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Painting Actuality: Chapter 10: North American Mammal Corrid

Chapter 10:
North American Mammal Corridor groups 1945-1954

Coyote Diorama American Museum of Natural History
Coyote diorama, American Museum of Natural History,
Courtesy of Library Services, AMNH

While waiting for Ralph Morrill to prepare the foreground for the Shoreline diorama, James Perry Wilson and Dr. Stanley Ball took several reconnaissance trips to western Connecticut in search of the site for the second Peabody Museum group. Ralph Morrill may have had a role in suggesting this area as a diorama site since he knew it well from hunting in the vicinity of Caanan Mountain. In late spring 1945, they found it in separate parts at Cornwall Hollow, CT. The Forest Margin diorama, like the Shoreline group, is a composite of three different sites. It is not a cohesive panorama. Wilson took rolls of Kodachrome slides of different sections in the vicinity of Cornwall Hollow. He then used the color slides to put together his composition. Similar to the Shoreline diorama, there are no known field studies done for this group. Wilson made extensive painted studies of New England landscapes all of his adult life, so in this instance, color studies were not of great importance. Both Peabody dioramas appear to be constructed from color slides only. Wilson would have gridded the slides to transfer to the scale model background and he was thinking about how to stitch several photographs together in a convincing way. He would not have been comfortable putting slides together haphazardly or by eye only. If there were a mathematical solution, Wilson would have been pursuing it.

Forest Margin Site
Site photos for the Forest Margin diorama,
Middle section, collection R. Morrill

This is where the brilliant revision of his grid system began. During his free time, he walked the campus of Yale University and took roll after roll of the newly available color slide film from Kodak marketed as “Kodachrome”. He tested exposures, critiqued lenses, and thought about how he might relate color slides to background painting. Once the diorama site was located, he and Dr. Ball made many trips to Cornwall Hollow in October 1945, ostensibly to capture the fall colors at their peak, though Wilson admitted that he could paint peak coloration whether it was in the slides or not. I believe Wilson was also testing the ability of color photography to capture accurate color. Amazingly, Wilson critiqued the trueness of color in the slides from his visual memory. On one hand, this is not surprising, since while painting outdoors, he recorded his empirical perceptions of color over and over sharpening his color perception, but I also believe he had the visual equivalent of perfect pitch when it came to these familiar New England landscapes. His ability to assess color slides without references, to paint peak coloration on the trees without painted notes, to paint both Connecticut Hall dioramas without studies, to control values, color saturation and color temperature points to an extraordinary acuity with color.

Study Forest Margin Painting
Study for the Forest Margin diorama,
collection R. Morrill

Wilson determined that the best way to merge photos into a composite panorama was to take them with the same lens so the focal length would be the same. The Forest Margin background was a difficult composition. He had to make the pan look as if the deep space of the valley with a farmhouse, barn, and the distant Berkshire mountains on the left merged easily with a separate group of photos of a line of deciduous trees across a field in the middle distance. Then he had to relate these two sections with the right side, its cascading brook hidden within dense trees located close at hand. In other words the span of the panorama starts with a high overlook on the left and ends in a section hemmed in by trees. His trips to photograph the site may have been to look for best shots that might soften the junctures between sections. Wilson helped to design the foreground, as well, to help mitigate these incongruent junctures. The left side has a stone fence that breaks through the foreground separating the view of the valley from the field. A large maple tree trunk and boulder masks the join between the two sections on the right side.

Forest Margin Diorama
Forest Margin diorama,
Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University

Work progressed quickly on the second Peabody diorama. By June 29, 1945, the composition was worked out and Wilson had painted the background on the scale model. He then duplicated this same miniature background on a 12” X 34” piece of Masonite. Since there were no site paintings, Wilson used the Masonite painting to work out his colors-especially the fall foliage before he painted the full-scale background. He had laid out the square grid on the full-scale background wall by mid-July and had started the charcoal sketch. Wilson’s leave of absence from the American Museum was renewed until the end of December and, in that time, he hoped he could finish the Forest Margin background and complete the final tie up on the Shoreline diorama. Unfortunately, this would not be the case. By the end of July, the three dimensional foreground of the Shoreline diorama was set up so Wilson could start to paint the merge between three dimensional and the two dimensional background. He wouldn’t get back to the Forest Margin background until September at which point he began painting the sky followed by the distant hills with all its trees in perfect fall colors. Wilson felt that it was lucky that it was the right time of the year to see the colors.

17 October, 1945: We have been looking for a good day to make another journey to Cornwall Hollow to photograph the group site, and it looks as if this is going to be it. The sun rose in a cloudless sky. We were all set to go yesterday, but the weather was not propitious.
Wednesday evening:
Back from the field trip. A most successful and pleasant day. The weather was perfect-brilliant sunshine, cloudless, clear sky, clear air. I certainly took photographs. Tonight I have three rolls to mail at once! It was interesting to note the change in foliage in a week’s time. Some trees that were spectacular a week ago are shedding their leaves now. Some of the maples that just began to show color then are at their height now. Some of the oaks are still green. In general, the coloring is less vivid up on the hills where we were, than in some of the low-lying country that we passed through on the way. However, if I want more color, I can easily add it. I can tell now what the several trees would turn toi.

The background painting wasn’t finished by the time Wilson’s leave was up. From this point on, progress slowed on the Forest Margin considerably. The final tie up on the diorama took until 1950, but nevertheless, it is one of his finer backgrounds. Even though there are three distinct views with divergent viewing distances, our eyes move effortlessly and a seamless panorama opens before us. The central span of trees rises up into the curve of the dome. The physical curve of the wall enhances the illusion of the trees expanding out overhead. He used this very same technique before in other dioramas and would use it again in his next diorama at the AMNH, the Florida Black Bear. It is worth noting that Robert Verity Clem, the noted bird artist, produced the drawing for the Pileated Woodpecker that Wilson transferred to the right side of the background. Clem was just 17 years old!ii Presumably, Clem stumbled over the name of the bird and referred to it as a “Pleated Woodpecker”. Wilson, who loved play on words, executed an illustration of a “Pleated Woodpecker” with the Latin nomenclature of Hylatomus plicatus. Hylatomus pileatus is the Latin name of the Pileated Woodpecker. Wilson’s substitution of plicatus translates from Latin to “Folded Woodpecker”!

Pleated Woodpecker in diorama
Detail of Forest Margin diorama, Pileated Woodpecker,
Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University

Pleated Woodpecker illustration by James Perry Wilson
“Pleated Woodpecker” collection Ruth Morrill

From the experience on the two Peabody dioramas, Wilson knew now that photographs could be reliably used as his primary grid reference and that using photographs was superior to using painted studies to create the most accurate perspectival space in a diorama background painting.

In 1945, with WWII over, the workforce at the AMNH returned from the military and started back to work. James L. Clark wanted to finish the North American Mammal Hall with only ten more corridor dioramas left. The corridor dioramas are smaller in size and surround the larger central dioramas. Clark gave James Perry Wilson the job of painting all of the final corridor backgrounds. Wilson had already finished some other corridor dioramas: the Jaguar, Jackrabbit, Cottontail, Cacomistle, and Striped Skunk. The Timber Wolf field sketches and scale model were also finished. Clark wanted Wilson to return to the AMNH to get the Florida Black Bear underway before Wilson could renew his leave of absence to work for the Peabody.

The Florida Black Bear expedition was scheduled for the first week of January and Wilson departed on January 2nd, 1946 to Florida’s Big Cypress Swamp. The expedition members met at the Archibold Biological Station in Lake Placid to load trucks and prepare for entering the swamp. They drove in with the trucks as far as possible, but then had to repack all their equipment to swamp vehicles. They traveled into the swamp to the campsite located in an area that was a mixture of pines, bald cypress, and cabbage palmettos. Wilson went right to work and took photographs and painted his field study. The mammalogist, Donald Carter wrote about Wilson’s painted study:

Swamp vehicle in expedition
Expedition photo, Jan 1946, collection R.C. Wilson

I think it is very nice and typical with the exception that it seems to me the cypress makes up too much of the background. In the bear’s habitat it is the cabbage palmettos that are more to their liking. They feed both on the central shoots and the berries, and it is here that they are likely to be found. However, they do go to the cypress swamps to feed on the fire-flag, some of which will be put in the picture, but in my way of thinking, the cabbage palmetto should be more strongly featured otherwise I like his idea….
Many [photographs] were taken, but it was decided that the background would have to be a composite as there was nothing exactly to everyone’s liking…iii

Study Florida Black Bear
James Perry Wilson, plein air study for the Florida Black Bear, 1946,
Courtesy Library Services, AMNH

James Perry Wilson Painting Floriday Study
James Perry Wilson painting on-site in Florida, Courtesy Library Services, AMNH

Wilson returned to the AMNH after only nine days in the field and began to work on the scale model. A story about Wilson came back from the expedition that was told in the Exhibition department for years. It was noted that at the campsite before dinner, Wilson went through all the place settings and matched the like colored paper plates with like colored cups, napkins, and plasticware. Wilson was 56 years old and was certainly feeling more comfortable being himself! In another photograph of the members of the expedition at the campsite, Wilson joined the group shirtless, holding a razor, with shaving cream covering his face! Just before he left New Haven, rumor had it that Dillon Ripley came upon Wilson painting the Shoreline diorama one evening in nothing but his shoes.iv

Florida Group Photo James Perry Wilson Shaving
Members of the Florida Black Bear Expedition, Jan. 1946,
Courtesy of Library Services, AMNH

The Florida Black Bear scale model was almost finished on February 7, 1946 and with little left for Wilson to do, he asked for another three-month leave of absence to return to the Peabody Museumv. Clark agreed to the leave, but suggested to Wilson that he would be a busy man in the latter half of the year since construction on the corridor diorama cases had started. He was right, this would be the last significant leave Wilson would be granted to work at the Peabody Museum. After painting for three months and as Wilson’s leave was about to expire, Carl Dunbar wrote to James L. Clark hoping to extend Wilson’s leave for another monthvi, but to no avail. Wilson tried another tack with Clark, suggesting that he work half time at the AMNH and half at the Peabody, but Clark wanted him back working full time at the AMNH. So, Wilson left the Forest Margin background unfinished and returned to New York on May 27th, 1946.

Wilson had much to do on his return to the AMNH. On June 3rd, he left on a western expedition to Yosemite and Oregon after having only a week to plan both the Coyote and Western Gray Squirrel dioramas.. Wilson described their plans:

"It was decided (in advance) that the [Coyote] group was to be laid in the valley [of Yosemite] in order to include such principal landmarks as El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. Although I had never been there, I knew from studying the maps that it was going to be difficult because they are on the same side of the valley, only six miles apart. The only place where you could see both El Capitan and Yosemite Falls was at a point on the opposite side of the valley, so far apart that one would have appeared on one end of the background and the other on the opposite side. So we substituted Bridal Veil Falls...We actually spent two days riding around, going up and down the valley on bicycles-we had no cars with us-looking at all possible localities before we selected the one chosen."vii

Before departure, Wilson bought a stereo adapter for his camera that split 35mm Kodachrome slides into two images, slightly offset to produce the 3D photos. Prior to the expedition, Wilson made another concerted effort to test his cameras and photographic exposures on the campus of Yale University. He took photos of spring flowers, azaleas in full bloom, rhododendrons, subjects in high color to test slide’s ability to record color accurately. He also took photos of objects in shade, some with bright sunlight illuminating only part of the subject. He shot from sunlit vantages into shaded porticos or standing in the shade shooting into the sunlight, all with the intention of pushing his exposures to get the most detail in the shadows. The landscape painter’s mind can be seen at work in the photographs. This information would be very important for him when he got to Yosemite. By this time, he had developed a comprehensive understanding of color slide film and a thorough knowledge of his photographic equipment. He was ready to make the Coyote diorama the first diorama with perfect scale with the diorama’s angle of view linked to the photographic angle of view by mathematic ratios.

Stereo James Perry Wilson Painting
1946 western expedition,
collection R.deLucia

Ray deLucia was the foreground preparator sent with Wilson on this expedition. They took a train to Merced, California and then a bus to Yosemite. Gasoline was scarce, so automobile travel was restricted and therefore only bicycles were available for them to explore the park. This was probably a stretch for Wilson as he was more accustomed to being driven to his painting sites. deLucia recalls the experience:

One of the most unusual trips came just after WWII. I had hardly gotten in the front door when they said to me: You're going out to California to collect the Coyote group in Yosemite Valley. We had to go by train and when we got there they couldn't give us transportation. They did come up with a pair of bicycles-can you imagine Perry bicycling? He looked like Ichabod Crane. We worked off the side of the road, hiding [such foreground materials as sand, rocks, a dogwood shrub, and grasses] in the woods, right off the roadviii.

Coyote Site Panorama
Coyote site panorama,
collection R.C.Wilson

Wilson was no shirker though when it came to his part of the expedition work. He may not have been that comfortable with the bicycling, but once the site was chosen, he found a way to get to it every day. Because the equipment was too cumbersome to take on his bicycle, he walked to the site-a round trip of nine miles-for almost two weeks with an occasional ride from Parks trucks. He wrote to James L Clark that the walk was pleasant and he didn’t mind it except that his sketching gear grew heavy by the time he got back. Clark wrote him back with news that he had been given a significant pay raise, his first since he had been made staff associate in 1942.

Wilson and deLucia left California and traveled to Oregon at the end of June to collect reference material for the Western Gray Squirrel diorama. They were able to find a car in Oregon and they drove along the Rogue River until Wilson found a site twelve miles from their cabin. The road crosses the Cascade mountains at a much higher level than the river so, by taking his photographs and painting his study from the roadside, Wilson was able to design a squirrel’s-eye view high in the trees looking down a steep canyon to the river. While at the site, Wilson took note of timber clear cutting off in the distance that he later included in the diorama backgroundix.

Wilson and deLucia arrived back at the AMNH on the 9th of July 1946 and they spent the next month completing the two scale models. The Coyote scale model had electric lighting and would later become an illuminated centerpiece in Harold Anthony’s office in the Mammalogy Department. After Anthony’s retirement, the scale model disappeared. I think if it were found, it would reveal that James Perry Wilson used the Kodachrome slide panorama as his primary transfer reference. I have no hard evidence to support this, except that features of the landscape in this background are absolutely convincing.  On the left wing of the diorama, there are rockslides that create diagonal lines on a mountainside. The canyon sweeps around and visually, the lines of rocks lie perfectly on the steep slope.  This area is where the physical curve of the background wall is strongest and where distortion would be most difficult to overcome. The perspective would be very difficult to accomplish by eye alone. 

The highlights on the river are diffuse and appear photographic in nature. There are unfocused individual highlights that lay over the surface of the water and are photographically derived. The reflections of the sky in the current and the rocky bottom of the river seen through the moving water also have a photographic quality. The Coyote diorama comes right after putting together three composite dioramas, the Shoreline, Forest Margin, and Florida Black Bear dioramas. In all three cases he used Kodachromes to compose and lay out the backgrounds.  While in these dioramas the photos are his primary reference, the composite backgrounds don’t have the additional perfection of what was achieved in the Coyote diorama. The viewer’s relation to the diorama painting is the same as what Wilson had when he set up his tripod in the canyon in Yosemite and took the panoramic slides. A continuous photographic panorama was necessary for Wilson to achieve his exacting, mathematical perspective. Panoramas were typically taken on museum expeditions to the diorama sites, but now Wilson was putting them to use to locate the viewer perfectly to the painted landscape. In other words, the heights of the mountains would appear on the background exactly the same as what a person would see at the Valley View site in Yosemite Canyon. The heights of the trees on the bank would be exactly the same height as seen at the site. The distance between El Capitan on the left and the Three Graces on the right would be mathematically exact from the diorama’s central viewpoint. The Coyote panorama was Wilson’s first since the 1944 Striped Skunk expedition and much had evolved in his mind since then. The research he did on his cameras and photographs at Yale paid dividends in the final revision of his grid system. Beyond the perfect perspective and scale, there is a subtle new look to the backgrounds. They are discernably cleaner and less painterly than his previous diorama backgrounds where on-site paintings were his primary reference for the transfer. At gatherings, Wilson sometimes showed slides from the site and those from the diorama and asked viewers to pick which was the actual photo and which was the diorama. He took great pride in stumping many of the viewers.

In an earlier time when Wilson used paintings as his primary reference, he always considered the scale in his paintings. He took the panoramic photos first to get his photographic references, but also to find the edges of his painting. He would start with a central photograph of what he determined would make up the center of the diorama. He would then take two shots to the left and two shots to the right. By doing so, he would locate the farthest points in his pan from the left to the right. These would give him the parameters of what he would paint on his abutting canvasboard panels. Because of this, the painted studies have always been close to the actual angle of view he had on site. Painting, though, doesn’t have the ability to keep everything in the same perspectival relationship as the camera does. Long, flat paintings used for the on-site reference lose perspectival accuracy, especially at the edges. The artist must, by eye, interpret to a flat painting surface the 180º vista that stretches out as he turns his head from left to right. Wilson understood this problem and knew he could tighten it up further by using photographs as his primary reference for transferring to the diorama background. He continued to make on-site paintings that were used in conjunction with the photographs. The method didn’t change that dramatically and the results are elusive in that it is hard to tell if the photos were more important than the on-site paintings of vice versa. And while there can be debate about whether paintings are better to transfer than photographs, photographs have the added dimension of being able to locate the photographer in the landscape mathematically.

After the scale models were completed for the Coyote and the Western Gray Squirrel, Wilson went to work on the Florida Black Bear diorama background. The gridded underdrawing was completed on this group by September 1946 and Wilson started right in on the painting. He was moonlighting at the Peabody on weekends in order to get the Shoreline finished for the convocation ceremonies on October 18th and 19th. The deadline was met and Wilson spoke about his diorama work at the unveiling reception. Rudolph Zallinger, the artist who painted the Age of Dinosaur mural in the Great Hall of Dinosaurs, also spoke. Wilson said that he was amazed at the hoopla at Yale and felt like he was a large frog in a small puddle who would be a small frog in a large puddle.x

Wilson wrote that the Black Bear background took a lot of time because of all the detail. He lamented that he didn’t have a stereo camera to help him understand and paint the confused tangle of trees and vines. This was exactly the type of landscape that stereo photos would help. As noted before, this diorama is unusual in that the sky is overcast with some bits of blue sky breaking through, but even with the bits of blue, the atmosphere is overcast with a dense, humid feeling. The overall color is a striking grey that almost appears silvery. Also, Wilson employed the trick he had been using since the palm tree in the African Waterhole group; he accentuated the tree canopy by painting the trees right up into the curve of the diorama shell. In this case, he even painted a severe bend in the trunk of one of the trees to account for distortion if a viewer looked up from one side of the window.

Florida Black Bear Tree
Florida Black Bear, detail of canopy, American Museum of Natural History,
photo by M. Anderson, Courtesy Library Services, AMNH

Wilson turned to the Timber Wolf diorama, completing the charcoal underdrawing and starting the painting before the holiday break in 1946. The Florida Black Bear was well along, but not finished when Wilson moved over to the Wolf group. Beverly Robinson was the donor for the Timber Wolf. He had donated funds for the Grizzly Bear and the Mountain Lion and had been able to get his dioramas painted before most of the other donors in 1938. He was a powerful trustee and a major donor to the North American Mammal Hall. James L. Clark pandered to the powerful donors and Robinson probably didn’t need to say much to get the Wolf started right away.

At the Wolf site located at Gunflint Lake in Minnesota, Wilson produced black and white references in charcoal for this group because the diorama was set at nighttime. Producing a convincing night scene in a diorama was a challenge for any painter, but Wilson pushed himself further by painting the fantastic Aurora Borealis in the night sky. There was no evidence that he used his own photographs as reference, but Wilson would have read up on what was believed to have caused the Aurora Borealis. In fact, he wrote about it in the December 1947 Junior Natural History Magazine titled “Storms of the Sun”. The phenomenon wasn’t fully understood until 1962, though Wilson’s painting was still accurate. It is museum lore that Wilson painted the night sky at 3am on December 7th, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day.xi

James Perry Wilson Sketching Wolf Site
James Perry Wilson sketching at the Timber Wolf site,
collection Thanos Johnson

Wolf Site Drawings

Wolf Site Drawings
James Perry Wilson’s charcoal sketches of the Timber Wolf site,
Courtesy Library Services, AMNH

James Perry Wilson started writing the monthly articles on astronomy for the Junior Natural History Magazine in August 1943. He had a passionate interest in astronomy. Wilson told Ruth Morrill at a point during the early days of manned space travel, that he would like to travel to the moon to document it. His point was that artists should be the first ones to go since they alone, could capture the right colors and produce a better image of the moon than photographs couldxii. He would continue his monthly astronomy articles until June 1955, writing a total of 142 articles, between two and three pages each. These articles are meant for high school aged kids, but they are in-depth studies of celestial phenomenon, star and planet locations, and the history of astronomy. Wilson drew almost all of the drawings himself which added to the load of work he shouldered after hours. In his letters to Thanos Johnson, Wilson often refers to his busyness with the monthly articles as a reason for not writing more often.

15 July 1950 Telescope Drawing
Telescope, scratchboard,
Jr. Natural History Magazine

It is of note that the Timber Wolf composition was not laid out with Kodachrome slides. Wilson’s charcoal sketch was used to transfer to the full-scale background. This may be the last diorama that Wilson didn’t use color slides to transfer to the background.

The foreground work on this diorama is superb. George Adams made the wolf taxidermy mounts with the structural armature running through only one paw. The other three paws are in the air as the two wolves hunt a deer at a full sprint. There was an internal debate about whether to position the wolves parallel to the viewers or running almost directly at them. The concern was whether the wolves would appear to leap out at the viewer and startle them.xiii A middle solution was chosen, though still quite dramatic, with the mounts positioned running at a slight angle to the viewer.

Wolf Mount
Wolf taxidermy mount,
Courtesy of Library Services, AMNH

The foreground preparators demonstrated their talents too. The light in this diorama is from moonlight and Ray deLucia used powdered pigment mixed with marble dust to create the shadows. In some cases, as with the branches, the colored marble dust is piled high becoming a three dimensional line. The effect is stunning. deLucia and I worked together to restore the Peabody’s Musk Ox diorama in 1994. He had me find several glass jars with lids. He drilled holes in the tops of the lids and filled them with dry pigment. He had several jars with slightly different colors that he shook out over the “snow” to enhance the shadows and blend the foreground into the background at the tie in. The pigment was dusted over the snow producing subtle and convincing effects. One gets the impression that by this time the diorama artists were pushing the boundaries, challenging each other to produce any kind of condition. James Perry Wilson, when asked if he could paint on an irregular curved background replied that he could paint a diorama background on any surface. I can imagine Ray deLucia answered the same way when asked whether he could make a convincing moonlit foreground in snow. These AMNH preparators had, at least a dozen years making dioramas together. They took shop information stretching back to the earliest turn-of-the-century exhibits, they created their own new techniques, they brought in new materials, and pushed forward the boundaries of what was possible. They were confident about their skills and almost without exception, their work, seen today in the dioramas, is magnificent.

Both the Florida Black Bear and the Timber Wolf were finished to the point of the tie-up by the end of June 1947. According to Wilson, the foreground was carried as far as it could until the wolves were mounted. George Adams was the bottleneck. He had been so busy with birds for the Sanford Hall that he had not been able to touch the wolves, bear, or coyotexiv. This was the time when Wilson was granted permission to relight the Mule Deer diorama with fluorescent lights using the information he had brought back from the Peabody. The experiment was a resounding success and made the other groups look inferior. Afterwards, James L. Clark approved the relighting of all the North American Mammal Hall groups using the new lights.

Wolf Group Daylight Film
Wolf diorama, American Museum of Natural History,
Courtesy of Library Services, AMNH

Pushing forward at a steady pace, James Perry Wilson, Fredoin Jalayer, and Donald Carter left on the Beaver expedition on July 1st, 1947. There had been a discussion in the North American Mammal Hall committee about expanding the Beaver diorama and making the Raccoon and Mountain Beaver smallerxv. This plan was accepted and the Beaver was changed to one of the larger north corridor dioramas with dimensions of 7 ½’ X 13’ joining the Jaguar, Fisher/Porcupine, and the Canadian Lynx. The three men drove to mid-state Michigan to meet a mammalogist, Dr. Bradt, who had published an article about Michigan beavers in the Journal of Mammalogy. Bradt directed them to Gladwyn Game Refuge, where they spent a couple of days exploring, collecting from live traps, and looking over many beaver dams. At the foot of Hoister Lake, they found a dam that both Wilson and Carter liked. Wilson began painting, Carter collected the animals, and Jalayer worked on the accessories. Foreground material included a fallen tree cut down by beavers and one that was partially cut through, a clump of showy lady slippers from the banks of one of the ponds, and other vegetation.

Fredoin Jalayer Beaver Expedition
Fredoin Jalayer collecting the Showy Lady Slipper,
photo collection of Mrs. Catherine Jalayer

Wilson took a battery of camera equipment on this trip including a new camera with interchangeable lenses. Prior to the trip, he spent most of his free time testing the new equipment. He wrote about the utility of the new lenses:

This was the first field trip on which I've taken my [new] equipment. I am certainly sold on the interchangeable lenses. For the panoramas of the background I used the wide-angle lens (35 mm), which enabled me to cover the sweep with fewer exposures. The foreground details (beaver, trees, etc.) I used the 85 mm. And after enduring a lot of kidding from Don Carter about lugging my 300 mm. telephoto along, I used it to good advantage to get a close-up of a beaver house from across the pond.xvi

The Beaver group confirmed that Wilson gridded his slides for transfer to the diorama background and that the photographs are linked mathematically to the diorama. He undoubtedly used this same method in the Coyote diorama, but in the Beaver, the evidence is seen in a photograph of the diorama in progress. Red tape used to affix small acetate grids to his slides is seen here.

Beaver Study American Museum of Natural History
Beaver diorama in progress with slides visible,
collection R.C.Wilson

The acetate grids are used to link the panoramic photos into a continuous semicircular arc. Wilson then calculated a ratio of the focal length of the camera lens (ab as seen in the drawings below) to the distance the viewer stood from the painted background (AB). Using this ratio, Wilson enlarged the size of the squares on his background (BC) in relation to the size of the acetate grid squares (bc).

Diorama Schematic
Elements of James Perry Wilson’s Dual Grid System

Wilson explained the system in his own words:
In transferring these [photos] to the background, the first consideration of importance is establishing the scale of the background, so that from the normal viewpoint (about 2 feet in front of the glass) objects will appear life-size (that is, they will cover the same visual angle that they did in the actual scene). To produce this effect, the size of an object in the background must be to its size in the slide, as the distance from the eye to the wall is to the focal length of the lens with which the photograph was taken. For example; suppose the distance from the eye to the wall is 10 feet (120 inches); and suppose further that you have applied to the slide a grid with squares of 1/10 inch. Now 35 mm. = 1 3/8 inch, or 11/8 inch; then the squares on the wall must be 120 divided by 11/8 X 1/10= 8 8/11 inch. The grids for the slides must be adjusted to correct the perspective from the plane to the cylindrical; and the grid on the wall must be adjusted according to the shape of the background, so that from the normal viewing point the squares will all appear true and equal. This will insure correct perspective when seen from the normal viewing point.xvii

The Beaver expedition lasted for a month. Wilson came back from the field and went right to work with Fred Jalayer on the scale model. The scale of the diorama background was reported as being two inches to a foot. This was the ratio of the model to the full-scale diorama and would have made the scale model a bit over two feet wide. Other foreground artists unpacked crates and began to work on the material shipped to the museum. Sections of trees six feet high were hollowed out to prevent rotting and the trunks inside were reinforced with metal strips. Ferns and other leafy plants were reproduced accurately with paper and wire from the specimens brought back from the field. Varying shades of crepe paper and onionskin were used to make blossoms and leaves that looked as though they had come fresh from the forest.xviii

Wilson and Jalayer finished their work on the Beaver scale model and then Wilson went on vacation. He only got to rest briefly; he used a week of his paid time off and another month of leave from the AMNH to continue working on the Peabody’s Forest Margin diorama. This was still not enough time to finish the Peabody diorama before Wilson returned back to New York on October 20, 1947. By this time, he had a number of dioramas in progress all at one time. A busy man indeed!

At the AMNH, Wilson finished the tie-ups for the Florida Black Bear and the Wolf groups. By May 1948 he was painting the Coyote background. Wilson had finished the Coyote underdrawing at the end of 1946, but had been unable to paint it until 1948 because the Wolf and the Florida Black Bear dioramas had been given precedence. As noted, painting the swamp and jungle-like detail in the Black Bear was particularly time consuming.

Wilson’s mode of working through the rest of the north corridor groups was as follows: once home from an expedition, the scale model would be constructed. A grid designed to accommodate the size and shape of the diorama was established in the scale model and at times on the full-size background wall. Once the grid was finished, a carefully toned charcoal drawing was completed. The painting stage progressed over the charcoal drawing, ending with the tie-up, a collaboration between the foreground artist and Wilson to paint the final strip at the juncture of the foreground to knit together the three dimensional habitat with the background painting. His painting on diorama backgrounds would be interrupted to go on new collecting expeditions. Each year he would go on one expedition, sometimes two. The Coyote painting is where Wilson further pushes his reliance on photographs for his references. Wilson had none of the other artists’ hesitancy about using photographs, as long as the on-site painting was used to give him the color, values, and mood. He felt that this combination of the color slide photos with back up from the on-site paintings was the best possible combination to reproduce a landscape, truthfully, quantifiably, and in perfect scale in the diorama, as well as to accurately depict the color and mood of the place. Additionally, Wilson brought his vast knowledge of light, color, atmosphere, reflection, shadow, and values. It is easy to understand why he would respond to questions about the truth of his landscape with a look of disbelief. The Coyote diorama background shows Wilson using a level of color saturation and luminosity in his paint that mimics that of a backlit color slide. Every part has just a bit more saturated color. The colors are all seen in actuality, but Wilson enhances them slightly to add a feeling of light and life to the painting. It is done throughout the painting so nothing stands out as out of character.

The Coyote painting is masterful. Wilson is at his finest when he painted the Yosemite Canyon. The morning light that Wilson chose shows the modeling of the cliffs to the best advantage and gives some interesting backlit effects on the right hand side of the picture. The depth depicted feels exactly right due to his knowledge and skill at painting atmospheric effects. The Coyote backdrop was set at Valley View, a place Wilson considered one of the most magnificent vistas in the Yosemite valley. The foreground was located in a beautiful meadow, enclosed by trees. The swift-flowing Merced River curved around a bend and across the picture, and its banks were studded with quantities of wild azalea, both white and pink. From this viewpoint, notable landmarks were seen in the composition: El Capitan is on the left and the Three Graces and Bridal Veil Falls on the right. Even Ribbon Falls, to the left of El Capitan was visible. The waterfalls were at their peak volume, so Wilson was able to paint both falls and flowers at their best. Wilson wrote that it is the most beautiful spot you could imaginexix.

The reflection in the pool of water has been frequently praised as a tour de force in all of diorama painting. Surprisingly, the pool doesn’t exist in Wilson’s site photographs; he added it. The reflection in the pool and the pebbly floor of the pond that peeks out of the shadows may have had a photographic reference, or not. Wilson had extensive knowledge of the science and math of light reflected on water and he displayed his remarkable observational capacity in the painting of the details. He had an unsurpassed ability to translate both his observation and the science into paint. Early in Wilson’s architecture career, the head of his firm, Bertram Goodhue praised him as a master caster of shadows on the renderings of his buildings. The reflections in the pool share the same mathematical discipline as the casting of shadows.

My museum colleaguesxx and I puzzled out the specifics of the reflections in the pool, taking as a fact that Wilson’s depiction was accurate; none ever suggested that Wilson might have had any of the details wrong. We spent a couple of days sending e-mails back and forth. The details I summarize below:

The reflection is complex and there are differing properties that sometimes stand alone, or at other times, vie for dominance over each other. The pool is shallow and clear. In general, reflected highlights, such as those of the mountain and on top of the log, over-ride the form and color of the pebbly bottom of the pool. Where the mountain in shadow is reflected, the pebbles on the bottom of the pool are more visible though the warm ochre color of the bottom is mediated by the reflection of the cool bluish cast to the mountain shadows. The sky reflection follows another set of rules that Wilson handles with great sensitivity. The area closest to the shore has most detail, but diminishes as the sky is gradually reflected more and more in the center of the pool.

Coyote Pool
Coyote Diorama, detail of the pool,
photo by Michael Anderson, Courtesy of Library Services, AMNH

The clearest (and warmest) detail of the bottom of the pool is in the dead zone produced by the log. The log blocks the reflection of the light sky and direct sunlight illuminates this section so most of the local color and detail of the bottom of the pool is visible. The dark diagonal lines on the side of the log are not visible at all since we are not seeing the reflection of the log on the water, but rather the blocking of the incident rays of the sky’s reflection. The shadow of the log cast from direct sunlight is another matter. Direct sunlight can’t reach the bottom of the pool so the only detail seen in this dark region under the log is from ambient light scattered from the blue sky and with slight reflected light from the log itself. Then, the cast shadow goes onto land and becomes lighter in the dry sand without any reflections. At the front of the log, an area of highlight shaped loosely like the number seven, battles with the shadow area it traverses. The highlight dominates the darker region, but sacrifices some of its brightness. Wilson delighted in these observations and he knew that accurate details such as these gave his painting vitality.

The Coyote background took eleven months to paint and the Beaver would take the same. Wilson was now 60 years old. He had been painting diorama backgrounds for fifteen years and had honed the accuracy of his methods to a level of perfection. The extra work and time his methods now took was tempered by the assurance that his painting was undeniably correct. Wilson saw how getting the facts down helped to lift the diorama to a higher plane so the viewer was not distracted by anything except the rightness of the scene in front of her. The scale is perfect, the atmosphere palpable, the color flawless. The Coyote was his 25th diorama background. And while he was convinced of the value of the accuracy, his superiors were not. The time it took Wilson to finish his backgrounds held up progress. Their deadlines had to be postponed. Ray deLucia confided that he thought Perry wasn’t given a great break at the museum. According to deLucia, he missed out on a lot of jobs. He was shuffled to the sidelines to paint the Mammal Hall corridor groups, but still he would not be rushed. Wilson made sure that whatever he painted, no matter what the size or how important, was of high quality. The North American Mammal Hall shines bright with Wilson’s light!

Wilson wrote to Peabody’s Carl Dunbar that his plan to travel to New Haven had been delayed by slow progress in the Coyote group. James L. Clark was champing at the bit to get the Coyote finished as it was the last diorama in the south corridor. When the Coyote was finished, the south corridor could be opened to the public. Wilson thought that he would have it done by the end of the year (1948), but it would take until April 1949. One of the delays was the scheduling of the expedition in early November to Conway, New Hampshire to collect the Fisher/Porcupine group.

Don Carter, Charlie Tornell, and Wilson left on this trip on November 3rd, 1948, staying in Conway, NH. They found a room in the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Lodge where they spent the next two weeks. The site chosen was three miles north near the Glen House. They had a good view of the Presidential Range, but not the right kind of habitat for the group. Carter wrote to Harold Anthony that unfortunately, they were going to have to make it a composite diorama. Carter would scout for a suitable site for the foreground, which he thought would not be difficult.xxi The Ellis River flows on both sides of the Pinkham Notch Highway and the stream in the diorama is likely from a location on the Ellis.

As with all the expeditions, Wilson returned to the AMNH and immediately went to work on the scale model while his impressions were fresh. When the model was completed, Wilson went back to painting the Coyote background. In February of 1949, James L. Clark retired. His retirement is considered the end of the era of big diorama halls. From 1923, Clark was the power-driver behind the construction of all of the major diorama halls at the AMNH. James Perry Wilson treated Clark with great respect and never said anything critical of his boss, but the truth was that he had a variable relationship with Clark. While Wilson was lucky to have been hired during Clark’s tenure at the height of diorama production, as time went on, Clark gave him work of diminished importance because of the slow speed at which he painted. Clark certainly gave Wilson his start in the mid 1930s by having Wilson take over in the vacuum left by William R. Leigh’s resignation. In the early 1940s, the tug-o-war that involved the highest levels of the administration whether Wilson would paint in the African Hall or the North American Mammal Hall, was likely the time when Clark backed away from his full support of Wilson. Clark put his stamp of quality on every exhibit in the American Museum. He recognized James Perry Wilson’s talent, but as an administrator, he could not be held hostage by Wilson’s slow working time. Clark was forced to lower his standards to get the work done in a timely fashion. This could not have been an easy decision. Nevertheless, Wilson remained a major player in James L. Clark’s historic creation of the American Museum’s habitat dioramas. Even as he approached retirement, Clark was well into the construction of the Forestry Hall.

By early April, 1949, the Coyote background was finished. The foreground preparators and taxidermist took over. They installed the animals and the foreground material, finishing the group completely by the end of May. The South Corridor opened to the public immediately thereafter. The New York Herald Tribune covered the opening and wrote “even the bluish heat-haze that often shades the mountain peaks is depicted with startling realism…by Perry Wilson”xxii.

Wilson planned his schedule so he could spend some time at the Peabody Museum after the Coyote background was finished. After letters of apology to Carl Dunbar about delays, Wilson dedicated the first three weeks of June to the Peabody. The Forest Margin was almost finished, but even this visit wouldn’t do it. Dunbar wanted Wilson to paint the last diorama in the Connecticut Hall of Dioramas, the Bog. Dunbar and Wilson took an expedition to a quaking bog site in Litchfield County, CT just before he left for a ten-day vacation trip to the Tetons to paint. The panoramic photos were taken with the camera in “portrait” position. Whenever a step is taken on the bog, it continues to “quake” for several minutes. Wilson’s meticulous method of photography would have been a challenge in these circumstances. Getting the camera to be absolutely level would have been almost impossible. With the camera set up in portrait mode, Wilson would more likely be able to find the horizon later even if not perfectly level. The bog photos took a day or two out of the continuing work on the Forest Margin. Dr. Dunbar wanted the Forest Margin diorama finished for the 1950 commencement.

Bog Site
Bog site photos by James Perry Wilson, collection R. Morrill

Wilson was feeling stretched thin. Every free moment, weekends and holidays, he was in New Haven trying to finish the second diorama. He was accustomed to a three-week break in the summer and he had not had a vacation like this for many years. He agreed to the third diorama at the Peabody, but under different circumstances. He would lay out the charcoal drawing, but Mary Gunn, a young intern, would fill in the details. Wilson would paint the sky and do enough of the painting to set the color tone for the landscape. He would then supervise Ms. Gunn to paint the rest. As it turned out, Gunn would marry and leave New Haven in January 1952, leaving the unfinished diorama back in Wilson’s hands. Wilson, in desperation, paid Ray deLucia to paint the background during a three-week vacation. The final painting in the Bog diorama looks a bit like a patchwork creation, some brilliance, some mediocre work side-by-side.

Ray DeLucia
Ray deLucia painting the Bog diorama,
collection R. deLucia

Wilson returned to the AMNH on July 1st, 1949. The Beaver group awaited him. The setting for the Beaver is Michigan in July, one half hour after sunset. It is a classic Wilson diorama. The sky is a luminous, full range production that transitions from a warm, rosy haze at the horizon to a cool blue at the top. Wispy clouds pick up the pink color of the sunset. Wilson had practiced this kind of sky since he was a teenager and never tired of its beauty. As previously seen in the Coyote background, reflections in the beaver pond of the trees and landscape was an area of solid competence for Wilson. Wilson’s access to the 300mm long lens helped him move the beaver lodge from across the pond closer to the viewer by providing excellent detail. The left side of this diorama has tall ferns that have leafy structures at the top of long spindly stems. The foreground ferns have been damaged by the beaver activity such that from a low viewpoint, the ground underneath the fern canopy at the back is visible. Even here, the tie-up, seen from a low viewing angle, is done with care.

Beaver Diorama
Beaver diorama, American Museum of Natural History,
Courtesy of Library Services, AMNH

The right side of the Beaver diorama tries to pull off a complicated illusion and succeeds, but only from a central viewpoint. A three-dimensional bank in the foreground drops off right at the juncture of the background. The background picks up at a lower level that includes the beaver dam and pond. The painting drops to a further level to the stream that empties the beaver pond. A beaver working on a tree also blocks some of the right side from the central viewpoint. The illusion under normal circumstances would be difficult to pull off. The transition from the three dimensional bank to the two dimensional painting is weak as a transitional effect. The elevation drops only work at the central viewing point. As soon as an approach is made to look closer, the perspective is skewed and the illusion falls apart.

Right Side Beaver Diorama
Beaver diorama, right side, photo M. Anderson,
Courtesy of Library Services, AMNH

Of additional interest, while the painting was in progress, Salvador Dali visited the Beaver diorama. There was no explanation for his visit, he sat for two to three hours watching the work and not saying much. Wilson ignored him for the most part, and just painted. Dali came again for a second visit the next day, but little transpired between the two paintersxxiii.

During the 1950’s Wilson was well respected by those in the exhibits department. The earlier group of painters were gone and with them went a lot of the critical comments about Wilson. The new generation was younger, some were in awe of him, but, for the most part, all looked up to him. They included painters such as Robert Kane, Fred Scherer, Buddy Faranda, and Matthew Kalmenoff as well as foreground artists such as Charlie Tornell, Tomy Newberry, Ray deLucia, and Fredoin Jalayer. Most deferred to Wilson, but Tomy Newberry found the right mix of kidding and respect. Newberry referred to Wilson as “viejo verde” which in Argentina, his native country, means green old man and the phrase is used to describe an old man who chases after young girls. Wilson thought that was funny!

Tom Newberry was the only one who dared to play with Perry's mind and rather effeminate-like nature. This he did by tastefully mocking him about his vast knowledge--but in a really harmless, affectionate, respectful and complimentary manner. I never saw Perry become offended by Tom and actually believe he liked him and his comic antics as he would even become tongue tied, lose his train of thought, and then break up blushing in laughter himself.”xxiv

Newberry sculpted a bust of Wilson that Wilson thought was so good, he encouraged Newberry to enter it in the National Academy art exhibit. The bust was accepted and placed in a position of honor on a pedestal at the foot of the stairs. Wilson took many friends and colleagues over to the Academy to see it. Newberry painted the plaster bust with a greenish faux bronze patina, possibly as a pun off Wilson’s Argentinian nickname.

James Perry Wilson Bust by Tomas Newberry
Plaster Bust of James Perry Wilson by Tomas Newberry, 1951,
collection Tomas Newberry

By May 1950, Wilson had finished the Beaver background and went right to the Fisher Porcupine group. This diorama was documented in an AMNH film entitled “Making a Museum Group”. I include a portion of the film as an appendix. It begins with Wilson transferring his reference slides in charcoal to the background. This is evidence of his final grid method. He has always had two grids, one on his references and a second on the wall of the diorama. In his final method, the first grid is on acetate taped to his slide and he looks into a slide viewer at the slide and sketches what he sees into each square in the second grid on the background wall. He looks again and sketches some more, little by little working up the entire background. Previously, he would have used his gridded painting to transfer into each square. The film jumps forward to Wilson painting of the sky, showing him painting sky color into patches delineated by charcoal tree branches. He painted and then used a stipple brush to remove the brushstrokes. Several of the diorama painters who viewed this found this section of interest because Wilson took such care to paint up to the tree branches rather than taking a faster route and painting the sky in totality and then, going back later to paint the branches over the sky. He painted trees like this with his small plein air paintings, leaving white canvas to show through for the highlights or to add a sparkle to the trees. The tree limbs can also be painted cleanly without the sky color mixing into the color of the branches. It’s as if Wilson was painting with oil paint using watercolor techniquesxxv.

Wilson was very precise, mixing the color he wanted on his palette and putting it directly onto the white canvas. There was little mixing of wet on wet paint and once the paint was on, there was little alteration. He never scraped paint off and started over. The film covers the progress of the painting on the background. At one point near the end, Wilson was painting and the film focuses in to a close up of just the paint being applied. There is a variety of color used and it looks very abstract. It demonstrates Wilson’s commitment to the Impressionist technique of broken color. The realism is astonishing given how loosely Wilson applied paint. A young man, Tony Faranda began an apprenticeship with Wilson midway through the Fisher/Porcupine group. Faranda was asked to paint the birch trees on the right side and he described how difficult it was to paint this area without black in his palette. He worked under Wilson’s close supervision. Even so, Faranda, who had recently become engaged, painted his fiancé’s initials as if carved into one of the birch trees. When Wilson saw it, he liked it, knowing that it was well hidden, he didn’t have Faranda remove it. Wilson never signed a diorama background, but he liked to personalize his paintings with visual puns, jokes inserted by his fellow artists, or with astronomical information only available to a student of astronomy. In one, he logged the dates that he worked on it on the side of the wall not seen by the public.

The light in the Fisher/Porcupine group is somewhat unusual compared to most other dioramas. The foreground is in the shadows of the trees. The mood of the painting is of a cold, wintry day. The sun is out, but the light doesn't penetrate to the riverbed. There is snow and some ice, but it is hard to read it as such. The rocky riverbed seems uncharacteristically un-rocklike. The white water also looks photographically inspired. In one way, the painting looks like Wilson copied the photos directly. The water and the rocks are not clearly distinguishable. Wilson's trademark of making rocks look like rocks and water look like water is not as apparent in this riverbed. Wilson was usually very savvy about when to rely on photos and when to use his plein air painting, but in this case, the photographic reference calls attention to itself. Though, when the photograph and the painting are compared, many of Wilson's additions become apparent, there is reflected sky in the white water sections, there is much more color seen in the painting as compared to the photographs.

Fisher Porcupine Diorama site
Fisher/Porcupine site,
collection R. Morrill

Fisher Porcupine
Photo of Fisher/Porcupine diorama, American Museum of Natural History,
Courtesy of Library Services, AMNH

The Canadian Lynx expedition was sent in October, 1950 to Gaspe Penninsula along the south shore of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, Canada. George Petersen, Don Carter, and Wilson traveled there to collect references and foreground materials for this diorama. They had some excitement on this expedition. The group had planned to use a cabin near the summit of Mt. Albert as a base camp, but a bear had entered the cabin through a window and had destroyed everything including the wood stove. Their guides were able to bring up a new stove and supplies so Carter, Wilson and Petersen could spend their final weekend there. The guides assured them that the bears would not return in the heavy snow. This was fortunate, because the best conditions were seen that weekend and described by Don Carter:

We made the climb Friday taking most of the day. We could not have chosen a better time as the night before there had been a heavy fog, which had frozen at and near the summit and this rime had made a fairyland hard to comprehend. Fortunately Friday night was still and cold. Saturday morning was still clear and cold with a bright sun and a beautiful view of over 60 miles. We were all busy snapping pictures. By noon it was clouding over and a cold wind blew. Yesterday we again ascended to the top. Fog and hard blowing wind. Perry made some sketches. As I said to Perry no sensible lynx would be out in this. Perry has me almost persuaded with his view and the rime in the foreground. It certainly was a most wintery aspect. It really seemed as if it had prepared itself for us. I think we have some interesting accessories, a gnarled stump and wind blown tree. We will use up a couple of days here packing and Perry wishes to put some time on his picture.xxvi

Canada Lynx/Varying Hare
Canada Lynx/Varying Hare site photo,
Courtesy of Library Services, AMNH

The plan for heavy snow or “rime” as an appropriate condition for the lynx habitat was finalized in Gaspe between Petersen, Carter and Wilson. George Petersen, by now considered one of the AMNH’s most talented and experienced foreground preparators, answered confidently that he and the team of AMNH artists could fabricate any kind of heavy snow in the foreground. Wilson too, decided that he would challenge himself and attempt another cloud-covered background with wintery light.
The expedition returned to New York on November 6th and Wilson went back to work on the Fisher/Porcupine painting. The Fisher/Porcupine background was finished to the point of the tie-up by mid 1951. Wilson had only five more backgrounds to paint in the North American Mammal Hall. Four of them were the small five-foot wide dioramas, the Canadian Lynx/Snowshoe Hare was the last larger diorama at thirteen feet wide. Wilson was getting into a comfortable routine. He had finalized his methods for his background work. It was all methodical, quantifiable, predictable, just the way James Perry Wilson liked it. The painting was periodically interrupted by an expedition to collect necessary information for the next group. Wilson liked these forays into the field. He got paid to paint outdoors at beautiful places! Clark’s retirement meant scheduling had become more relaxed.

The Canadian Lynx painting came next and has some notable sections. The sky is almost completely cloud covered, except for a number of narrow breaks where blue shows through. This phenomenon happens normally in life, but in a Wilson diorama, these cloud breaks appear to demonstrate the elements of his sky painting technique. The clouds frame various levels in the sky such that the upper break has a dark pure cobalt blue, the second break is lighter, the third, is lighter still and shows some warming from the hues of the horizon. He mixed his sky colors as usual with the thirteen bands of color and painted lines 13, 11, 9, 7, 5, 3, and 1 into the cloud breaks. If anyone wonders what is the difference between a sky painted by Wilson and any other diorama painter, the Lynx sky would be instructive. This site was chosen from a high vantage where Wilson typically used atmospheric perspective to give a sense of deep space. On a clear day, Wilson’s landscapes transits from foreground to distant horizon using color and values. In a landscape such as seen in the Lynx diorama with a grey, overcast sky and the snow cover, Wilson’s ability to use color to bring about the atmospheric perspective was diminished. In this case, he relied more on value and less on color to make the distance recede. And even the value shifts don’t work as one would expect because there is snow in the trees in the midground. This makes that band lighter in value than either the next distant band or the far distant horizon. Wilson described the value relationship of the sky to snow covered landscape as: the lightest part of the sky should be darker than the darkest part of the snowscape. This is exactly the opposite of the value transitions in a non-snowy landscape. Consequently, the Lynx is subtler and appears flatter than his other backgrounds.

The next two years, Wilson devoted his time to finishing the last four small dioramas, the Western Gray Squirrel, the Mountain Beaver, the Gray Fox/Opossum, and the Raccoon. 1952 proved to be a landmark year for expeditions, Wilson went on three. He took the first trip to Georgia in March for the Raccoon, next to Washington state in August for the Mountain Beaver, and then, Tennessee in October for the Gray Fox/Opossum. The press covered several of these expeditions and the field studies for the Gray Fox/Opossum and the Mountain Beaver are in the AMNH archives.

While the North American Mammal Hall was nearing completion, other interesting work was progressing at the museum. George Adams was busy reconstructing a moa for the Whitney Bird Hall. Adams used the bones of twenty-four fossil moas that Robert Cushman Murphy collected on trips to New Zealand in 1947-1949 to inform his reconstruction. Adams had to sculpt and cast the legs and feet. He used a feathered emu skin to cover the body, but when it came to the legs and neck, he glued individual emu feathers on one at a time.xxvii The North American Forests Hall had been planned and Francis Lee Jaques was brought back from retirement to paint the Olympic Rainforest for $4,800xxviii. This is the largest habitat diorama in the museum

George Adams Moa reconstruction
George Adams and the Moa reconstruction,
Courtesy of Library Services, AMNH

The Raccoon group, though small in size, was Wilson’s next challenge. He had already painted the skunk at twilight and the Wolf in moonlight. Now, the Raccoon would be another diorama set in the depth of a moonlit night. The foreground preparators were given another unusual job, this time to create a foreground that included crayfish underwater in low light. Wilson painted this background loosely, painting only the detail that could be seen under such low light. He painted the lily pads a brighter and more yellow color than the three-dimensional ones at the tie in. Shining a flashlight on the scene is the only way this color shift can be seen. In a highly unusual configuration at the tie-up, two lily pads were constructed with half of the lily pad laying flat in the foreground plexiglas water and the other half is painted vertically on the background wall. Each half is painted in two significantly different colors, but they blend together to make a perfect illusion of one lily pad laying flat on the water in low light.

Racoon photographed with flash
Raccoon group photographed with a flash, photograph M. Anderson,
Courtesy of Library Services, AMNH

This kind of effect has historic roots in the 17th Century Dutch peepboxes where through one viewing peephole, the interior of a Dutch house looks perfectly normal. When the interior is looked at away from the peephole, a scene with chairs, tables, even animals is distorted as they cross the edges of the box. Wilson and Fred Scherer also experimented with bits of mirror glued at an angle to the walls to catch a light from above. These bits of mirror are surprisingly effective at simulating stars. There is also a slightly lighter halo painted around each star. When I first saw them, I couldn’t imagine how such a tiny bright light had been placed into the diorama. I thought they might have drilled holes through the wall and had a light illuminating them from behind. As usual, the location of the stars is perfect for the evening depicted in mid-March, 1952 and Wilson showcased the star, Vega, the brightest star in the northern half of the sky and featured in his December 1951 article in Junior Natural History Magazine. Wilson and the preparators were clearly enjoying themselves, creating some rarefied, but effective illusions. They created a pond with water in the foreground, not a typical composition for a typical foreground. The water was fabricated in plexiglas with the ripples ground out with a sanding disk to give the general shape. Then, they are painstakingly sanded by hand with finer and finer grit sandpaper until they can be buffed clear.

Astronomical drawing by James Perry Wilson
James Perry Wilson’s astronomical drawing,
Junior Natural History Magazine, December 1951

The final three dioramas would take Wilson into 1954. The Mountain Beaver is a familiar composition. The foreground is on a high point looking down into a valley. The sun is coming up casting long shadows.
This diorama has Wilson’s classic atmospheric perspective. The distance is a pale blue, the midground, a purplish blue that can be seen distinctly on the right side looking through the limbs of the large spruce tree. The foreground advances toward the local color of the objects in the foreground, a classic formula that animates Wilson’s dioramas. The Gray Fox/Opossum has the same composition as its next-door neighbor, the Fisher/Porcupine. The view is of a river course way shaded over by tree cover. The forest opens onto a sunlit view of the Smoky Mountains. The only difference between the two compositions is the differing locations (New Hampshire and Tennessee) and how different the seasons are at different latitudes at the same time of the yearxxix. Fred Scherer commented on the painting of the sunlit mountains as being one of his favorite examples of the subtlety of Wilson’s painting. The final diorama was the Western Gray Squirrel with the aforementioned view from in the sugar pines. In this diorama the river is more convincingly painted, appearing less dependent on photographs, than in the Gray Fox/Opossum and the Fisher/Porcupine.
The latter appear to be dependent on photographs rather than the plein air painting.

Western Gray Squirrel detail
Western Gray Squirrel diorama, American Museum of Natural History,
photograph M. Anderson, Courtesy of Library Services, AMNH

The Dedication of the Hall of North American Mammals featuring seven new dioramas of the north corridor, took place on May 18, 1954. Robert Sterling gave the money for five of the seven groups, William Biggs was the donor for the Beaver diorama, and Beverley Robinson paid for the Lynx. Harold Anthony gave a talk about the meaning of the Hall of North American Mammals. James Perry Wilson was given recognition for his background paintings. The press underlined the fact that this hall took twenty years to finish, but they were awed by the quality. Harold Anthony is quoted as saying, “We think those groups are so good that if an animal moved in there, nobody would be surprised!”xxx

Gray Fox Opossum detail
James Perry Wilson, Detail of the Gray Fox/Opossum diorama,
Courtesy of Library Services, AMNH

James Perry Wilson painted nineteen of the twenty-nine North American Mammal Hall dioramas and provided the reference studies and scale model for the Virginia Deer eventually painted by Fred Scherer. This hall is without question, the best diorama hall ever built in any museum in terms of quality of displays. The talent assembled for this hall is the result of James L. Clark’s discernment in those he brought in to work at the museum. The taxidermists, Robert Rockwell, Gardell Christiansen, and George Adams took Carl Akeley’s methods to another level of quality. The foreground preparators, Ray deLucia, George Petersen, Fred Scherer, Charlie Tornell, Fredoin Jalayer, and Tomas Newberry, while all friends, seemed to try and outdo each other with stunning craftsmanship and creativity in creating the foreground work. James Perry Wilson, though, stands alone as far and away, the best background painter ever to set foot in the American Museum. Belmore Brown, Charles Chapman, Francis Lee Jaques, and Carl Rungius were all high quality landscape painters who have dioramas in the North American Mammal Hall, but Wilson raised the bar on painting standards that none of the other painters ever approached. Wilson’s gridding method produced perfect perspective that had the benefit of contradicting the curve of the diorama and enhancing the illusion of space. His skies, produced by what others might have considered a paint-by-numbers method, are unmatched in their simulation of reality. The atmospheric perspective was a method of highly controlled value gradation used by Wilson throughout the landscape that gives an extraordinary sense of space, airiness, and light. Finally, Wilson’s broad scientific reach and his strict commitment to accuracy made him the perfect artist for the rigor of natural history dioramas. The North American Mammal Hall is Wilson’s magnum opus, where one can see the best of Wilson’s extraordinary work.

James Perry Wilson Painting Smoky Mountains
James Perry Wilson Painting in the Smoky Mountains, Courtesy of Library Services, AMNH



"Making a Museum Group", circa 1951,
permission courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services.


i Letter from James Perry Wilson to Thanos Johnson, 17 October 1945

ii Robert Verity Clem, interview with the author, January 30, 2001

iii Donald Carter to Harold Anthony, January 13, 1946, Mammalogy archives, AMNH

iv Dorcas MacClintock, Interview with author, 1994

v J.P. Wilson to James L. Clark, Feb.7, 1946, AMNH archives #1130.

vi Carl Dunbar to James L. Clark, letter May 15, 1946, Mammalogy Archives, American Museum of Natural History

vii James Perry Wilson, Unpublished interview with Rudolph Freund and Rudolph Zallanger at the Peabody Museum, circa 1959, AMNH archives.

viii Ray deLucia, interview with the author, August 30, 1994

ix The diorama painter, Sean Murtha pointed out this detail. Sean also noted that Wilson painted the clear cut with great economy and subtlety.

x Letter from James Perry Wilson to Thanos Johnson, May 5, 1945

xi Stephen Christopher Quinn, Windows on Nature, Abrams 2010

xii Ruth Morrill personal conversation August 20, 1996

xiii NY Herald Tribune, Sept. 21, 1947

xiv Letter from James Perry Wilson to Thanos Johnson , June 28, 1947

xv Letter from unknown author to H.B.Clark, Oct. 28, 1946, AMNH Library Services

xvi Letter from James Perry Wilson to Thanos Johnson , August 9, 1947

xvii Letter from James Perry Wilson to Thanos Johnson, Jan. 4, 1966

xviii New York Herald Tribune, September 21, 1947

xix Letter from James Perry Wilson to James L. Clark, June 15, 1946, Mammalogy Dept. archives, AMNH

xx Steve Quinn and Sean Murtha and Joyce Cloughly, who all worked previously as preparators at the AMNH.

xxi Letter from Donald Carter to Harold Anthony, Nov. 6, 1948. Mammalogy archives, AMNH

xxii New York Herald Tribune, May 27, 1949.

xxiii Interview with Tony Faranda, Nov 16, 2012

xxiv Alan Munro, E-mail message, December 29, 2003

xxv Wilson first learned how to paint in watercolor. He switched to oil paint in his teens.

xxvi Letter from Donald Carter to Harold Anthony, Oct. 30, 1950. Mamm. Archives AMNH.

xxvii Museum Memo, Vol.1, no. 6, January 1952, pp. 1-3, AMNH Archives

xxviii Memo from Wayne Faunce to Francis Lee Jaques setting forth contractual arrangements for the Olympic Forest background painting, April 23, 1951, Courtesy Library Services, AMNH.

xxix The expeditions for the Fisher/Porcupine and the Gray Fox/Opossum both took place in October.

xxx New York Herald Tribune, This Week, May 9, 1954