each had a version of a short poem written in Wilson’s distinctive handwriting that indicated he was revising his handiwork:
1. "On the airless moon no brightening of the sky foretells the coming of the day."
2. "On the airless moon no brightening of the sky foretells the dawn. ---(Just?) the pale shaft of the Zodiacal Light"
Wilson was a serious student of astronomy. In 1943, he began writing the monthly astronomy column for the AMNH’s Junior Natural History Magazine. He wrote about the same subject of his poem in the April 1948 article "Our Neighbor the Moon"
"Comparing [a photo of the moon] with the imaginary pictures of Earth as seen from space, which we showed last month, we notice how intensely black the shadows are, and how sharp the line between day and night. That is because the moon has no atmosphere. The sky is black all day long; as soon as the Sun goes down, night comes immediately."
Also in the Nile River diorama are two drawings by Wilson of the seasonal inclinations of the crescent moon (labeled S=Sept., J-D=June/Dec., and M=March)-for both the northern hemisphere and for the equator. Wilson was clearly holding court with lessons in astronomy about planetary movements and how they affect the angle of the crescent moon. In 1944 he wrote out the same lesson to his young friend Thanos Johnson who had painted the crescent moon incorrectly:
. 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.ix
In May 1937, James L. Clark, Albert Butler, and the ornithologist, Dr. Frank Chapman selected the Roosevelt Bird Sanctuary site and made plans for its composition. The fact that Chapman and Clark went together is of interest. Clark had been in Africa with Theodore Roosevelt and considered him a personal friend and Clark was therefore particularly invested in the quality of the displays in the Roosevelt Memorial Hall. Chapman was involved only with this diorama because the Roosevelt Sanctuary was a bird diorama. Albert Butler had experience building dioramas and he probably went to the site to collect the foreground material and take photographs. Clark had already hired Hanson Puthuff, a California landscape painter, to paint all of the Roosevelt Hall dioramas. Puthuff had finished three of the four dioramas and was supposed to paint the final one, but he needed to return home to California before finishing the hall. Puthuff’s departure left a deep vacuum, not only in the Roosevelt Memorial Hall, but in the North American Mammal Hall as well. Clark sent Puthuff to the west to paint studies for the Roosevelt Ranch and while there, Puthuff also painted studies for the Elk and Bison groups. Clark intended to keep Puthuff painting in New York for as long as he could, but this turned out to be wishful thinking. With Puthuff gone, the bulk of the next year’s diorama work would fall on James Perry Wilson’s shoulders.
The Roosevelt Bird Sanctuary was the first Puthuff diorama to come Wilson’s way. Dr. Chapman wrote to James L. Clark on December 3, 1937 requesting Wilson as the background painter for this diorama. Clark agreed to take Wilson out of the African Hall so he could fill in to paint this one. According to Clark’s report on expeditions in 1937, Wilson made studies for this diorama, but it is unclear whether they were panoramic and done with a grid in mind. There is not enough archival information to assess what Wilson did on this background, but there are evocative questions. The diorama was constructed as a deep symmetrical enclosure with a flat ceiling. The existing bits of reference are Wilson’s sky test strip with nine bands of color and two non-panoramic B&W photographs of the site taped together on a board. Oil paint smudges on the board indicate that this reference was used directly by Wilson during the painting.
I speculate that Wilson did not grid this diorama. The non-panoramic photo reference and the fact that the painted background wraps with the curve of the wall indicates he didn’t. Wilson had just come from gridding the Nile River diorama and one would expect he would use the grid for this diorama as well. On the other hand, he had only used the full grid once and he may not have yet developed a full sensitivity to the benefits of it. Since the background was symmetrical, Wilson may have thought that there was no need for gridding. Foreground trees were placed to obscure the sides and funnel the view to the center, giving this diorama a classic “non-gridded” appearance. Wilson took photos of a large number of his gridded underdrawings. Photos of the underdrawing with grid have been discovered of the Nile River and the Libyan Desert diorama in the African Hall. The Plains diorama may have been gridded after Leigh left the museum since Wilson had been rebuffed by Leigh for suggesting a grid. The Roosevelt Sanctuary and the other African hall dioramas have no photographic documentation of the grids and the foregrounds butt up to the background wall making it impossible to see if there are visible grid marks below the foreground.
The colors are less transparent or vibrant than what will be seen soon in the North American Hall. It has been suggested that, starting in 1941, Wilson’s use of color photographic transparencies for his references changed his way of painting.x Indeed, his palette seems to have become somewhat brighter and less opaque in the North American dioramas. Wilson may have discovered that a light-filled diorama background has some ability to enhance the illusion of space and contradict the tendency of the painting to wrap along with the physical curve of the background wall. Using photographic transparencies and contradicting the curved wall may have been the reason, but James Perry Wilson’s plein air paintings were, from the beginning, about light and atmosphere. He painted to transcribe as closely as he could what he saw in the landscape, but with a realization that paint could never match the brilliance of colored light in real life. If there was a shift to a higher keyed color palette, he did it without his usual Winsor Newton paint. During WW II, Wilson could no longer buy Windsor Newton oil paint and had to rely on American-made Devoe paint. He made studies of the two paints side-by-side and had extensive talks with the Devoe representatives. He concluded that The Devoe paints were of uneven quality. He was surprised that some were actually better than the Winsor Newton paints, but others, like the Titanium White, were stringy in texture and of lesser quality. The level of luminosity varies from diorama to diorama and a shift to greater luminosity is subtle at best. I wonder if Wilson would be puzzled by this idea since achieving the most light possible in his paintings without losing the veracity was at the heart of every painting he made.
I will suggest one more possibility that was raised by his assistant Fred Scherer. Scherer felt sure that there was a spiritual element in Wilson’s painting. He commented that Wilson liked to paint subjects with backlighting. Scherer called it a stained glass effect. Wilson was a private person and never acknowledged a connection between the depicted light in his paintings and a spiritual light. Scherer knew Wilson to be a regular church-goer and felt positive there was a devotional aspect to his painting. Ruth Morrill disagrees with Scherer and described Wilson as a highly ethical man who would never do anything he thought was wrong, but she never heard him talk about a spiritual element in relation to the painting. Morrill thought that for Wilson, religion and painting were separate entities and that when he painted, he was primarily concerned with atmospheric conditions and how they could be transcribed in his painting. Whatever the reason, the light and luminosity, always a primary focus in Wilson’s paintings, was honed to its highest levels in the dioramas.
The Roosevelt Hall dioramas are unique to the AMNH having manmade objects, human manikins, buildings, and other depictions of settlement of the land. The view in Wilson’s diorama is of a manicured cemetery with a path leading to a fountain. Roosevelt’s fenced grave peeks from a hilltop to the left. A second diorama is a historical scene from Old New York in 1660, depicting Peter Stuyvesant, Governor of New York, receiving a delegation of Hackensack Indians from New Jersey. Another depicts Roosevelt's Elk Horn Ranch, with it’s fenced outbuildings in the badlands of North Dakota and the Adirondacks forest scene represents Roosevelt’s support for conservation of both wildlife and forests, it has a Smokey the Bear-Prevent Forest Fires sign tacked to a tree. If not for the sign, it would look just like its museum siblings representing a pristine landscape from a time unmarred by civilization.
The Okapi diorama was Wilson’s next group. The ceiling in this group is unusual. It isn’t coved where all the corners are softly curved into the walls. The front of the Okapi ceiling is flat and rises on an angle to two hanging baffles in the back that are cut out and painted to look like leaves. There are lights between the baffles that illuminate the back of the diorama. This has proven to be an idea that was good on paper, but difficult to maintain over the years. The bulbs burn out and rarely get changed because of difficult access. The diorama is often darker than was originally intended and without the lights working, the cutout baffles don’t work at all. The idea of using baffles was pioneered in the Bongo diorama two years earlier. Francis Lee Jaques painted this diorama and he probably innovated the baffles. Given the cool relationship between Jaques and Wilson, it’s surprising that Wilson used it in his diorama. It was Wilson’s character not to let feelings dictate his actions. It is a similar jungle habitat and if he thought the baffles might work well, he would use it regardless of whose idea it was. Of course, it may have been simply that James L. Clark suggested Wilson try out the idea.
Wilson went on his first collecting expedition to the western United States in the September 1938. It was also one of the first expeditions to collect for the North American Mammal Hall. James L. Clark and Robert McConnell, chairman of the North American Mammal Hall Committee, had secured funds from the first donors and they were anxious to get the hall started. The expedition was sent out to collect three dioramas, the Grizzly Bear, the Wapiti and the Bison. Wilson went to photograph and paint studies along with other members of the AMNH: George Petersen, the foreground artist, Gardell Christiansen, a taxidermist, T. Donald Carter, the mammalogist. George Petersen, while in the field, wrote a synopsis of the trip to James L. Clark. I include it below to give the reader a sense of what transpired on this trip as well as on a typical museum expedition:
On September 3, 1938 Mr. James Perry Wilson, Mr. Gardell Dano Christensen and I left Grand Central Terminal, New York, at 11:15 p.m. arriving at Billings, Montana on Tuesday morning, September 6. We set out at once to purchase the necessary field equipment, which included a used Ford (1937) pick-up truck.
The following day we proceeded via truck over the Red Lodge Highway to Yellowstone Park, to collect animals and material for the Grizzly Bear Group. On September 8th, at Mammoth Hot Springs, we met Mr. Rogers, Park Commissioner. He introduced us to Chief Ranger Lenoux, who directed us to the Canyon Ranger Station.
Having secured accommodations at the Canyon Tourist Camp, we set out that afternoon to inspect the south rim of the Canyon for a possible Group setting. That evening was spent attending the Grizzly Bear feeding and lectures. Next morning, the 9th, we inspected the north rim of the Canyon and made final choice of the south rim for our site.
Each member of the party then started his own work, Wilson painting the background studies, Christensen selecting and preparing the bear, and I collecting accessories, making color notes and taking photographs for the proposed habitat Group of the Grizzly Bear. The female adult was secured on September 11th, the male adult on September 13th and the two cubs (both males) on September 15th.
Ranger Lee Coleman was detailed to shoot the animals, which Christensen had selected. On September 17th all field work and crating were completed, and on Sunday, the 18th, we drove to Cody [Wyoming]. On Monday we shipped our collection to the Museum and said “Adieu” to Christensen, who was to return to New York.
Wilson and I then started south for Saratoga, Wyoming, by way of the Grand Tetons. We arrived Wednesday, the 21st, at about 10:30 a.m. and registered at the Sisson Hotel. The afternoon was spent in selecting a site for the Bison Group, which was about 16 miles northwest of Saratoga, near the crossing of the North Platte River by the Overland Trail. Work was begun the next morning on the background and accessories. This work was completed on the morning of the 28th. The collection was shipped that day, and we started that afternoon for Elk Lodge, Colorado.
Having reached Elk Lodge at noon, Tuesday, the 27th, we spent the remainder of the day and the next morning in selecting a site, which was to include Himes Peak and the Chinese Wall. On the afternoon of the 28th we decided on the site. Mr. Honnold arrived on the 30th and approved our selection. He also asked that the studies be given to the Elk Lodge when the Museum has no further use for them. He offered to donate to the Museum for use in the Elk Group an exceptionally fine pair of 15 point elk antlers, which he would exchange for those we intended to use. Work on this Group was completed on the morning of October 4th.
In accordance with a letter from Doctor Clark, we went to Cimarron, New Mexico, to inspect two alternative sites for the Bison Group which had been suggested by Mr. McConnell. We reached Cimarron on Thursday, October 6th, and met Mr. Waite Phillips, on whose ranch the two sites were located.
The following morning Mr. H. Mitchell, the ranch manager, took us to the two sites and we began work immediately on sketches and photographs. We were seriously impeded by bad weather, which made the roads impassable. Mr. McConnell had requested us to obtain an estimate of the weight of an exceptionally large bull bison on Mr. Phillips’ ranch. We were told the weight was probably about 1,300 pounds.
Having carried our work at Cimarron as far as our limited time and bad weather would permit, we left there on the morning of October 10th and drove to Denver. I left Wilson there on the 11th, to entrain for New York, and proceeded alone to Billings, arriving there on the 12th. I sold the truck and at 12:40 a.m. on the morning of the 13th, I started for home, arriving in New York on Sunday, October the 16th.
There had been another western expedition the year before, in 1937, but without Wilson. George Petersen, James L. Clark, and the painter, Hanson Puthuff went to collect material for the Roosevelt Ranch diorama. Clark had Puthuff paint studies at Custer’s battlefield, Shoshone Pass near Cody, Wyoming, and the Overland trail as possible sites for the Bison diorama. For some reason, these sites were not considered satisfactory either by Harold Anthony, Clark, or by the donor. Puthuff had returned to California and the donor, Robert McConnell, had requested Wilson to paint this background. Wilson may have suggested that better results would be had from his own studies. What is know is that McConnell bankrolled the second expedition in 1938 with Wilson along to paint the references that would eventually be used for the background painting. McConnell also asked that the expedition detour to Cimmaron, NM, to the ranch of his friend Waite Phillips, to see if it might serve as a possible site. Many different sites were considered and finally the Overland trail near the crossing of the North Platte River was chosen.
The change of the Wapiti or Elk site is more clearly understood. On the earlier 1937 western expedition, Hanson Puthuff also made studies for the Elk group at the Grand Tetons. This site was changed at the bidding of a newly acquired donor, William Honnold. Honnold’s monetary contribution was initially offered without strings attached, but later it became contingent on using his Colorado ranch as the site. This rankled James L. Clark and Harold Anthony, who both felt this was over-meddling with their scientific authority. The American Museum’s intention in the North American Mammal Hall was to highlight national parks and historic sites across the United States. The Grand Tetons fit that criterion and to use a private ranch as a diorama site flew in the face of their stated goals. Also, according to Clark and Anthony, the Tetons was a better place to find elk. Clark wrote president Davison that “Honnold’s attitude indicates that we shall continue to be impeded with our progress in this group [and that another donor should be found.]” The museum administration balked at turning away $18,000, and Clark and Anthony’s protests went unheeded. One week after Clark's letter, Robert McConnell wrote Honnold to report that they would use the site of his personal ranch [minus buildings] for the diorama. The donors were neither scientists or artists and yet they were given a surprising level of authority to dictate where the dioramas would be sited and from what view. Donors even weighed in on how many taxidermied animals were to be in the group and how they would be arranged.
Wilson wrote about this part of the expedition in a letter to Thanos Johnson:
The scene of the [Wapiti] group is at Elk Lodge, which is a club run like a private dude ranch. A member of the club gave the group to the Museum, and wished that the site be used. While on the expedition we (another man from the Museum and I) were guests of the club, and lived in luxury. We got our meals at the clubhouse, or ranch house, and had a very comfortable furnished cabin to live in. There was even a boy to come in the morning before we got up, to build a fire in the wood-burning stove to warm the place up! (This was around October first.) A photograph taken on the site of the group would show several buildings and roads, which I eliminated in the painting in order to restore the scene to its primitive unspoiled character.xi
The Libyan Desert diorama stands out as a quiet masterpiece in Wilson’s oeuvre. William D. Campbell collected the ungulates for the group, but appears to have only taken photographs as reference material for the artist to use. The desert landscape is austere with few distinguishing qualities, it was a masterful decision to use low raking light to pick up the subtle texture of the sandy, pebbly terrain. The photographic references have not been found so there is no evidence as to whether the photographs were taken with low light. If they were taken in the daylight, Wilson was entirely capable of changing the angle of the lightxii. His earlier architectural training gave him the skills to do so. On close inspection of the underdrawing and final painting, Wilson made several small adjustments in the shadows as he went along. The projected long shadows over the surface of the desert recede to a vanishing point on the horizon and provide a strong compositional element. The animals collect in the shadow of a large rock at the left of the diorama that Wilson uncharacteristically made larger from what is seen in the B&W photograph of the underdrawing. Also, the grid is visible in the underdrawing.
The Ostrich /Wart Hog diorama came next. This is the oddest shaped diorama background Wilson would paint. The right wall extends twenty-five feet from the center of the viewing window and only sixteen feet on the left. The ceiling is claustrophobically low and the ceiling cove rather abruptly transitions to the wall. Wilson took pride in his ability to paint backgrounds on any surface configuration, but this one was certainly an extreme case. One benefit of the low ceiling is that the painting has received less UV damage. Wilson’s subtle coloration of the atmospheric perspective in receding clouds is still visible. He would describe in a letter to Thanos Johnson how he painted the Bison diorama’s receding clouds where unfortunately, the effect has faded over time:
You can observe [aerial perspective] 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)xiii
The last two dioramas Wilson would paint in the African Hall are the Hyena and Vulture and the Cheetah dioramas. The Hyena/Vulture group was finished in 1940. Fred Scherer painted several of the vultures and the tie-in. There is a photo of the site as well as a black and white photograph of a spectacular sunset with “crepuscular” rays of sunlight or “Jacob’s Ladder” that appear to be radiating from a single point in the sky. Wilson would have delighted in painting such an atmospheric phenomenon because he would have understood that it is an illusion caused by linear perspective. The actual sunrays are near-parallel, but it is an illusion similar to the way railway tracks appear to converge as they approach the horizon. Robert Kane had just returned from Africa in August 1939 and he painted a similar effect of strong light sending out crepuscular rays from behind the foliage of a tree in the Chimpanzee diorama.
While working on the Hyena/Vulture group, Wilson’s next backgrounds were being hotly debated among four donors, James L. Clark, the vice director, Wayne Faunce, the president, Trubee Davison, and even the director, Roy Chapman Andrews. Two deadlines had been scheduled, one for the African Hall and the other for the North American Mammal Hall. Wilson was lined up to paint the Cheetah to finish the African Hall as well as the Grizzly Bear, Bison, and Wapiti dioramas for the North American Mammals Hall. At the end of the year, 1939 and early into 1940, Wilson interrupted his work on the Hyena/Vulture group to grid and sketch the charcoal underdrawing for the backgrounds of the Bison and Wapiti groups. By mid-year Wilson finished the Hyena/Vulture diorama and began the Grizzly Bear. Daniel Pomeroy, the chairman of the African Hall committee, wanted Wilson to finish the Cheetah group, the final diorama for the African Hall. At the same time, the Bison group donor, Robert McConnell, waited for 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. Clark wrote aggrandizing letters to both Honnold and McConnell trying to appease them and work out a 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.
ii Nat Chard, University of Manitoiba architecture professor, noted that the shadows on the Klipspringer landscape don’t look as if the painted clouds cast them. This is a common discrepancy in plein air paintings due to changing conditions. It also indicates that Wilson copied the field studies closely.
iii James Perry Wilson letter to Thanos Johnson, August 29, 1944 “For a small picture, I proceed altogether differently as follows: Set out three dabs of white (four, if you want to use two blues). With one, mix a tint of ruby madder, with one a tint of cadmium [lemon], 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 these tints, you can mix a color for the top of the sky. As you come down, use successively lighter parts of the tints…In ppreparing the three tints be careful to make the values correspond.”
x Nat Chard suggested that Wilson’s use of photographic transparencies coincides with a more transparent painting palette. Also, Chard presented the related idea that more transparently painted backgrounds contradict the curve of the background wall.