Genius of James Perry Wilson Revealed

February 16, 2010

Genius of J. Perry Wilson Revealed as Museum Diorama Evolves Before Visitors’ Eyes Area Artists Contribute to Project

New Haven, Conn.—Visitors to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History from February 27 through April 25, 2010, will have the rare opportunity to witness the creation of a major museum diorama, one day at a time. A Diorama Takes Shape: Bringing the Genius of James Perry Wilson to Life is an evolving exhibition featuring the work of Peabody and New Haven area scientists and artists in addition to that of the master Wilson. 


Dioramas combine three-dimensional foreground material with a curved background wall and domed ceiling to tell the story of an ecosystem. They are brought to life by the artists who create them. James Perry Wilson was a master of this unique art. A particular gift, evident in his masterpieces at the Yale Peabody Museum and American Museum of Natural History, was Perry’s ability to draw the eye effortlessly from the specimens in the foreground to the painted background and into a vista that seems to stretch endlessly beyond the horizon.  


A newly-acquired painting by Wilson, Sand Dunes at Point Pelée, will serve as the background of the new diorama. Donated by the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Canada, it is an exquisite example of his work. Each of Wilson’s diorama settings is chosen for its optimum habitat and natural beauty, depicting a site at a particular season and time of day appropriate for the animals displayed. Point Pelée in southwestern Ontario, Canada, is renowned as the best location in inland North America to observe the northward migration of songbirds, especially the huge and diverse numbers of warbler species that pass through on their way north from Central and South America. (This migration can also be seen locally at places such as East Rock Park in New Haven.)


This is a unique opportunity for visitors to witness what normally occurs “behind the scenes” at a museum. Torosaurus sculptor and Museum Preparator Michael Anderson, with tools and materials in tow, will literally make the exhibition his workshop during the eight weeks of the exhibition. Working with trained volunteers, many of them local artists, Michael will create and place plants and other foreground elements in the exhibit over the course of two months. A short film by New Haven’s Ann Prum, an award-winning documentary filmmaker, describes the art of diorama making and features some of Anderson’s own work as a preparator.


Michael’s blog,, documents the involvement of the local arts community and other interested volunteers, and describes in detail the intricacies of preparing the foreground materials, a process that has already begun. He discusses Alexis Brown’s work freeze drying and painting juniper branches; Michael Bobbie’s sculpting Solomon Seal leaves; and Dorie Petrochko’s painting the cast of a black-throated blue warbler.


Also featured in the exhibit is a scale model for the Peabody’s Timber Line Diorama, also known as the Bighorn Sheep Diorama, the original of which is on display on the third floor of the Museum. It illustrates how Wilson managed the complexities of painting on a curved surface. Upon its completion, the Point Pelée diorama will be installed in the Museum’s third floor bird hall.