The Invisible Art: The Yale Peabody Museum Dioramas

In the museum world, the Yale Peabody Museum’s dioramas are considered masterpieces. In them our eye moves effortlessly from the specimens in the foreground to the background through the veil of atmosphere, into a vista that seems to stretch endlessly beyond the horizon. We accept the diorama as casually as if it were a window into the natural world.

A diorama combines three-dimensional foreground material with a curved background wall and domed ceiling to tell the story of an ecosystem. Our attention is focused on the flora and fauna in the foreground; the painted background and ceiling establish time, place and mood.

J. Perry Wilson (1889–1976) was one of three men responsible for the exquisite Peabody Museum dioramas. Both he and Francis Lee Jaques (1887–1969) had honed their skills painting diorama backgrounds at the American Museum of Natural History before receiving commissions to do similar work at the Peabody. Ralph C. Morrill, for 43 years the Peabody’s Chief Preparator, collaborated with both artists; it was he who created the dioramas’ extraordinarily lively — and lifelike — foregrounds.

For several years, beginning in October 1944, Perry Wilson was periodically on leave from the American Museum to work with Ralph Morrill on the Hall of Southern New England dioramas, the largest being the 35 foot-long Coastal Region (detail at left). Several groups in the North American Hall (such as the Kaibab Plateau diorama, below) were the work of Francis Lee Jaques.

Both artists brought an extraordinary sense of mood and atmosphere to diorama painting, but Wilson added something else: his own unique system for transferring the background image onto a background surface of any shape. This technique was an important advance because it could be adapted to any of the oddly-shaped spaces diorama artists often have to work with. The Wilson method enabled him to avoid the inaccuracies inherent in freehand drawing. Regrettably, few artists working now are even aware of the technique.

Wilson’s skillful treatment of water, rocks, marsh grass, forest floor, or sphagnum moss in the background also facilitated the installation of plants and animals in the foreground. Generations of visitors have spent countless hours trying in vain to determine where foreground becomes background in a Wilson–Morrill diorama. The illusion is enhanced by the use of a two-inch separation between these parts of the scene; when properly lit, shadows cast by the foreground material fall unseen, not on the background.

Between 1991 and 1996, the Peabody Museum’s dioramas were restored to their original luster by Raymond deLucia, Preparator Emeritus, American Museum of Natural History, and Michael Anderson, Museum Preparator, Peabody Museum, thanks to the generosity of the O.C. Marsh Fellows and an anonymous donor.

For more on the techniques used to create the Yale Peabody Museum dioramas, see:

  • Painting Actuality: Diorama Art of James Perry Wilson by Michael Anderson 
  • “James Perry Wilson and the Art of Background Painting,” by Dorcas MacClintock, 1976, Discovery 12(1):28–30, and “Water, Earth, and Sky: The Art of J. Perry Wilson,” by Ken Yellis, 1995, Discovery 25(2) pp. 35-36.