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Chapter 12: Freelance Years

Chapter 12:
Freelance Years

Otter Diorama Site photo
Otter Diorama Site photo,
AMNH, Courtesy of Robert C. Wilson

Harold Anthony and Don Carter had lunch with a member of the AMNH board of trustees, Robert Sterling, his wife and a grandson in June 1957. Anthony presented an estimate of what it would cost to construct fifteen dioramas for the Small Mammal corridor relying on James Perry Wilson to paint all of the backgrounds. The corridor is the west access to the North American Mammal Hall, behind the Alaskan Brown Bear diorama. Anthony had ordered a floor plan from the Planning Division and measured the corridor. He wrote to the director of exhibits, Gordon Reekie, that there was space for several small dioramas that wouldn’t curtail ample passageway.i Anthony felt it would be a perfect place for displaying the smaller rodents, weasels, badgers, and bats. He estimated that it would take Wilson three years to finish all of them. Using Wilson’s salary as his base figure, Anthony estimated $20,325 as the cost of the backgrounds.ii The accessory man, taxidermy, travel, and reserve brought the total to $50,000. The city was on line to fund the cost of the case construction. The Sterlings were impressed by Anthony’s proposal and agreed on the spot to fund all of the corridor groups.iii

The Small Mammal cases were designed to have viewing windows at thirty-four inches off the ground. The higher orientation of the window provides for an intimate viewpoint for the small animals. It’s as if the viewer is sitting or kneeling in with the animals. The larger dioramas of the Small Mammal Hall had slightly lower windows at twenty-four inches. The higher level viewing windows are comfortably accepted by the viewers who might have just come from the North American Mammal Hall where the largest dioramas have viewing windows one foot from the floor and give the viewer the sense of standing in the landscape. As it turned out, Wilson painted only five of the dioramas and the faster painter Matthew Kalmenoff would paint the rest.

As Wilson looked forward to life after retirement, he was booked in advance for several years worth of projects. Three separate undertakings wove in and out of his life in complicated ways during this time. While he was still on staff at the AMNH, Wilson was negotiating with the Peabody Museum to paint the Bighorn Sheep, the Sonoran Desert, and the Florida Everglades dioramas. Malcolm Aldrich, a Yale alumnus, read about the dioramas Francis Lee Jaques had just painted at the Peabody Museum and stepped forward to fund the cost of the new dioramas. But before the Peabody dioramas, Wilson planned to stay in New York during the last months of 1957, to start painting and installing the Redwood diorama. This was his first job on commission after his retirement in August from the AMNH and he worked on it through January 1958. Once the Redwood diorama was finished, he would move to New Haven to start work on the Bighorn Sheep diorama. The Small Mammal Hall at the AMNH was his third task. Expeditions to collect for the Small Mammal groups would begin in the summer of 1958 and Wilson’s work in New Haven would be interrupted for a couple of weeks at a time while he traveled on them. Wilson would alternate work on the Small Mammal background paintings with diorama work at the Peabody through June 1960.

Wilson Returns to the Peabody

Ralph Morrill, the taxidermist and foreground preparator, made ready for Wilson to come to New Haven by engaging a hunter in the Banff Park area to collect the mammals and birds for the diorama. By early November the first bighorn sheep had been secured. At the request of the Peabody, the hunter had taken a Yale graduate student along to take the series of panoramic photographs for the background. Carl Dunbar, after seeing these photographs, thought they would serve the purpose for the background painting. Wilson would have rather taken the photographs himself to fit them into his mathematical construct, but he had been painting dioramas with other artist’s references for many years and had confidence in his ability to make it work. Though he was a spry sixty-eight years old, his colleagues worried about him in the field. By mid-December, at the Peabody the iron and lathwork was finished on the Bighorn Sheep and Sonoran Desert dioramas and the walls were ready for the plasterers. Ralph Morrill and Dave Parsons, Morrill’s young apprentice, took a late winter expedition to the Sonoran Desert to collect the foreground material and photographs for the diorama. They were given permission to collect a peccary, a ring-tailed cat, kit fox, a spotted skunk, an armadillo, several mice, and jerboas; a cactus wren, a curve-billed thrasher, an elf owl, and two greater roadrunners; and a sidewinder snake.

Ralph Morrill consulted Wilson about the dimensions for the Bighorn Sheep diorama. The space was an irregular corner space that was shallow on the left side and deep on the right, making it difficult to create a symmetrical diorama with enough space for the taxidermy mounts. Ralph Morrill suggested that they design the enclosure to maximize the space and Wilson assured him he could paint the background convincingly if it was asymmetric. Dunbar was skeptical, but Morrill knew it would work. While Dunbar was away in Florida, Morrill put the shop crew to work and built the asymmetric enclosure, finishing it before Dunbar returned!iv Nevertheless, the first thing Wilson did when he came to Peabody in February 1958 was to make a scale model of this diorama.

Bighorn Sheep Scale Model
Bighorn Sheep Scale Model,
Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History (photo by M. Anderson)

The model is still in the Peabody Museum; the background sketch with the grid was completed, but thankfully, the background was never fully painted because the grid is still evident and tells the story of this diorama. The right side farthest from the viewer has squares that are almost twice as large as those on the left. With just a gridded pencil drawing of the landscape on the miniature, curved background, Wilson was able to demonstrate to Dunbar and assure him with visual proof that he had ability to adjust the perspective over any kind of curved surface. Ralph Morrill said that Wilson wanted to paint the background on the scale model to plan the painting of the large background, but Dunbar was impatient to have Wilson start on the full-scale background and thought it was a luxury of time that Peabody couldn’t afford. Nevertheless, Wilson painted the sky.

Morrill had already made miniature models for the Connecticut dioramas with Wilson and knew the standards Wilson held. Morrill’s foreground work is done with care. The miniature bighorn sheep were sculpted in clay, molded in plaster, and then cast in latex rubber. Morrill made the rockwork freehand out of plaster on a base that fit into the contour of the miniature diorama. The entire miniature foregroundwas painted realistically. The fact that Morrill sculpted the sheep to be placed on an incline suggests that he and Wilson had pre-designed the diorama close to the final form before the scale model was built. Morrill made a sketch of the diorama showing this position of the sheep that likely was part of the pre-design, though the sketch is undated so it is unclear where it fits in the chronology.

Sketch of Bighorn Sheep by Ralph Morrill
Sketch of Bighorn Sheep by Ralph Morrill,
Courtesy of R.B. Morrill

Wilson arrived in New Haven on Feb 10, 1958, to begin working on the Bighorn Sheep diorama. He designed the background with surprising audacity. It may have been because Dunbar challenged his conclusion that the diorama could be painted on an irregular surface or it may have been that he wanted to keep pushing himself to try new ideas, but Wilson designed it so that the long view down the valley was to be painted on the side of the diorama closest to the viewer. The photographic slides had to be reversed to get this configuration. Other diorama painters learned by experience that the physical shape of the diorama shell could sometimes enhance the painted illusion.

Wilson too, used this technique at the AMNH by painting the arch of a tree canopy onto the curve of the background wall as it transitions into the ceiling. The physical curve enhances the painted illusion of the tree canopy. If you stand in front of the Mule Deer diorama, also in the North American Hall, you can see Francis Lee Jaques doing the same thing, painting a receding line of mountains along a long wall that is physically most distant from the central viewpoint. Here, without a grid, Jaques gets a successful illusion of a distant view along a diminishing mountain ridge on the left side of the diorama because the physical wall carries the effect. For Jaques and other diorama painters not using a grid, this was a serendipitous occurrence, happening on occasion when the diorama shell happened to be irregular and corresponded to the composition. Jaques couldn’t dictate the parameters of the diorama shell so this was a rare occurrence.

Mule Deer Diorama detail
Mule Deer Diorama detail,
Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History (photo by M. Anderson)

Wilson with the grid, on the other hand, was able to make this effect happen on any shaped diorama shell every time. In the Bighorn Sheep, he proved that he could successfully paint the longest view down a valley onto the wall closest to the viewer and the illusion would stand. The long view down the valley would typically be painted on the most distant wall of the background. Wilson was like an artistic magician making the seemingly impossible appear correct in front of our eyes; just when you think you understand his techniques, he completely upends them and manages to pull it off.

This effect demonstrates the power of his gridding methods. At the Peabody, one has only to turn around to the Bison diorama to see an example of Jaques struggling to get his griddless painting method to create the illusion of space while receiving no help from the physical shape of the diorama. Here, the painting wraps along with the physical curve of the background even though there is an attempt to paint space that expands out to both sides. It is the shower-curtain effect that I have described in previous chapters that deadens the illusion of space. It is the problem that Wilson’s gridding methods solve and allow him to pull off painting a distant valley on the short side of the diorama.

Bighorn Sheep Diorama detail
Bighorn Sheep Diorama detail,
Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History (photo by M. Anderson)

A movie was made of the construction of this group at the Peabody that begins with Wilson drawing out his grid in charcoal.v By this time his methods were set; the movie captures him looking through a stereo-viewer at his gridded slides and sketching out the mountainous scene square by square with a stick of charcoal. Eventually, the whole landscape is drawn out and beautifully shaded in black and white. The charcoal is made permanent with a spray coat of fixative. The movie then shows Wilson mixing his paint on the palette and painting over the charcoal drawing by applying the paint with both a palette knife and a brush.

To my knowledge this Peabody film and the AMNH film of Wilson painting the background of the Fisher-Porcupine group at the AMNH were the only films made of any natural history diorama painting before 1960.vi It is remarkable that Wilson is featured in both of them and that no other films were made of other painters, such as Francis Lee Jaques, William R. Leigh, Belmore Browne, or Mathew Kalmenoff. In the 1950s, Wilson may have been pushed aside from painting the more prominent dioramas by faster painters, but his appearance in these rare films reflects the respect he and his work held in the museum community.

While Wilson was at the Peabody Museum working on the Bighorn Sheep diorama, the North American Hall of Forests opened at the AMNH and Harold Anthony retired. Anthony was the mammologist who curated the dioramas of the African Hall and North American Mammal Hall. Anthony would still look in on the Small Mammal Hall, but he knew he had professionals like the mammalogist Donald Carter, Wilson, and a number of very talented foreground artists lined up to do the work. With both Anthony and Wilson retired, the North American Hall of Forests opened and thirty years of diorama-making that had transformed the American Museum from top to bottom came to an end.

In the summer of 1958, Wilson attended the funeral of his brother, Robert Clifford. Wilson rarely talked about his family to others, but as a single man with no children or adult relationship, this was all he had. The death of his mother in 1944, with whom he lived and was devoted to, was a difficult transition. The loss of his last immediate family member, even though the two brothers weren’t that close, would have underlined the transition to being on his own.

Animals of the Dioramas

Robert Clem, 25, continued the work he had started with Wilson in the Forest Margin diorama to create the birds in the Bighorn Sheep diorama. Clem produced the drawings of two flying birds, the golden eagle and the raven that were transferred to the background. To collect material for the foreground, Ralph Morrill and Carl Dunbar drove a truck to a site on the Hudson River to collect limestone rock that was of the type found in the Canadian Rockies. The Peabody Museum was tight on funds, so the decision not to send either Morrill or Wilson to Canada was dictated by budget concerns. Even though Malcolm Aldrich had agreed to bankroll the Bighorn Sheep diorama, Carl Dunbar was patching together funding for the other dioramas. The Musk Ox was constructed without a donor and funding from other donors appears to have been depleted.

The three taxidermied bison installed in the bison diorama were historic mounts from the 1880s, given to the Peabody from the AMNH. Ralph Morrill had cautioned Dunbar about putting these mounts in the Peabody dioramas because of the unreliability of the nineteenth century tanning process and the pelts’ faded condition. After a short period of time, Morrill’s warnings were realized; the skin on the mounts broke apart, most likely from the heat of the lights in the diorama during the day and cooling in the evenings when they were turned off. The musk ox mounts, also recycled from AMNH castoffs, suffered the same fate, though the long hair hid the large cracks running lengthwise along the skins.

Ralph Morrill Directing David Parsons in the Bison Diorama
Ralph Morrill Directing David Parsons in the Bison Diorama,
Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

Carl Dunbar stepped down as the director of the Peabody Museum in 1959. Dillon Ripley, an ornithologist (who would lead the Smithsonian Institution from 1964 to 1984) took his place. Dunbar continued to work at the Peabody and looked in on progress in the North American dioramas, but the day-to-day decision-making shifted to Ripley. Ripley hoped to replace the cracked mounts, but to do so, he had to juggle finances creatively. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services had arranged to cull three bison at no cost to the Peabody. The only cost to the Peabody would be to send Morrill to collect the animals and transport the skins to New Haven. Ripley wrote that the collecting funds were almost non-existent and apparently, the trip to collect the bison was more than the Peabody could afford.vii Ripley made the decision, most likely out of necessity that the Peabody would have to live with the old mounts. To this day, the cracking historic mounts, now 135 years old, are still in the Peabody dioramas. The cracking skin and fading fur is worse than ever and the mounts are in even more critical need of replacement.

The Peabody Diorama Backgrounds

Wilson painted all four of the remaining backgrounds without traveling to or painting on site. Someone other than Wilson chose the sites and took reference photographs. Morrill and Parsons travelled to two of the diorama locales, the Sonoran Desert and Florida Everglades, to collect the foreground materials and take photographs for Wilson.

Ed Migdalski went on the Mexican expedition for the Tropical Rainforest diorama and Dunbar’s graduate student took photographs for the Bighorn Sheep diorama. It’s notable that Peabody Museum deferred to Wilson for all information concerning the construction of the dioramas, but wouldn’t or couldn’t accommodate his standard methods for painting the backgrounds by sending him on location. It can only be imagined what the Peabody dioramas would have looked like if Wilson had traveled to the settings and had a hand in choosing the composition for the background. While the Bighorn Sheep diorama may have been one of his standout background compositions, the Tropical Rainforest, the Florida Everglades, and the Sonoran Desert site choices are less than stellar. Even so, those who took the photos did so intelligently. The site photos of the Sonoran Desert were taken in the morning when the light was softer, colors more saturated, and forms benefited from light from a low angle. The light in the Florida Everglades is captured just at a dramatic moment when a distant island is illuminated by strong raking light.

Florida Everglades diorama, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History
Florida Everglades diorama,
Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

In the Bighorn Sheep diorama, Ralph Morrill used a combination of the actual limestone rocks with the painted plaster rockwork to make a very effective mountainous foreground. The 1961 film “The Museum Man” shows Morrill creating the rockwork with latex peels, taken from actual rocks, that are pushed into wet plaster. These cast rocks are then blended into freehand-sculpted rocks to give a very realistic look. After dried, Morrill used thin paint to tint the plaster, adding rich colors into what appears to the museum visitor as an overall grey. Since Morrill couldn’t go to Canada to collect the foreground, the limestone along the Hudson River was considered by Dunbar to be appropriate. Artificial snow was made from grated Styrofoam sprinkled over cotton. Because of yellowing with age, the Styrofoam was replaced in the early 1990s with ground limestone. Newer theatrical “snow” made from flaked plastics is colorfast and inert and is now being used in dioramas with snow scenes.

Parsons and Morrill are filmed adhering the sheep’s skin with a wet mache/dextrin mixture to a taxidermy form individualized to this particular animal. To make this form, Morrill mounted the bones of the sheep to a metal armature and sculpted clay muscles onto the skeleton. He made a plaster mold of the clay-sculpted form and cast a lightweight replica to receive the skin. Morrill used the Akeley methods of taxidermy, insisting, like Akeley, that the skeletal bones must be used to accurately combine the skin to the form, giving the most realistic look to the taxidermy mounts. Morrill also took anatomical rigor to another level with his bird mounts where he wired both upper bones of the leg, the femur and tibiotarsus, to the wrapped form. Most taxidermists discard these bones and wire the feet and lower legs (tarsometatarsus) into the body by guessing the position, but again, Morrill insisted that without both upper leg bones, the legs wouldn’t sit correctly under the body. Morrill trained Parsons who took his mentor’s methods to become, arguably, one of the best bird taxidermists in any natural history museum in the United States. The birds in the dioramas and the Connecticut Bird Hall, on the third floor of the Peabody Museum, are almost all Parsons’s work. In this exhibit, Parsons may have produced some of the best bird taxidermy on display anywhere.

Illustration of Manikin Inside a Taxidermy Mount by David Parsons
Illustration of Manikin Inside a Taxidermy Mount by David Parsons,
Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

Wilson was at his best in the Bighorn Sheep diorama. He painted the mountainous landscape with his signature effect, atmospheric perspective, giving an illusion of deep space with perfect transitions from dark to light, from detail to less detail, and from warm to cool. He balanced these effects with great skill. In this diorama one can “feel” the air as you look across the valley to the mountains and there is a sense of great depth in the landscape. In realistic diorama painting, this is as good as it gets! Wilson took great delight in painting, translating the light and color of a landscape into a diorama background. While this was a vocation he gave much thought and serious consideration to, he also liked to play around. While cleaning and restoring this diorama in the early 1990s, the glass was removed from the diorama and Ray deLucia and I began to assess what needed to be cleaned or restored in the foreground. Near the midline, at the back edge where the background and foreground meet, a disc of cork used by Morrill to hold sharp tools was left by accident. The color of the cork matches the color of the meadow with dried grass painted on the background and the cork visually disappears. I don’t believe leaving this in the foreground was an accident because both Wilson and Morrill were meticulous. Before the glass was installed, they would have closely looked the diorama over and removed anything that didn’t belong. Given that diorama was done on the cheap, Morrill, Parsons, and Wilson achieved a stunning result.

Wilson was in the middle of the Bighorn Sheep background when he interrupted his work and left with Don Carter and Tomas Newberry on an American Museum expedition to collect material for two of the Small Mammal dioramas. They first went to Baxter State Park in Maine to collect the Short-tailed Weasel and Red-backed Vole diorama. Then, they traveled to Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada to collect for the Otter diorama.

The painted study for the Short-tailed Weasel and Red-backed Vole is in the reference room in the AMNH archives. It is a two-panel study of Upper Togue Pond in Baxter State Park. Togue Pond is at the southern entrance of the park near the parking area. Wilson probably heeded the advice of the younger, more nimble preparators to avoid trying to find sites that would be hard to reach. The pond is directly south of Mount Katahdin, which makes the raking light on the mountainside a morning sunrise. Wilson chose this time of day for his paintings many times to enhance the scenery, illuminate color in the landscape, and to add drama.

Study for the Short-tailed Weasel and Red-backed Vole
Study for the Short-tailed Weasel and Red-backed Vole
(Photo by M. Anderson in the Central archives AMNH)
Courtesy Library Services, AMNH

The otter diorama setting is as moody and emotional as Wilson ever got with his diorama compositions. It too, is a morning scene with mist rising up over the marsh and the sun just beginning to burn through the haze. The atmosphere is palpable and the slides taken at the site still exist, but unfortunately, the painted study is lost. The painted study was listed in a 1966 document, “Artists and Their Works Located In the AMNH,” as being located in the public relations office at the AMNH.

Wilson had found his stride with methods that could be relied on for painting his dioramas. He developed precise methods for creating stunning diorama backgrounds of unchallengeable accuracy, but unlike architecture and fine art where innovation and creativity are expected, the natural history diorama, with its rigorous realism, benefits from a replicable methodology. Wilson maintained that within the strict boundaries of realism and within his methods, there was plenty of room for his creativity to emerge. It seems he was constantly pushing the limits of his methods. Examples include night scenes, overcast, cloud-covered skies, snow scenes, and his masterful challenges to the background distortion problems. “The necessity for realism in a diorama doesn’t limit creativity at all. The better technician you are the more resources you have to draw on as an artist.”viii

Wilson addressed the same question with his friend and student, Thanos Johnson when asked how to balance the level of realism vs. how much subjective personalization to include:

As for your painting, plenty of work direct from nature will teach you more than anything else can. Working from quick sketches, notes, or photographs can be effective, but after you have built up a working knowledge by painting directly from your subject, which will enable you to use such collected material with understanding. I remember once you raised the question of a literal recording of nature, versus the taking of liberties with your subject for the sake of personalizing your approach. My advice, given and repeated now, is this: Study your subject closely and try to record it with as much accuracy and understanding as you can. You will learn a great deal in so doing, and will build a store of sound knowledge that will enable you, later on, to develop an individual manner of working based on a sounder foundation than if you went at it more quickly and superficially. Discipline imposed from without may be irksome, but self-discipline is the most valuable thing you can practice. Try always to cultivate and increase, first your keenness of perception, and then your accuracy of recording what you see. If landscape painting is your goal, I believe that a year spent painting outdoors would give you a rich fund of experience that would be invaluable to you later on if you decided to enter school. I shall of course be glad to continue writing you any useful suggestions about painting that I can.ix

Wilson’s diorama work cannot be judged from traditional art standards. The methods and templates he chose were developed to insure accuracy. He was more closely aligned to scientific painting than to the emotionalism of subjective artmaking. No other diorama artist had given up or reduced the subjective component for accuracy’s sake. A subjective interpretation was too strongly embedded in the mindset of the other diorama painters for them to give it up. This was Wilson’s supreme achievement as a painter of dioramas. But it also makes covering each diorama repetitive.

For the next three years, starting in mid-1958, Wilson rented a room in New Haven to finish the Bighorn Sheep, the Sonoran Desert, and the Florida Everglades dioramas at the Peabody. Interspersed with the painting of the new dioramas, Wilson repainted the canyon in Jaques’ Mule Deer diorama, and was finally able to wrap up the Bog. Ruth Billard sat with Wilson in the Sonoran Desert group to try to understand how he did what he did. Billard was not a trained artist, but a biologist and was distinguished as one of the first female wildlife biologists ever hired in the United States to conduct fieldwork.x She landed a job in 1947 at the Connecticut State Fish and Game Department and met Ralph Morrill soon thereafter when she was looking for assistance identifying Lesser from Greater Scaup, two kinds of sea ducks. Morrill also taught her how to make satisfactory skins from the ducks. Afterwards, Billard visited Morrill’s shop often hoping to increase her skill as a taxidermist and artist. Later, she put these skills to use on a project studying the feather tracts of the Scaup. She skinned large numbers of these ducks to map the location of the feather root patterns in the skins. Billard also wrote and illustrated a number of pamphlets for the state. While Wilson was working at the Peabody, she asked Ralph if she might be able to sit in with Wilson to learn by watching. This is Ralph and Ruth’s account:

Ruth: I sat in with him in the Desert group. I hadn’t been painting at all.

Ralph: Perry didn’t know Ruth very well. He had met her a few times. I asked him if he’d mind if Ruth could sit in the group with him while he was painting. He said, well, I guess that would be all right. He wasn’t too keen on it. The longer Ruth sat in there with him, the more he enjoyed it until they got to be quite friendly.

Ruth: I remember what really cemented it. We had a little chain across an opening so people could stand there and watch. Two little boys came up and Perry had a stereo viewing box with a photograph in it with a grid. He’d look in the viewer and then he’d paint a bit. One of the kids asked, “What’s he doing there?” and I said, “He has that viewer with a photograph in it and he’s painting from it.” He looked at me and he asked, “And what are you doing there?” And I said, “I’m here to make sure he doesn’t make any mistakes!” Of course, I had known Perry only a little bit and I didn’t know anything about painting. He began to chuckle and his shoulders went up and down. I guess our senses of humor melded.

James Perry Wilson painting the Sonoran Desert Diorama
James Perry Wilson painting the Sonoran Desert Diorama,
Courtesy of R.B. Morrill

Billard took notes while she was sitting in the diorama. By her account, she would ask one question and write down Wilson’s response to it. If she didn’t understand what he said, she would take it home and think about it before she asked any more questions. She was well aware that Wilson liked privacy and her presence was felt as an imposition, so she made sure her questions were thoughtful. The next day she would ask another question building on the one before. She would again write down his response and give it a day before she asked another. In this way, Ruth Billard collected notes about Wilson’s methods, which had never been done systematically before. She asked many questions about the gridding procedure and with her day-to-day persistence, Billard documented this important mathematical method. Not even Wilson’s closest apprentices fully knew this procedure. Ray deLucia worked on more than a dozen dioramas with Wilson at the AMNH. When deLucia visited the Peabody Museum’s 1994 exhibit on James Perry Wilson, he insisted that the full-size diorama shell gridded with Billard’s notes was incorrect. It took many hours to convince him that, in fact, this was the exact grid method used by Wilson. Fred Scherer apprenticed with Wilson for years and knew Wilson produced a grid on the background wall before he sketched out the background in charcoal. In fact, Scherer had used the Wilson grid to produce the Virginia Deer diorama at the AMNH, but he could not explain any details of how it was done. Robert Kane and Jerry Connolly both had written notes about how the grid was produced, but neither seemed to have understood the importance of taking the time to use such a grid in their diorama painting.

Billard also took notes on his painting methods, how to paint shadows, what paint was on his palette, how to paint the skies, how to draw receding perspective, and how to size birds on the painted background. These subjects weren’t as poorly understood by the other artists as the grid was. She also painted on a canvasboard while she was in the diorama, using his paint mixtures to paint a landscape. Later, Ralph Morrill built a small diorama enclosure on which she worked out the full process of painting a diorama using Wilson’s methods. Billard, in her personal efforts to learn how to paint, from Wilson was able to bring to light information about the methods of one of America’s extraordinary landscape painters. Billard would go on to paint two small dioramas at the White Memorial Foundation under Wilson’s tutelage. She would write a book about the fish taxidermy methods of Ralph Morrill, whom she would marry in 1990.

Ruth Billard Painting in a White Memorial Foundation Diorama
Ruth Billard Painting in a White Memorial Foundation Diorama,
Courtesy of R.B. Morrill

Wilson finished the Bighorn Sheep and started the Sonoran Desert diorama in the early months of 1959. There was a month’s break to collect reference material in the western U.S. for three of the small mammal dioramas at the AMNH. He met up with Conrad (Connie) Schwiering in the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. They worked together to try to ascertain the colors in a landscape at night lit only by moonlight. Schwiering writes: “Wilson was assigned to paint a diorama of the flying squirrel. Since the flying squirrel is a nocturnal animal, the painting had to be a moonlight picture. Wilson called [me] and asked [my] help in experimenting with moonlight painting. This was a real privilege. We studied the moonlight on the mountain for half an hour. Then we turned the studio lights on and painted in the values. Then we’d turn off the lights and study the mountain some more. [We] concluded from [our] study that all the colors are present in a moonlit landscape, but they are all muted down by the gray, which puts them close together in value.”

Wilson was in New Haven until June 1960. A photograph from March 1960 captures Wilson putting the final touches on the painting in the Desert diorama. The large cactus in the foreground was intstalled and the diorama was close to being finished. I believe the start on the Florida Everglades diorama had begun two to three months prior to the final tie-up of the Desert group because by June 1960, Wilson had wrapped up his work on the three dioramas. A couple of anecdotes survive from Wilson’s work on the Florida Everglades.

Ruth Morrill remembers. “One night he had stayed up late reading an Ellery Queen mystery story and was so tired the next day, he fell asleep while painting. His loaded brush fell against the [Everglades] background and made a perfect clump of grass. The color was mixed perfectly.”xii

Ann Milton, an intern at the Peabody working with Wilson, remembers that he produced a cut out of the birds with outstretched wings circling in the Florida background painting. He took the cutout of the birds up on the roof and turned it to give him information about the shadows under the wings and how they might cross the body correctly.xiii He stayed at the Peabody until June 1960 and finished almost all of the Florida Everglades background. He wrote in a letter to Johnson, that he had finished all three backgrounds for the Peabody, but he would have to return after the five small mammal dioramas were finished to complete the tie up to the Florida Everglades.xiv

The Peabody dioramas were not rushed, Wilson felt comfortable taking the time needed to get his backgrounds right. Although the administration was somewhat peeved by his poor time estimates and deadlines that came and went, they knew they were getting very high quality work and they went along with him. It was apparent that Wilson’s work ethic was strong. He never shirked on time and always worked hard according to a self-imposed regular schedule. Peabody even found the money to add occasional bonuses to his pay. Ralph Morrill had great respect for Wilson’s knowledge and his talent and they worked together well as a team. Morrill was talented in his own right and the respect went both ways. Morrill was overseeing a number of student workers and adult volunteers. They made thousands of artificial leaves for the trees and herbacious plants in the diorama foregrounds. Morrill also had his eager apprentice, Parsons, working alongside him in his workshop. Wilson could see that the high standards he brought to the background painting were matched by a similar standards in Morrill’s shop.

Before his employment at the Peabody Museum, Ralph Morrill apprenticed with A.O. Gross, an ornithologist at Bowdoin College. Morrill grew up in Brunswick, Maine, and at age fourteen, he was reprimanded by Gross for throwing rocks at birds. Gross listened as Morrill told him of his interest in learning taxidermy and this led to an invitation into Gross’s laboratory, learning how to prepare specimens. Morrill worked at Bowdoin College with Gross for seven years before the Peabody hired him in 1924 as their taxidermist. This was the same year the Peabody Museum moved into their present building, so Morrill was able to influence every display in the museum with his talent. Morrill was always looking for new solutions, constantly experimenting with new materials and new techniques. In 1942, he developed a method of casting bird feet and bird bills in both electroplated metal and cast rubber so they would look more lifelike in a taxidermy mount. He had x-rays taken of birds to better study the anatomy of living birds. All his innovation came to the fore in his lifelike mounted animals and in the diorama foreground work fabricating foliage and habitats. Morrill retired in 1966, three years after the last diorama was built at the Peabody. He stayed in touch with Wilson after retirement and the men even developed a business relationship with Morrill selling Wilson’s plein air paintings to private buyers.

Wilson was so busy with his contractual work that he was unable to take a summer break in either 1960 or 1961. The Small Mammal dioramas at AMNH awaited him so he relocated to New York to begin work. The Badger diorama, which features one of his favorite sites, the Grand Tetons, was the first he tackled. These backgrounds were small and he was able to finish them a bit more quickly. In addition to the Teton Mountains, Wilson painted for the other dioramas Oregon’s Crater Lake, Mount Katahdin in Maine, the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, and Algonquin Park in Ontario. These small dioramas don’t convey the jump from two dimensions to three as well as the mid- to large-size dioramas. When the viewer is only two feet from the background, the eye picks up the physical curve of the background wall no matter how skillfully the painting is done. Conversely, the foreground plants are close to the viewing window and can be carefully studied since the floors of these dioramas are raised higher than in others. The craftmanship of these foreground plants is of a very high caliber.

The Small Mammal backgrounds took Wilson the latter half of 1960 and all of 1961. He returned to Peabody to tie up the Florida Everglades group and in May 1961, this diorama was opened to the public. By December 1961, the five small mammal dioramas were completed. While they were all beautifully painted, the Flying Squirrel display is worth singling out. The background, when illuminated with a flashlight, looks similar to a Wilson landscape in daylight, though just slightly more muted in color. I would have expected the muting to be much more pronounced given the previous quote by Connie Schwiering in which he states that when painting a moonlit landscape in the field, the values are close. In Wilson’s painting, the values are almost as varied as those seen in his daylight painting. In the case of this diorama, the illusion of moonlight is accomplished equally by lighting and painting. Clearly, Wilson did more research after his studies with Schwiering in the field. He had already experimented with lighting in the moonlit Raccoon diorama background. The Raccoon tie-in is dependent on the dim light muting high keyed colors to a perfect level. The same dim light/high-keyed painted color occurred with the Flying Squirrel background. There are no notes about how he did this, but I can imagine him painting some of the landscape with full lights and then switching to the diorama’s dim lights to see if he was getting the effect. Wilson was again pushing the limits.

By wrapping up the last of the backgrounds for the Small Mammal Hall, Wilson had completed his twenty-eight year career at the American Museum, though retirement was not in the cards. The Peabody was anxious to negotiate with him another diorama background, the Tropical Rainforest. Before this, he spent the first four months of 1962 working on a Museum of Science, Boston, commission, a large mural for a display of primate evolution. The Museum of Science director, Brad Washburn, also intended to bring Wilson to Boston to paint. He had already commissioned Francis Lee Jaques to paint several dioramas in Boston. Washburn spurned the prevailing negative sentiment in the museum community toward dioramas. He wanted them for his museum and was actively sought out and pursued the best artists to paint the backgrounds. In 1962 Washburn wasn’t ready to start the dioramas, but he wanted to get Wilson to do other painting like the Primate Evolution mural. Wilson set up the large canvas, six feet long and three feet high, in his Westchester apartment in Pelham Manor, New York. He painted several primates in a sequence from left to right with the most primitive on the left and a human family on the far right hand side.xv His friend Johnson posed as a model for the painting. Wilson described the pose and Johnson took photographs of himself in the nude. The slides were developed and then sent off to Pelham Manor.xvi

Wilson moved back to New Haven in April 1962 to start the new diorama for the Peabody Museum. The Tropical Rainforest site photographs had already been taken by Ed Migdalski in Campeche, Mexico. The jungle site chosen by Migdalski has a claustrophobic feeling. There is no break in the tangle of vines and underbrush. While undoubtedly it is a realistic depiction of the habitat, it is not a successful choice for a diorama background. Ralph Morrill stated that the Tropical Rainforest was the most time-consuming of the Peabody Museum groups. With the soaring tree trunks, overhead forest canopy, draping lianas, epiphytes, an understory and such rain forest denizens as a coati, a tapir, and a howler monkey to paint it is little wonder it required so much of the artist’s time.xvii Wilson described it to his friend Thomas Lovejoy: “I’m in the tropics too, all tangled up in the lianas of the rainforest. This is proceeding all right, but it seems that the tropical climate vegetation ought to grow faster than it does in my painting.”xviii

Tropical Rainforest Diorama
Tropical Rainforest Diorama,
Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History

Wilson, in his typical humility, didn’t mention in the previous note that he was being given a one-man show of his paintings at the Peabody Museum opening in early January. There had been a few formal showings of his art over the years; there were the employee exhibits at the AMNH in 1935, 1937, and 1940, and there was a room in an architect’s office where he hung his work, at least once in 1934. Typically, Wilson only showed his paintings to his friends or colleagues. He never joined clubs like the Salmagundi Club or the Explorer’s Club and never applied to the National Academy. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to sell his paintings. He had several commissions from wealthy donors of the dioramas and when he showed his paintings to his friends and colleagues, he would tell them what the paintings would cost if anyone wanted to purchase one. Many of his colleagues said in retrospect that they wish they had the money to buy one at the time, but a 12" x 16" painting, at $100, was more than most of them could afford. By 1940 Wilson rarely had time to get outdoors to paint, nor did he have time to finish the studies to a level he considered marketable. These factors may have been the principal reasons he never became a gallery artist. Later when Ralph Morrill sold Wilson’s studies with a 30 percent commission, Wilson was able to do better financially than if he had gone into a gallery.xix

Wilson received two new requests to paint backgrounds, one from the White Memorial Foundation in Litchfield, Connecticut, and the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa. The White Memorial Foundation dioramas came up suddenly. They contacted Ralph Morrill because they wanted to create a trailside museum and they knew very little about how to create one. They knew Morrill had the experience and skill from his work at the Peabody and they were willing to give him free rein to design and build the displays. Morrill jumped at the chance to modify the floor plan of the old mansion to fit the types of exhibit they had in mind. Morrill suggested that they adapt a small room for the three dioramas and the White Memorial Foundation agreed. Morrill had to look no further than James Perry Wilson to paint the background and he proposed the idea to Wilson. Wilson was scheduled to start the Ottawa expeditions in the middle of 1963, and he thought that if he bumped back starting the Canadian dioramas a couple of months, he could fit in this diorama.

Morrill had a more complicated plan to have Ruth Billard paint two small dioramas accompanying the larger one. Morrill knew that the White Memorial Foundation had a working relationship with Billard’s employer, the Connecticut Fish and Game Department. If Wilson would be willing to guide Billard through the painting of two small dioramas that would accompany the larger one, Morrill might be able to convince the Fish and Wildlife Department to assign Billard to the Foundation for five or six months. Morrill’s plans were realized and the White Memorial Foundation got Wilson to paint in their trailside museum and a great financial deal with Ruth Billard paid by the state to paint two small diorama backgrounds. Billard got a paid leave of absence to paint under the tutelage of one of the best painters in the country! Wilson and Morrill were hired on April 25, 1963, to construct the large diorama at the White Memorial Foundation.

It is doubtful that Wilson would have agreed to work with Billard had he not been impressed by her talent, quick intelligence, and focused intensity as she took notes and made color studies with him in the Peabody dioramas. Also, Morrill and Wilson were friends now and Wilson knew it would please Ralph if they went as a whole gang over to Litchfield. Ultimately, it was fortunate because Billard not only got to paint with Wilson for six months, but she again took notes during the painting process and kept them safely through the years. From them, one gets a feeling for the sensitivity Wilson brought to his painting. Here is an example:

Trees, squares 1-5 – watch branches! They are getting heavy and dark. For tangle of thin twigs, use much lighter color than the main limbs. This will make them look thinner, suggesting irradiation. Squares 12-20 [handling of foothill] good. Hill to right of it much improved. Dark tones at bottom of hill sq. 16, a little too dark – make them similar to the ones above. Trees against sky, sq. 14 – don't try to draw every separate twig – drag tone on lightly with dry brush, suggesting mass of twigs. Make this tone very light. This will apply to within nearby trees also. The bank of trees in front of hills – watch top edge for character. Foliage masses – tops should be a very indefinite line. Bottom of course is firm. Dry brush light color over little of it so it peters out as it goes along. Soften edges of cloud – very soft on edges. Not a formless blue-a collection of wisps? Soften edge of cloud shadow-soften edges. Change shape of bottom line. Chain of clouds – take out.xx

Billard also had a hand in finding the site for Wilson and Morrill for the large diorama. For several years, she had been running a fifteen-mile ruffed grouse census line that crisscrossed the White Memorial Foundation property. She suggested they look at a particular section of the census line that bordered Bantam Lake and afforded a striking view of the lake framed by tall white pines. Wilson and Morrill went to Billard’s site and agreed that it was the right spot for this diorama. Wilson took the site photos, but he made no painted study. As in other New England dioramas, this was the kind of landscape he had been painting for sixty years and he had many studies from which to refer for accurate color. It is likely he didn’t create a scale model for this group either. Ruth Billard remembers him scribing a circle on the floor to get his grid measurements. These measurements were usually determined in the scale model making scribing a circle on the diorama floor unnecessary.xxi

Wilson started in Litchfield in April 1963, but only briefly. He may have laid in his grid and charcoal underdrawing during the first month, but then, he departed to collect his references for the four Canadian Museum of Nature bird sites he was hired to paint. He spent the first half of May at the prairies of southwest Saskatchewan for the Sage Grouse group and then he went to Point Pelee National Park to collect images for a Warbler Migration diorama. John Crosby, a bird artist, accompanied Wilson to Point Pelee. He served as Wilson’s chauffeur and observed him at the painting site. Crosby noted that Wilson worked long hours, all day at the site and many hours into the night. He was very systematic. The only time he took off was to watch a National Geographic movie at the theatre. They had trouble with their car and Crosby traded it in for a subcompact. They traveled all around the north shore of Lake Erie and Wilson, at 6 feet 4 inches, never complained of any discomfort. Crosby was impressed and concluded, “He was a tough old bird!”xxii

The north shore of Lake Erie was next and Wilson took photographs and painted field studies. After this part of the work was finished Wilson went west to Lake Louise and took a two-week painting vacation, unrelated to museum work. There, Wilson produced a series of paintings of Lake Louise in a wide range of light and weather conditions. He would return in 1965, book a room in the Lake Louise Chateau, and paint from his window overlooking the lake. These paintings are as close as anything Wilson ever did to paint one subject over and over to plumb the emotional and evocative nature of the scene by changing times of day and painting under differing weather conditions.

Lake Louise, 12 X 16”, oil on board
Lake Louise, 12 X 16”, oil on board, collection R. Clifford Wilson
Lake Louise, 12 X 16”, oil on board
Lake Louise, 12 X 16”, oil on board, private collection

Then on July 1, he met Erik Thorn. Thorn and Wilson had been friends since 1949 when they met at the AMNH. Thorn was responsible for hiring Wilson to paint the Canadian dioramas. Together they headed north to Jasper, staying in the Columbia Icefield Chalet just opposite the glacier, the subject of the Canadian Icefield diorama. After two weeks working on the field references for the icefield, Wilson returned to Connecticut to continue his work on the White Memorial Foundation diorama. He painted for almost ten months on this background and commented that the detail of the wooded habitat made the work drag on longer. A boulder was added in the background to break up the monotony of the forest floor. Billard and Wilson wandered out into a rocky section of the Foundation land to photograph rocks. Ruth Billard recalls: “A few days later [after taking photographs], he said to me, ‘I don’t want you to look at the painting for a while. He came over to the diorama I was working on and said with a delighted grin, ‘Now you can look.’ And he surprised me by showing me a moss encrusted boulder painted over the leaf litter he had painted several days before.”xxiii

Wilson was at the White Memorial Foundation until March or April, 1964. Ruth finished a couple of months later. One anecdote survives about Wilson’s time at the White Memorial Foundation. Ruth Billard while working on the diorama in Litchfield, discovered Wilson behind one of the backgrounds they were working on, examining with delight the beams and walls of the old house. She watched as the artist poked about on his hands and knees in the narrow space, reconstructing in his mind the room as it once had been.

Wilson painted in Ottawa for sixteen months and was finished in October 1965. With a month off for another painting vacation to Lake Louise in August 1965, I estimate he started in Ottawa in June 1964. He had expected to be in Ottawa by 1963, but the Litchfield diorama was more work than he thought it would be. He had already collected his reference photographs and paintings for the Ottawa groups, so he started right in on the Booming Sage Grouse diorama. This diorama features two male sage grouse displaying with air sacs inflated and tails spread to woo a female just before dawn. It is early springtime with a full moon in left corner and a rosy glow on the horizon. The diorama is dark enough that the viewer’s eyes have to adjust to the low light. Wilson painted approximately a dozen grouse in the background that rival anything painted by bird artists of the time.

Sage Grouse Diorama, Canadian Museum of Nature
Sage Grouse Diorama, Canadian Museum of Nature
(photo by M. Anderson)

His second diorama was the Point Pelee warbler migration. All of the Ottawa dioramas were painted on pre-formed fiberglass shells. This one was eight feet wide and just over nine feet tall. The painting surface was prepared without canvas adhered to the surface. The fiberglass was painted with several coats of stippled white oil paint on which Wilson painted his background. While Wilson liked it, this painting surface would prove to be fragile over time.

For reasons unknown, the Point Pelee diorama was taken off display in the 1980s and stored. I was in Ottawa to document these dioramas in 1996 and I was able to go to the off-site storage facility to photograph the stored diorama. Ten years later after receiving (erroneous) information that the other Wilson dioramas had been destroyed during the renovation of their building,xxiv I asked the Canadian Museum administration if they would consider transferring the fourth, stored diorama to the Peabody Museum rather than destroy that one as well. Unbelievably, they agreed. The diorama shell with background painting arrived at the Peabody Museum in November 2009. The foreground was lost when the diorama was taken off display, so I had to build a new one.

There was one “archival” photograph of this diorama and it was an out of focus snapshot from the 1970s. I was able to see quail and a cardinal in the foreground. I assumed there was an array of warblers scatterred through the underbrush as well. The botanists at Peabody determined the types of trees, groundcover, and grasses from studying the background painting, so I was able to track down all of the herbacious specimens in Connecticut to include in the foreground.xxv

Further research revealed that the quail had been hunted out of existence at Point Pelee. This indicated to us that this diorama had been concieved with an environmental message about how the quail vanished. We at Peabody decided to reconstruct the foreground in the same way and include the quail as well as other extirpated species such as the hognose snake and Fowler’s toad. The Fowler’s toad was erradicated by pesticides and cats from human settlements nearby. The hognose snake depended on the Fowler’s toad for food and without them, the hognose snake went out of existence. Albert Parr’s exhibit theories to include evidence of human impact on environments was clearly evident in this diorama.

Wilson continued with the Hawk Migration diorama depicting the sand cliffs along the northern shore of Lake Erie. A kettle of broadwing hawks was painted into the background. Initially, Wilson went to this site in 1963 with Crosby, but returned again during the hawk migration in 1964, presumably to familiarize himself with the site further. The final diorama was the Canadian Icefields. The background is of a high alpine meadow at the edge of melting snow, looking into a glacial valley. In the foreground are bright yellow Western anemones, Golden crowned sparrow, Purple finch, White-tailed ptarmigan. Wilson wrote Ruth Billard in March, 1965: “I am still on the Rocky Mountain background. I’ve spent almost as much time on it as I did on the Bantam Lake scene [Litchfield, CT], which is much bigger. But this is an unusually exacting scene, demanding very careful drawing throughout. It is nearly finished at last, and I think it is one of my best; certainly it is on of the most dramatic subjects I have ever attempted.”xxvi

Canadian Icefields Diorama, Canadian Museum of Nature
Canadian Icefields Diorama, Canadian Museum of Nature
(Photo by M. Anderson)

The composition of this diorama was unusual. The view is from a high vantage down to the glacier which rises and curves as it rises. The glacier is a complex series of planes seen from above and twisting off into the distance. To get the glacier to sit correctly in the valley would have taken careful drawing. This composition made the grids enormously useful making it easy for Wilson to get the correct perspective. For an artist to do this on a curved diorama background only by eye would have been extremely challenging. Wilson painted a study at the site on a flat canvas without a grid which would have been difficult enough. The whereabouts of Wilson’s plein air studies for the Ottawa dioramas are unknown, so we can’t see how he did it.

By the end of October 1965, Wilson was finished with the four Ottawa dioramas. He immediately resettled in Boston to start work at the Museum of Science. The seven Boston dioramas Wilson was contracted to paint were small. The largest was just under nine feet wide and only four feet deep. These are larger than the Small Mammal dioramas at the AMNH, but approximately the same size as the small corridor dioramas in the North American Mammal Hall. He worked with a good team of foreground artists, Joe Spacer and Dick Sheffield and two taxidermists that were quite skillful, Edward B. Shaw and Robert Bernath.

The Boston dioramas sites are all in New England with four in Massachusetts, one in Maine, one in Vermont, and another in Connecticut. The Vermont site in Pownal was a favorite painting spot for Wilson in the 1930s. One of his studies from Pownal very likely was in his mind when he chose the site for the Skunk-Horned Owl group.

Pownal, 1936
Pownal, 12 X 16”, oil on board, private collection

The Connecticut site was, according to Ralph Morrill, a spot on A.C. Gilbert’s 800 acre property just outside of New Haven. Gilbert collected the Alaskan Brown Bears for the Peabody Museum’s Alaskan diorama. The Maine site was from Boothbay Harbor, another painting location from Wilson’s past; he painted there as early as 1918. These familiar painting sites indicate that Wilson had a strong voice in choosing some of the sites.

The Red Fox diorama was the first. He collected the references for it in the Fall 1965 in the Blue Hills section of Milton, Massachusetts. The Red Fox background shows signs of Wilson slowing his pace and of getting too tired to keep up his meticulously high standards. This is most evident in the oak leaves that litter the forest floor. They are painted quickly and without meticulous concern about the contours or with little regard for the complex modulations that would help them lie on the surface and blend together. In an interview, Wilson says about this background: “Before I got through I got terribly tired painting dead oak leaves.”xxvii Wilson estimated he spent four months on the Red Fox and another four months on the Raccoon diorama which he painted back-to-back.xxviii

The Raccoon is a moonlit scene of a lake with a duck hunter’s shack on the bank. Wilson depicted the western sky on right including the constellation Boötes, with its bright star, Arcturus. On left side is the constellation Ophiucus. The depictions of the constellation are exact, but again, this background doesn’t look like Wilson at his best. He was now seventy-seven years old.

The next diorama was the Twilight in Vermont diorama. The composition for this background comes directly from a 1930s study of a sunset at the exact spot in Pownal, Vermont. The time of the sunset is about one hour different, but all other parts of the landscape are there in perfect replication.

In 1995 I visited Pownal, Vermont, armed with eight photo reproductions of landscapes that James Perry Wilson had painted there in the 1930s. Six of the landscapes were long views of a valley with distinct landmarks that I hoped to be able to find. I had been to other diorama sites and found the experience uncanny; when I came upon the site it was as if I were standing in front of the painted diorama. The lines of the hills were rendered exactly; the valley in the distance was exactly the same. These diorama paintings I knew to be painted from photographs and color studies made on-site, the usual Wilson method. But for his plein air painting, he wasn’t using photographs and I was curious to see how accurately rendered these Pownal studies were. Pownal is not big and it didn’t take me long to find a farmer whose family had been in Pownal for over two hundred years.

I introduced myself and showed my photographs to a grizzled elderly dairy farmer who peered at me over his glasses with skepticism while I explained my mission. After studying the paintings for some time he said that yes, he did know where these paintings had been painted. He walked across the road and pointed to the fields and hills in the distance and said they were the ones in the paintings. Then he pointed to the paintings and identified old Route 7 and the quarry, the Mason’s barn (now an antique shop), even the stump of the old elm tree that was alive when Wilson was painting. He said the actual site where the paintings were painted is at the old boarding house at Grandview Farm owned by Daniel Mason just down the road. He said “If you’d like I’ll take you down there.” So we piled into his pickup truck and went to the exact site. It was like a bell had rung. There spreading out in front of me was the landscape virtually unchanged. The farmer identified whose fields were whose and how things had changed since his early days, how fields had grown over and how people had moved on and how the trees were reclaiming the hillsides. But it was all there, the line of the horizon over the mountains, the barns, the quarry, even the structure of the trees, though bigger, was the same.

There are several in-progress photographs of Wilson painting the Boston dioramas. Some of these provide a window and bring up questions into his painting procedure. The Opossum background was photographed with the sky and mid-ground finished. Most of the foreground area was still sketched in charcoal. At the time of this photo, Wilson had painted a vertical swath through the grassy field from mid-ground to foreground, up to the tie-in of the rock wall. While it is not typical that he would paint a narrow section of the foreground in one sitting, he wrote about doing this on the Shoreline diorama at the Peabody Museum. There, he started with the beach sand at the tie-in and painted back to the mid-ground to insure the values would work. More often, he would paint large foreground areas like he painted the sky, by painting the most distant horizontal section first and moving down the background by subsequent horizontal sections. In this case, either Wilson may have wanted to know how saturated his colors would have to be when he reached the rocks or it was a one-day lesson to someone about how values are modulated in a background painting.

Opossum Diorama, in progress
Opossum Diorama in progress,
Science Museum of Boston

The Snowshoe Hare background also has in-progress photographs. In these, Wilson is shown working with strained attention as two young women talk animatedly to a tour guide as if Wilson were not there. He is in the middle of his work and has painted the sky and the foreground snowy area with shadows cast from the tree. Some of the trees are painted with dark tree trunks and others will be painted later and appear ghosted having been stippled over when Wilson blended the surrounding paint. In the photograph, he is painting the areas of dense forest in the mid-ground. One has to look closely, but the sky has a grid of white lines, possibly chalk dust, snapped with a chalk line on top of the sky color for the location of the trees. This is the first time a white grid over a painted sky has been seen in any other dioramas by Wilson. It is presumed that Wilson would dust off the chalk lines when finished.

James Perry Wilson Painting the Snowshoe Hare Diorama, Science Museum of Boston
James Perry Wilson Painting the Snowshoe Hare Diorama,
Science Museum of Boston

If these observations are correct that the sky and snowy foreground have been painted first, Wilson is painting the mid-ground as the final section of the diorama and is working in two directions to tie in the mid-ground to the values of the sky and also to the values of the foreground snow. Usually under normal atmospheric conditions without snow, the painting progresses in one direction only, from the lightest value of the sky at the horizon and working down the canvas from the most distant landscape to the foreground as it ties in to the three-dimensional foreground. In painting a landscape with snow, the rules of atmospheric perspective change. Wilson knew that snow will typically be lighter than any part of the sky and that the values of the landscape will have to blend in with snow as well as the sky.

The Snowshoe Hare and the Chipmunk were small dioramas with flat tops rather than the typical domed tops. Wilson painted his skies right over the seam as if it didn’t exist. The scale models for both of these dioramas are still at the Museum of Science, Boston. They are at 1:6 scale, fully painted, but show evidence of the grids.

The Lobster Fishing diorama is another first in Wilson’s career; it is the first miniature display he made for permanent exhibit. Later he would do another miniature, the Tyrannosaurus Rex for the Museum of Science, Boston. If he had time, Wilson’s scale models are finished to a high level and the Lobster fishing miniature is essentially the same as a fully finished scale model. The scale is 1:6 and the setting of this group is Boothbay Harbor, Maine. This is also Wilson’s first underwater diorama as half of the exhibit is underwater. I have no notes that Wilson made in-water studies, but I don’t put it past him. The depths are murky and the effect works well. Wilson knew Boothbay Harbor from his very early days of plein air painting and as the dock to catch the Monhegan ferry. Wilson even contacted the Monhegan ferry captain, Earl Field, to serve as the model for the lobsterman. The Boston dioramas are full of evidence of humans and this is one with a fully populated background and the subject matter is the harvest of lobsters. The reach of Albert Parr’s ideas about including humans in habitat displays is evident yet again in another museum.

James Perry Wilson with the Cold Front Painting, Science Museum of Boston
James Perry Wilson with the Cold Front Painting,
Science Museum of Boston

The large 8' x 15' Cold Front mural came after and Wilson would spend ten months researching, designing, and painting it. It is modeled after the work of another artist, Eric Sloan. All the lettering is hand painted by Wilson with impressive regularity. Wilson painted another large painting of a solar eclipse that occurred on March 7, 1970. Both of these large paintings are no longer on display in the museum. The Primate painting that Wilson finished in 1962 was removed also from display because it became out of date after new paleoanthroplogical discoveries such as the nearly complete skeleton of the female Australopithecus afarensis, known as “Lucy.” The linear evolutionary progression indicated by Wilson’s painting was also considered obsolete.

Wilson was invited to make a home for himself in the exhibition department at the Museum of Science, Boston. This was likely not a formal invitation; the designers and preparators loved having him around and many developed close friendships with him. Bradford Washburn, the director of the museum, was another who befriended Wilson. Washburn may have made it clear that Wilson could have access to the exhibits department and was welcome to work on anything he wanted in the Museum of Science. It became a stimulating environment for Wilson to work, some on museum work and some on his own work. Washburn realized the immense talent and resource in Wilson and he wanted to display as much of Wilson’s work as he could in the museum.

Washburn was a mountaineer and had been mapping Mount McKinley for years. This project was coming to a close and Washburn hatched a plan to produce an exhibit of his map of Mount McKinley that would include his photographs and James Perry Wilson’s paintings of Alaska. With that in mind, Wilson was invited to go to Alaska with Washburn to paint. They flew to Anchorage in 1969 and traveled inland to Talkeetna. Talkeetna was where Washburn’s bush pilot, Don Shelton, lived and operated the Talkeetna Air Service. Sheldon had developed a landing gear for his Piper Super Cub two-seater that made it possible to land on the glaciers of Mt. McKinley. Sheldon had been piloting Washburn’s mapping team for fifteen years and now he took Wilson up onto Mt. McKinley to take photos, both from the cockpit and from the mountain, to use for paintings in Boston.

Dick Sheffield recounted: “Some time later on a trip with Museum of Science exhibit designer, Fred Moore, he did twelve paintings at sites around in Denali. They traveled around quite a bit in the area of Talkeetna and Denali. They drove up on the Denali road. Nobody was up there. There was a pun that came back from Alaska. Moore was driving with Wilson on Denali Road. They had to slow down or stop every once in a while because a ptarmigan would jump out into the road. After about the tenth time, Fred said to Perry ‘Ptarm and Ptarm-agan.’ Perry loved every minute of it. He painted with a mosquito net and managed to get his hands covered with bites. He did some magnificent work.”xxix

From the painted studies and the photographs, Wilson produced eighteen larger paintings for the exhibit. He spent a year and a half at his Westchester apartment in Pelham Manor painting the Alaskan series. The exhibit on Mt. McKinley and Alaska was opened in Boston in early 1973. Later that year, the exhibit traveled to Seattle. In January 1975, fourteen of these paintings were included in a solo exhibit to the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, where his old co-worker and friend from the AMNH, Alan Munro was the director.

Alaska, 12 X 16”, oil on board, private collection
Alaska, 12 X 16”, oil on board, private collection

Polyhedron Models

James Perry Wilson’s last personal investigation was making mathematical polyhedra models. Polyhedra are shapes that dominate everything from a bee’s honeycomb to a soccer ball cover. A polyhedron is traditionally defined as a three-dimensional shape that is made up of a finite number of polygonal faces, which are parts of planes; the faces meet in pairs along edges, which are straight-line segments, and the edges meet in points called vertices. Cubes, prisms, and pyramids are examples of polyhedra. Stellation of a polyhedron is the process of extending the faces (within their planes) so that they meet to form a new polyhedron. Many times models are created with colored faces, which enhance their visual interest.

Wilson had studied polyhedra as part of his architecture program at Columbia University. When Wilson was at Columbia, the theory of relativity and the fourth dimension were hot topics and a lot of research was taking place with polyhedra into the variety of levels of space.xxx As an architect and a student with great facility in mathematics, these investigations were of interest intellectually even though ancillary to his architectural curriculum. Now, sixty years later, he found a renewed interest in making polyhedra models after seeing an exhibit of M. C. Escher’s art at the Museum of Science-Boston late in 1973. Several of Escher’s drawings include polyhedra; both the drawings and the models have a similar illusionistic fascination. They both seem to magically transform while one studies these complex forms. In an effort to enhance the traveling exhibit, the exhibits department at the Museum of Science made polyhedra models and Mobius strips to display in conjunction with Escher’s art.

James Perry Wilson Working on Polyhedra model
James Perry Wilson Working on Polyhedra model,
Science Museum of Boston

Wilson had little left to do in 1974, but wait for the dinosaur models and the foreground for the T. rex miniature diorama. So, he took over where the exhibits department left off and spent much time fabricating his own polyhedra models. Dick Sheffield who worked in the exhibits department during this time called the models a “visual essay on three-dimensional forms.”xxxi Some constructions were simple like the Octahedra and the Icosahedra, but others were extremely complex like the Final Stellation of the Icosahedron and the Compound of Five Cubes. Washburn on occasion dropped by and watched the progress of this work. Washburn considered them worthy of an exhibit and toward the end of 1974, the Museum of Science, Boston, mounted an exhibit of Wilson’s polyhedra constructions. Father Magnus Wenninger, a math professor at St. Augustine’s College in the Bahamas and an author of a book on polyhedra, came to Boston to lecture on the subject.

After the exhibit, Wilson continued to work on the polyhedra models. He wrote to Ruth Billard about the Escher prints in 1976: “Look at the plate called Waterfall, near the end of the book. I have constructed a model of the polyhedron, which surmounts the left-hand tower. This is a form not shown in either of my two polyhedra text books. It is a compound of three cubes. Also at the bottom of the plate entitled Stars is a compound of two cubes (in skeleton form). I've made that one too.”xxxii

Polyhedra Model by James Perry Wilson
Polyhedra Model by James Perry Wilson,
(photo by M. Anderson)

Dick Sheffield recalls that Wilson, a non-smoker, had a malignant tumor in his throat and mouth. It got large enough that Wilson tried to hide it from everyone when he worked. Sheffield observed that he was taking homeopathic medication and didn’t have much to do with doctors. He continued to work, though at a slower pace and came in to work at the Boston Museum shortly before he died on August 12, 1976. He was one day shy of his eighty-seventh birthday.

The Museum of Science-Boston boxed up Wilson’s desk at the time of his death. There were numerous astronomical paintings, notes and drawings for the Jr. Natural History articles from the 1950s, and there were two mysterious Kodachrome slides of soap bubbles. The significance of these “bubble” slides was revealed as I researched Wilson’s polyhedra models. It turns out that an English physicist, Lord Kelvin, in 1887, asked how space could be partitioned into cells of equal volume with the least surface area. Soap bubbles are physical examples of the complex mathematical problem of minimal surface. They will assume the shape of least surface area possible containing a given volume. So Lord Kelvin devised a polyhedron comprised of squares and slightly curved hexagons that mimicked bubble structure. Kelvin’s solution stood for more than one hundred years, but others were testing Kelvin’s conclusions including, as it appears, Wilson.xxxiii

Bubble photo by James Perry Wilson
Bubble photo by James Perry Wilson

Also his desk was a copy of a mathematics paper about curved surface polyhedra and geodesic domes. The link between the bubble photographs, curved surface polyhedra papers, and Lord Kelvin is unmistakable. Wilson’s further investigation into the geodesic dome points to an interest in Buckminster Fuller who invented and built them. Ruth Hoffman, who knew Wilson only as the quiet uncle of her husband, observed that Wilson “lit up” when she mentioned Buckminster Fuller. According to Hoffman, They spent the rest of the time talking about Fuller; Hoffman had never seen him so animated and she noted that Wilson and Fuller both shared the use of math to break up space.xxxiv Wilson had jumped into a complex geometric investigation that involved multiple, irregular polyhedra conjoined together. It was just this type of intellectual query that grew out of his foundational work in geometric form that James Perry Wilson was attracted to.

It is surprising that Wilson died alone, without friends or family around him. Each of the friends that I interviewed felt bad about this. His family made some efforts to take care of him. His nephew was attending to him and had made plans for a summer vacation in the Caribbean. Wilson assured him that he was OK and he shouldn’t cancel plans because of him. Unfortunately, the end came while the nephew was away. Wilson was not the type to reach out to others in times of need. Years before, he had joined Ruth Billard when she went to the hospital to see her father. Wilson was visibly shaken by the experience and seemed not about to ask others to endure the same with him. This is Wilson at his most private. He had spent his last forty years taking care of himself when he was sick and this was going to be no different.

Wilson’s funeral was similarly sparsely attended, only fourteen people came and the presiding Episcopal priest didn’t know Wilson. A cloak of privacy came down over Wilson and his family at the end. Several factors may have come into play. First, from Wilson himself, he was an extremely private person. He did things socially with people after hours, but usually they were a dinner engagement or a symphonic concert. After he closed the door to his apartment, he had his own private world to himself. Wilson was also a bit vain. He liked to look good and to wear nice clothes. Elizabeth deLucia described him as a “natty” dresser. He should have worn glasses in his later years, but he refused to do so. He told others that he believed the eyes had to be exercised, but glasses were a look he wasn’t about to entertain. A tumor on the side of his face would have been a condition to hide away from everyone, possibly at the expense of his own care and emotional support. There is an indication that he was without a housekeeper at the end. Was the condition of his face bad enough to forgo the services of his housekeeper? Did he not even want her around to see?

Wilson’s nephews also did not seem to be fully engaged with their uncle’s condition. While it is likely Wilson sent off his nephew with assurances of his well-being, the nephew was in the Caribbean when Wilson died. It seems as if the nephew regarded the funeral as a family obligation without sensitivity toward the long list of friends that would have attended had they known in advance. There was an address book that Wilson kept with hundreds of names of friends and contacts. This address book was “lost” at the time of his deathxxxv and is extremely unfortunate for the pursuit information about his life and location of paintings. There seemed to have been a lack of comprehension of the stature of their uncle and the importance of his artistic oeuvre.


i Harold Anthony to Gordon Reekie, December 19, 1954, AMNH archives.

ii Wilson produced a handwritten note about what he would charge for each diorama. Two six foot wide dioramas were estimated at $2200, two at four feet wide were $1650, and the rest of the smaller two foot wide dioramas were $1100 for a total of $19,800. Anthony disregarded this note and chose to use his salary as the baseline.

iii Harold Anthony to Walter Meister, letter dated June 7, 1957, Courtesy of Library Services, AMNH

iv Ruth Morrill, email March, 5, 2014

v Museum Man, Sleeping Giant Films, 1961 Peabody Museum archives

vi There was a roughly edited, partial film of Wilson and Peabody Museum staff working on the Forest Margin diorama. Circa 1946, Peabody Museum archives.

vii Dillon Ripley to Jonas Brothers Taxidermy Inc., letter dated May 13, 1954, Peabody Museum Archives

viii Christian Science Monitor, February 23, 1966

ix James Perry Wilson to Thanos Johnson, letter, 19 July 1945

x In fact, there was one other female state wildlife biologists in the country, but she worked as an administrator in Maryland.

xi Ralph Morrill and Ruth Billard Morrill, interview with author, August, 29,1994

xii Ruth Billard Morrill, conversation with the author, Feb. 23, 1998.

xiii Ann Milton, conversation with the author, September 21, 2001.

xiv James Perry Wilson to Thanos Johnson, this letter recounts his work from 1960 until the end of 1961. December 21, 1961.

xv This mural was taken off of display because of the out-of-date depiction of evolution.

xvi Thanos Johnson, personal conversation with the author, October 8, 1997

xvii Dorcas MacClintock, James Perry Wilson and the Art of Background Painting, Discovery Magazine, 12 (1) Fall 1976.

xviii 1962 Christmas card to Thomas Lovejoy.

xix A significant profit was realized after Wilson’s death in 1976. Wilson’s nephews received the estate settlement.

xx Ruth Billard, Notes taken while painting Fish and Game diorama, circa 1958.

xxi This assertion is contested by Ruth Billard Morrill who believes Wilson would grid the scale model and at times, scribe a circle on the floor of the diorama to get his full scale measurements. Email March 5, 2014.

xxii John Crosby, telephone interview, July 30, 1996.

xxiii Ruth Billard Morrill, email Dec 15, 2013.

xxiv The three other Wilson dioramas were reinstalled after the renovation and are currently on display.

xxv I wrote a blog about the process of fabricating the foreground at: jamesperrywilson.wordpress.com.

xxvi James Perry Wilson, letter to Ruth Billard, March 15, 1965

xxvii Boston Globe, 9-30-70.

xxviii Christian Science Monitor, Feb. 23, 1966.

xxix Dick Sheffield, phone conversation, Feb. 10, 2014

xxx Roger Howe, Yale mathematics professor, interview with the author, April 25, 2000.

xxxi Dick Sheffield, phone conversation, Feb 10, 2014.

xxxii James Perry Wilson to Ruth Billard, letter, March 22, 1976.

xxxiii A new form, called the Weaire-Phelan structure comprised of two kinds of cells with equal volume was discovered fifteen years after Wilson’s death by using computers.

xxxiv Ruth Hoffman, interview with author, May 22, 2001.

xxxv When asked about the address book, the Wilson nephews responded that it wasn’t available. The response had the feel of a family trying to hide certain facts about their uncle, possibly his homosexuality.