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Painting Actuality: Chapter 5: 1934: Joining the American Mu
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Chapter 5:
1934: Joining the American Museum of Natural History


James Perry Wilson in Mule and Deer Diorama
James Perry Wilson in Mule Deer diorama at the American Museum of Natural History, 1943.
Photograph by Thanos Johnson


If James Perry Wilson’s transition from the world of architecture to the natural history museum was not easy, he never let on.   He had been used to a management style in Bertram Goodhue’s office, where responsibility to do one’s work was assumed and each employee’s unique skills and creativity were respected.   Wilson had whole building projects to manage.  Time logged in at the office was based on the honor system and, as years passed, became an irrelevancy.  The American Museum of Natural History’s management style was as close to being the opposite of Goodhue's as it could possibly be.   Managers kept a tight rein on their stable of artists.  There was an almost paranoid view that every employee was stealing from the museum or shirking on their time.   Creative silliness was frowned upon.  Ray deLucia staged a photograph of a fight with a taxidermied bear in the Grizzly Bear diorama and the photo found its way into Life magazine.  He was severely reprimanded by the museum administration and almost lost his job. Tomfoolery like deLucia’s was seen to minimize the scientific and educational mission of the museum.  Time clocks were punched and employees were expected to tow the line.  On one occasion, Wilson was unjustly accused of stealing paint.  He submerged his paint under water each night before he went home to keep the oils from drying.  Someone responsible for security thought Wilson was concealing paint and called him in for questioning.i  The managerial atmosphere at the AMNH was not one of great trust or respect for the museum artists.


James Perry Wilson Grizzly Bear fight
Ray deLucia and the Grizzly Bear Fight AMNH photo # 296899
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services


Wilson’s new colleagues at the American Museum were competitive and suspicious of the thin, balding, intellectual newcomer who used unusual painting methods, who was wickedly smart, had a college degree, no world war service, was unflappably polite, and was unmarried, still living at home with his mother.  Wilson was used to collaborating collegially with other intellectually stimulating and equally eccentric contemporaries in the architectural office; he must have found these interpersonal relations to be a most challenging aspect of his new job.  


James Perry Wilson during career as architect
James Perry Wilson during his architectural career.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Frederick VanDuyne



His friend, Thanos Johnson in a 1996 interview described some of the more difficult aspects of Wilson’s working environment:

Perry used to suffer a little [in the exhibits department] because he was different than other people.  He was a delicate person, a delicate man.  He wasn't robust, macho, “studso”; as a result they used to shoot "snidies" at him.  It wouldn't bother him, [maybe] he was oblivious ...[but] it bothered me. 
Belmore Brown [another diorama painter] made snide remarks.  They were humorous but with their cutting edge.  Wilson was able to fend it off.  He'd just ignore it.


In 1934 when Wilson started at the AMNH, many of the major figures producing dioramas were already at work: Francis Lee Jaques, William R. Leigh, Robert Rockwell, James  L. Clark.  Belmore Brown, Carl Rungius, and Hanson Puthuff would come a few years later.  Even though Carl Akeley had died eight years before, his influence was still strongly felt.  All of these men were not only extraordinary artists, but they were also outdoorsmen, hunters, and explorers.  They walked with a swagger, they had strong personalities and big egos.  Conrad Schwiering described working as an apprentice with these diorama painters in the summer of 1941:


Imagine my sitting there on a ladder in the middle of a wildlife setting listening to [Charles] Chapman and William R. Leigh debate points of perspective, with Belmore Brown finally coming over from where he had been working to tell them they were both nuts-then Brown giving his own views on the matter in eloquent style....ii


It’s of interest that Schweiring doesn’t mention James Perry Wilson in the mix.  There would be no debates with Wilson about perspective, math, physics, or any other scientific or academic subject.  He had more authoritative knowledge about these subjects than any of his new colleagues, and further, he wouldn’t engage in a frivolous debate just to show off his intellect at the expense of another.  No friendships were cemented between Wilson and the other painters in those early years.  Regardless of what others thought of him, he made no enemies either.  He was polite, he treated everyone with respect, and he mostly kept to himself.   While other diorama painters worked behind temporary barriers or screens, Wilson had the museum build securely locked enclosures around his dioramas.  One could not enter without knocking and having him let you in.iii  Surely, this was so he could concentrate on his painting, but sadly, it also underscores his isolation and possibly his need to feel secure in hostile territory.

 Wilson was a relatively slow, methodical painter, maybe the slowest of all, and time was always a concern for those in charge at the museum.  Wilson insisted that his quality painting couldn’t be rushed, but his supervisors weren’t very receptive to his argument.  In Goodhue’s office, the priority was producing accurate, high quality work and time was a secondary concern.  To insure that kind of accuracy and quality, Wilson’s methods took time.  And to his credit, Wilson wouldn’t sacrifice the quality he knew he could achieve by cutting corners.  Ray deLucia related how the museum administration treated Wilson:     
Perry never got a break at the museum.  He would never say anything about it; he was such a gentleman.  He would absorb those things, let them roll off his back.  He had a tough time with the administration.  All they were interested in was getting the job done for as little money as possible and Perry didn’t fit in with that because Perry was a slow painter.  You couldn’t rush him.  You’d come up to him and say when are you going to finish and he’d say, “Oh, y’know.”  As it was, he missed out on a lot of jobs because of that and they would get [other artists who were] fast and that’s all the museum wanted.  It’s amazing how many people can’t tell the difference between a good painting by Wilson and [a lesser quality] one.iv

To underscore deLucia’s claim, of the ten large dioramas painted in the Forestry Hall from 1950 to 1957, Wilson painted only one of the mid-sized dioramas, the Jeffrey Pine group.    His last large-scale diorama, the Mule Deer group in the North American Mammal Hall, was painted in 1943.  This is stunning considering that donors were fighting over Wilson in the 1940s. 

Before getting too far into James Perry Wilson’s career work on the dioramas, it would be well to introduce Henry Fairfield Osborn, James L. Clark, and William R. Leigh three of the museum men that were transforming the museum exhibits at this time.


Henry Fairfield Osborn in American Museum of Natural History Vertebrate Paleontology labs
Henry Fairfield Osborn in AMNH labs, AMNH photograph #313672,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services


Henry Fairfield Osborn was the consummate museum man.  He was on the scientific staff in vertebrate paleontology and additionally was a board member alongside his uncle, J.P. Morgan.  He was elected to the American Museum board presidency in 1908.  At that time, the board president was the most powerful position in the American Museum and Osborn took control completely.  More than anyone in the history of the museum, Osborn directed a host of comprehensive changes that would give the museum its current look and set the standard for all other natural history museums across the world.  In her biography about Carl Akeley, Penelope Bodry-Sanders writes about Osborn:  “Osborn revealed the depth of his vision for the AMNH early on, and the museum grew physically and intellectually throughout his administration.  One constant theme that surfaced during his tenure at the AMNH was the potential for marrying artistic values to science to create beautiful, compelling exhibits.  These exhibits could communicate the order and splendor of the natural world while at the same time disseminating information about it.
Osborn had accomplished this in his own field [vertebrate paleontology] when he hired the great artist Charles R. Knight to make drawings and paintings of restorations of prehistoric animals.  He also hired artisans to articulate the bones of fossil animals as they had been in life.  These innovations departed greatly from the conventional modus operandi of museum exhibition, where fossil remains were stored in drawers or on shelves.    Carl Akeley approached Osborn with a ambitious idea that the AMNH create an entire African Hall that would be a monument to the whole continent’s ‘fast, vanishing wildlife.’  Osborn, committed to creating high quality exhibitions in his museum, was eager to hear what Akeley had to offer.  Akeley sketched out the plan for Osborn: an enormous open hall with a balcony and over 40 animal groupings positioned before painted dioramas.  The groups, or scenes, would also be appointed with artificial vegetation that would characterize the animal’s natural environment.  A visitor, as he ‘passes from group to group, may have the illusion, at worst, of passing a series of pictures of primeval Africa, and at best, may think for a moment that he has stepped five thousand miles across the sea into Africa itself.’
Osborn loved the idea and took the proposal to the trustees, who strongly preferred it to a [previously proposed] hall of elephants.  The younger trustees, in particular, were impressed with the plan…
The trustees openness to the idea delighted Osborn, who envisioned the hall as the start ‘of a great new era in nature education at the Museum.’ He wrote, ‘We have been searching for years for a means of teaching the lessons of nature to the people of the city.’  Instead of bringing small nature cabinets to the city schools, ‘after the African Hall was built, the Museum could take these people to Africa.’  And of course, he knew that ‘the building of the African Hall would put the American Museum first among all the natural history museums in the world.”v
Osborn needed funds to make the African Hall a reality and to this end, he persuaded Daniel Pomeroy, one of the trustees and partner in JP Morgan and Co., to take charge of the fundraising.  Pomeroy found it relatively easy to finance the groups.  Several donors wished to make a safari through Africa, and Pomeroy arranged for them to accompany Akeley and his collectors on their expeditions.  This combination of an extensive African tour, for some years in the company of Akeley himself, with visible scientific value in the form of handsome specimens, made it easy for Pomeroy to find sponsors during the 1920’s.  Only after the stock market crash of 1929 did Pomeroy have trouble raising money.


The effect of Akeley’s first African habitat groups on the exhibition policy of the other departments is hard to overestimate.  They made the other displays look dark and insignificant by comparison.  The curators of departments who could present their subject matter in habitat groups quickly made plans for habitat halls.  Frank Chapman planned the Birds of the World, Dept. of Mammals planned the Hall of Ocean Life, Hall of S. Asian Mammals, and later for the Hall of North American Mammals.  Herpetology and Entemology developed plans for small habitat groups.  By 1929 five habitat halls were either in existence or were well advanced in the planning stage.vi

Osborn retired from the museum presidency in 1933.  He was able to see the beginnings of what changes he had ushered in, but the African Hall was only half finished when he died in November 1935.

James L. Clark was the powerhouse behind the AMNH’s construction of diorama halls. Carl Akeley was the creative genius, but when he died on the Eastman-Pomeroy expedition to Africa in 1926, James L. Clark assumed full leadership of museum projects.  Clark immediately assumed charge of the building of four major halls of dioramas, the Vernay Asiatic Hall, the Akeley African Hall, the Birds of the World and Ocean Life halls.
It started for Clark when Dr. Harmon Bumpus, the new director of the American Museum of Natural History  (AMNH) hired the nineteen-year-old Clark in 1902. Prior to his directorship, Bumpus was affiliated with Brown University and contacted his Providence, Rhode Island friends to suggest an animal sculptor.  Clark was recommended and Bumpus hired him.  Clark, who began work with John Rowley in the taxidermy department, was thrilled to be working in the American Museum and began an intensive analysis of animal anatomy.  He drew live animals and dissected animal cadavers at both New York zoos and at the AMNH.  Bumpus agreed to send Clark to Chicago to meet and apprentice with Carl Akeley.    Akeley had developed a new lifelike taxidermy method in which the animal’s musculature was sculpted over the skeleton.  A lightweight mannequin was then cast from the sculpted body and the tanned skin adhered to it.    Clark and Akeley both had great talent; they loved nature, art, and working on all things mechanical.  A long friendship developed between the two men.  Clark returned to the AMNH and kept in constant communication with Akeley, adopting Akeley’s taxidermy method of sculpting animals bodies, creating mannequins, and adding skin.
However, Clark’s work at the American Museum was soon to end.  He read in the paper that a friend, A. Radclyffe Dugmore, was about to sail for Africa to photograph big game in advance of Theodore Roosevelt’s much-publicized presidential safari. Dugmore accepted Clark’s proposal to assist as his gun-bearing bodyguard.  Clark later admitted that he had never fired a rifle in his life and “couldn’t hit a tomato can at three feet.” vii  After regretfully resigning from his job at the AMNH, Clark and Dugmore set sail in November 1908.  The Dugmore-Clark safari was full of adventure and close scrapes photographing charging rhinos and lions prowling in the night.  There was an impetuous and dangerous buffalo hunt in swamps with high grass and no visibility or cover.  At another point, Clark fell ten feet into an elephant trap and miraculously missed sharp, poisoned bamboo stakes on the way down.  It seems lucky indeed that Clark and Dugmore survived this first bold encounter with Africa.

Clark had been in Africa for six months when Akeley arrived to hunt elephants for both the Field Museum in Chicago and the American Museum in New York.  He planned to join the celebrated safari with President Theodore Roosevelt in hopes that the President would shoot elephants for the American Museum’s African Hall.  Akeley invited Clark to go along to help with the hunting and skinning.  Clark gladly joined his friend.  The elephant hunt was successful.  Teddy and Kermit shot four elephants for the American Museum (two were used in the hall), insuring that the African Hall would gain much needed publicity.  After securing Roosevelt’s elephants, feeling triumphant and with little to do but look for an adventure, Clark and Akeley climbed Mount Elgon (14,176’).  A local settler told them it was extremely dangerous and they would never make it past hostile natives with poisoned arrows.  His advice probably had an opposite effect, sealing their resolve to go! 

Akeley went to Chicago to continue his contractual work there, but he soon came to New York and rented a loft with Clark to work together on the American Museum’s elephants and other mounts.


Akley with Camera
Akeley Camera. AMNH photo # 311839,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services


Akeley immediately set sail for the Belgian Congo to collect the gorillas for the first diorama of the African Hall.  Clark went into hyper-drive to develop a program of diorama construction that would continue into the early 1950s and do nothing less than transform the American Museum.  Clark first traveled across the United States and Canada to meet with and hire the most talented artists and taxidermists he could find.  He assembled his staff and began work on the first diorama hall, the South Asiatic Hall.  Clark had expeditions to organize with animals and foreground accessories to collect.  He had taxidermy mounts to produce and artists to oversee. A large museum extension was planned to house the African and the North American Mammal Halls and Clark collaborated on its design.  Nevertheless, Clark found time to go on a yearlong Indo-China expedition.  Thereafter twelve dioramas in the South Asiatic mammal hall opened to the public in 1930.  Clark used this hall as a pilot project to raise funds and plan for the African Hall.  Finding and securing donors, in addition to his administrative chores, was a large part of Clark’s work.



American Museum of Natural History Aerial Shot of construction in 1930
Aerial view of the American Museum under construction, 1930


When Akeley had drawn the projected floor plans for the African Hall to his satisfaction, he had Clark build architectural models. Then in 1925, the board of trustees approved the construction of another major hall of dioramas, the Hall of North American Mammals.  Clark must have felt overwhelmed juggling such a multitude of projects, though he wasn’t one to shrink from big projects, especially ones for which he had such passion.  Both he and Akeley were the type to put their heads down and bull their way forward no matter what obstacles laid in front of them.  Clark was driven, like Akeley, by his passion for dioramas, specifically by the shared dream of creating the African Hall and to depict the fast-vanishing land that he and Carl Akeley loved deeply.


James Clark riding yak
James L. Clark on a yak in Central Asia, 1927. AMNH photo # 266415,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services


And then Akeley died.  The anchor for the entire program was no longer there.  Now, not only were all the details of the building and construction of the halls on Clark’s shoulders, but the aesthetic decisions also had to be his.  Clark had no one to turn to for guidance, but then, Clark was supremely self-confident and seemed to have no doubts in his ability to carry out Akeley’s work.  He had worked with him long enough to know what Akeley desired. Scale models had already been built and approved.  A hall of mammals had already been completed and critiqued. Clark didn’t have to invent anything.  Akeley had already defined his stylistic choices for diorama background paintings.  Precivilized, virgin nature was to be the setting.  The animals acquired were to be trophy size and in perfect condition and coloration.  With all this already in place and his own talent as an artist and taxidermist, Clark had reason to be confident.


James Clark working on lion scale model in Serengeti plains in Africa
James L. Clark working on the lion scale model in the Serengeti plains, Africa, 1929 AMNH photo # 280682,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services


Clark was working enough for two or three men.  The following is an account of one of the trustee’s African collecting expeditions. It is a good example of the kinds of surprises and unknowns Clark had to manage on a day-to-day basis.

In the heart of the Great Depression, William D. Campbell was a young museum trustee with a lot of money and an exuberant desire to go on African safari for the American Museum.  This was exactly the type of person Clark was looking for to build the African Hall.  Campbell agreed to finance the Okapi and Black Rhino groups, giving the AMNH $50,000 to that end, and he then made plans to collect the elusive, shy, and challenging okapi for the diorama.  Alfred Klein was to be the only other member of the hunting party.  Klein resided in Kenya and made his living as a guide-for-hire, otherwise known as a “white hunter.”   Klein had worked at the AMNH prior to moving to Africa.  He and James L. Clark had been hired at the same time during the Bumpus administration and Clark and he were well acquainted.  Klein kept up his connections at the museum and his help would later turn out to be invaluable to the various expeditions collecting animals for the Akeley African Hall.


Alred Klein
Alfred Klein, AMNH photo #276335,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services


Campbell’s first trip to Africa was in January 1936 and he had great expectations that his “gentleman’s safari” would be smoothly administered by the American Museum, with a sympathetic reception wherever he went.  It was not to be so.  Campbell’s first obstacle was the Belgian government’s refusal to let the AMNH collect any okapi specimens.  It claimed the okapi was in danger of extinction from these kinds of hunting pressures.  If the American Museum was allowed to have one or two (it wanted three), then the National Museum, Los Angeles County Museum, and a long list of other museums would be clamoring for specimens for their dioramas.  The Belgians felt that they had to put a firm end to the hunting.  Campbell wrote a letter to Clark, peeved about the lack of foresight on the museum’s part about this matter.  Clark tried to appease Campbell with assurances that the AMNH would pull out every stop to get the permit. Letters from Clark and the director were written back and forth to the Belgians with little change of heart.  Then Clark requested that James Chapin be sent to Belgium.  Chapin, an ornithologist, had good relations with the Belgian embassy and a track record for obtaining necessary collecting permits.  Chapin felt he could help if he went in person.  Meanwhile, Clark urged Campbell to have Gardell Christiansen, a taxidermist, join the expedition to show the Belgian government that care that would be taken with any specimens collected.  Little was accomplished on this trip because Campbell, feverish with malaria, had to return to New York in March for treatment.


Kane and Campbell photo during an expedition to Africa
Robert Kane (center row, left) and William D. Campbell (center row, middle) on expedition in Africa,
AMNH photo from James L. Clark’s photo file,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services


Campbell was not about to let a little case of malaria deter his quest for the okapi.  He returned on his second trip to Africa that same year in September 1936, but with a limp from an automobile accident in New York in which he received a concussion and a broken leg.  Chapin was successful in Belgium securing the needed permit to hunt okapi and Campbell headed directly for the Belgian Congo with his permit.  Christiansen had remained in Africa since March and accompanied the safari to the Congo.  By the end of November, Campbell had collected three okapi.  Christiansen, after skinning and packing the animals, returned to New York with them.  From the Congo, Campbell traveled north into Uganda, collecting four black rhinos on the way.  Campbell headed for the Sudan and the Nile River near Khartoum, arriving by the first of January 1937.  Robert Kane was dispatched in mid-January from the AMNH to paint background studies for a Nile River group.  Kane arrived and shortly thereafter contracted malignant malaria.  Before he got sick, Kane produced some painted studies for the Nile River group, enough for the background painting.  He was sent to Nairobi for treatment for the malaria and was able to spend three weeks on the northwest slope of Mount Kenya making background studies for the Black Rhino diorama before returning to the United States. Campbell, whose broken leg was causing him great pain, called off his safari in March 1937.

Campbell, though discouraged by the malaria and his leg pain, was thrilled to have bagged the okapi and black rhinos, and was pleased that these specimens would be used in the dioramas.  Clark, always on the lookout to raise funds for the dioramas, successfully solicited Campbell, in his ebullience, to sign on for four more dioramas: the Nile River, the Libyan Desert, the Black-faced Chimpanzee and the Mandrill dioramas.  Preparations for the third Campbell African expedition to the Libyan Desert, the Nile River, and Cameroon began immediately and Campbell left for Africa on October 15, 1937.  Clark sent Kane again to Africa to join Campbell in February 1938.  In a letter dated February 15th Campbell stated that he had collected the scimitar oryx, addax, and the Addra gazelle for the Libyan Desert group.  He intended to go to the Sudan to collect hippos for the Nile River diorama and then to move to the west coast, to the French Cameroon, and French Guinea for chimps and mandrills.  Within two weeks another long letter arrived on Clark’s desk informing him that hunting over rocky terrain took a toll on Campbell’s broken leg and that he had to return to the United States for surgery.  Clark, after great care was taken making sure Campbell approved, asked Campbell’s “white hunter.”  Major Dickenson, to collect the Nile River specimens.  The Libyan Desert ungulates were sent back to the United States via freighter.  Unbelievably, the freighter sank in Boston Harbor.  Clark sent Robert Rockwell, a museum taxidermist, to Boston to assess the skins.  An insurance claim was generated indicating that 80% of the specimens were degraded.

After recovering from his leg surgery, Campbell was determined to get back to Africa to shoot the animals for the Chimpanzee and Mandrill groups and to replace some of the Libyan Desert specimens.  He arrived on his fourth expedition with Major Dickenson and Robert Kane on August 6, 1938.  They immediately set off for the French Cameroon and French Guinea with the intention of collecting the chimp and mandrills before the rainy season.  En route, Campbell was informed that the French had placed a restriction on the number of chimpanzees he could collect.  The AMNH wanted nine and the French would only allow four.  As with the Belgians who withheld the okapi permit, letters again flew back and forth between Clark and the director and the host country.  This time the French would not relent and Clark began to make arrangements with border countries to collect the chimps there.  All was for naught since seven of Campbell’s eight safari vans broke down one after another.  By the time repairs could be made, it was January 1939 and the rainy season was upon them.  Hunting was out of the question.  They decided to reverse direction and go to the Nile River and Libyan Desert to spend the rainy season photographing the northern coast of Africa.  At the Nile River they ran into flood conditions that made further travel impossible.  Campbell wrote Clark that his leg had never completely healed and continued to cause him much pain.  Because of the delays caused by transportation breakdowns, French governmental obstacles, and the enormous capital expenditures, he, with great discouragement, wrote that he had to resign from further African collecting safaris.  He highly recommended Robert Kane and his work and suggested that Major Dickenson not be hired in the future since he lacked commitment to the project and had disrupted campsite life.

Campbell returned dejected to the United States, but his financial commitments to fund the museum groups remained intact.  Clark decided that the mammalogist, G.H.H. Tate should travel to the west coast of Africa on the fifth Campbell-supported African expedition to collect the chimp and mandrill and that Kane should stay in Africa and accompany Tate to collect foreground material and make painted landscape studies.  By March 1939 they were staying in the Ivory Coast waiting for the rains to slow so they could hunt.  Tate made several reconnaissance trips and couldn’t find either the chimps or the mandrills.  Tate asked Clark to request permission to hunt in nearby Gabon.  He also wrote Clark that the looming possibility of war breaking out had devalued French currency and he worried that they might not have enough money to continue.  It also looked like the return trip would be more difficult to arrange with fewer passenger ships running.  By August 1939, Kane had shot several of the mandrills and returned to the United States with them.  Tate continued to hunt for chimps for another year.  He was able to find and collect some, but bad luck continued to follow the Campbell expeditions.  Tate shipped the chimp skins back to the American Museum, but when the containers were opened, the skins had rotted.  Tate returned on a ship that encountered a hurricane in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  He later recounted that, at the time, he thought he was going to surely lose his life. 


G.H.H. Tate in Africa
G H H Tate in Africa
Courtesy of the Department of Mammalogy Archives, The American Museum of Natural History


This was just one of many expeditions Clark was organizing.  The Great Depression had taken hold and decimated the museum’s ability to finance its operations.  Not to be deterred by the poor fundraising climate, Clark worked tirelessly to secure private funds for the African Hall dioramas.  His success pushed him quickly into the center of where the action and power was in the museum.  While the mood in the other museum departments was glum from deep budget cuts, involuntary retirements, and staff salary givebacks, the African Hall work marched forward.   Unbelievably, Clark had to negotiate his artist’s schedules with director, Roy Chapman Andrews, who was also courting the donors.  The African Hall was the only optimistic area in Andews’ bleak day-to-day schedule.  By now, Clark had five halls of dioramas under construction, was meeting potential donors, answering to the board of trustees, searching for artists, overseeing diorama preparation, and still finding time to hunt in the West.  Albert Butler, an old friend of Clark’s, joined the museum staff as a manager.  He relieved Clark of a lot of the day-to-day oversight and some of the administrative load so Clark could keep his hand in the diorama preparation.  Ray deLucia, a foreground preparator, joked about how Clark always wanted to approve each group before they were closed up.  It seemed to deLucia that Clark had a habit of showing up at the last minute and changing some little thing about the diorama foreground before he would give his final approval to it; deLucia and his colleagues would deliberately take some foreground plant or grass clump and put it somewhere obviously out of place so Clark would have something to change.  He’d usually have them move it back to the exact same spot from where it was taken.  The preparators would drop it back into its original hole and approval would be granted.

Clark wielded full control over the construction of the dioramas.  If you were in his good graces, you would get desirable work, but if you were not, you might be put into mothballs and forgotten.  Francis Lee Jaques alleged just such a thing happened to him.  He was given very little work on the dioramas Clark controlled.  Indeed, this seems to be true, Jaques would paint one diorama in the North American Mammal Hall, two in the Asian Mammal Hall, and only two in the African Hall.  Jaques painted mostly in halls of lesser importance, the Whitney Bird Hall and the Birds of the World Hall. Frank Chapman of Ornithology almost entirely managed these two halls and Jaques was his choice as an artist.  Chapman was not only very interested in dioramas as an educational medium, but he had been the museum contact with Harry Payne Whitney whose family donated the funds for the Whitney Bird Hall.  Therefore, Chapman directed the design decisions in the Whitney Hall and Clark’s involvement was administrative; he kept track of the preparator’s time.  Clark, on the other hand, had a cordial relationship with James Perry Wilson.  It’s clear Clark had great respect for Wilson’s painting.  At one point, Clark, as a favor, served as an intermediary in the sale of one of Wilson’s paintings to a couple of wealthy ranchers he knew.    While Clark was fully aware of Wilson’s slow pace, he didn’t get in the way of Wilson painting one of the largest groups in the North American Hall, the Bison diorama and four other “showpiece” dioramas at the west end of this hall.  Granted, the donors of these dioramas requested Wilson as their painter, but Clark could have made it difficult for Wilson to paint these if he had wanted to.    Wilson must have seen the whole range of James L. Clark’s personality, from the strength of abilities, talent, and will to bring about major accomplishments, to his immense ego, drive for power, and at times, his pettiness and vengefulness.  Wilson, no matter what, always referred to him respectfully as Dr. Clark.

The other figure of major importance that had a direct influence on James Perry Wilson as he started his new job was William R. Leigh.  Wilson began painting with Leigh in the Waterhole diorama on his first days at the AMNH.   He described it in an interview:


I brought some of my paintings in to show James L. Clark...That was in the winter of 1933.  Clark was interested at once, but he didn't have an opening.  But I kept in touch with him, and finally in the early spring of 1934, he asked me to bring some of my paintings in to show Leigh who was in charge of the African Hall painting.  Leigh approved and I was taken on...Leigh was working on the Gorilla group and he didn't want me to start in on the middle of it, so I had to wait until June to begin.  That was when Leigh started the background for the Waterhole group.viii



Gorilla diorama at the American Museum of Natural History
William R. Leigh, Gorilla diorama,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services


Wilson started work with an annual salary of $3600.  This was substantially more than what other preparators were making, but significantly less than what Leigh was being paid.  Certainly it was much lower than he had been making in the architectural offices, but it seemed to matter little to Wilson.  He was grateful to have a job and was happy to be painting for a living.  He didn’t take it personally or feel slighted because his salary was so much lower than what he was used to.  He liked what he was doing and he jumped into the job, giving it all he was worth.

Wilson could not have had a better person to begin working on dioramas than with William R. Leigh. Carl Akeley hired Leigh and had utmost faith in Leigh’s ability to carry out his plans for the African Hall.  Leigh was a highly skilled, well-trained, impressive painter and had been on two AMNH African safaris and knew, firsthand, the landscapes he painted.  Leigh’s painted studies from Africa are executed with extreme confidence and are stunning to behold.   Leigh was with Akeley in Africa when Akeley, weakened by malaria, exhaustion, and physical injuries sustained earlier in the expedition, died of dysentery on Mount Mikeno in the Belgian Congo. Leigh would later paint the Gorilla diorama at the AMNH, widely considered to be Carl Akeley’s memorial.


Leigh Lukenia Rock
William R. Leigh African studies
Private Collection. Photo courtesy Gerald Peters Gallery, New York

Leigh Athi Plains
William R. Leigh African studies
Private Collection. Photo courtesy Gerald Peters Gallery, New York

Leigh Waso Nyiro
William R. Leigh African studies
Private Collection. Photo courtesy Gerald Peters Gallery, New York


Wilson undoubtedly heard Leigh’s first-hand accounts of the brilliance of Akeley’s vision for the diorama halls at the AMNH.  Leigh would have passed on Akeley’s pronouncements about the kind of painting he wanted in the dioramas:


The landscape painter who has cultivated a style or manner is not any good…the painted background must display a complete unity with the mounted animals.  The painter must make the beholder forget that he is looking at paint, and feel that he is looking at nature itself.  The artist must forget himself in his work.  We must set the standard to which others will have to rise.ix


Leigh proclaimed that a diorama background “calls for the utmost measure of truth; there is in it no place for individuality.”  Leigh added that the challenge was not only to achieve the illusion of realism and the forgetfulness of paint, but the painting must also have “subtlety of tone, color and line, the massing of light and shade, the catching of character in forms, the rendering textures. x Ironically, Leigh would soon have his work challenged because his painting style was perceived as overwhelming the rest of the diorama.  His apprentice, James Perry Wilson, would go on to forge a new paradigm, closer to Akeley’s ideals for painting highly realistic diorama backgrounds.  Wilson would develop new techniques and methods beyond what anyone else had done that would make his dioramas fit Akeley’s descriptions more completely and with more objectivity than any other painter before or after at the American Museum.  While Leigh’s background paintings are extraordinary, Wilson would go further and distinguish himself by producing stunning light-filled landscape paintings with the requisite objectivity Akeley envisioned.

Leigh came to the job of painting backgrounds from a German academic tradition.  He was already known for his dramatic American western paintings that were both theatrical and romantic. He was an experienced outdoorsman in the tradition of nineteenth century explorer-artists such as Thomas Moran and Albert Beirstadt who translated the wild and exotic corners of the world that most people would never see in highly dramatic, romanticized views.  Leigh had worked for years as an illustrator and it was a label he fought to remove from his art.  Yet, the label fit then as it does now because of the signature narrative element Leigh includes in most of his paintings.  Leigh brought this additional baggage with him to his diorama background painting. 


Leigh Illustration
William R. Leigh, "A Close Call", 1914, Gilcrease Museum


Indeed, almost every painter except James Perry Wilson came from an easel painting tradition and the diorama backgrounds were simply thought of as “big” paintings.  This is why, more often than not, the center area of the diorama is the focus and the bothersome curved sides that distort from the viewing window are areas to fill or block off somehow.  In Leigh’s case, the sides of his backgrounds are obscured in the Lion, the Koodoo, the Gorilla, and Water Buffalo groups.  Leigh also tends toward exaggeration in lighting effects, heightened scale of landforms, and forced theatrical action in his dioramas.

Wilson, whose distaste for exaggeration is his signature quality, still had great respect for Leigh’s ability as an artist.  Leigh was a highly accomplished draftsman as well as a strong, confident painter.  Wilson, also a substantial draftsman and skillful painter, was impressed.  They shared many things in common.  Wilson would feel a kinship with many aspects of Leigh’s method, his finished preparatory value studies of the landscape, his grasp of atmospheric perspective, his strong foreground values dropping away as the distance receded.  Leigh made sure the sky and distant values informed the mid distance and foreground values.   Even so, Leigh put him to the test right from the start:


The first background was the Waterhole scene…I remember especially that big palm tree on the left, which comes across the flat ceiling.  Leigh had me draw it and I nearly went crazy because it was the first time I ever was confronted with a problem of violent distortion in drawing.  I was way up on a scaffold and I couldn't see what I was doing.  I had to climb all the way down and walk out to the front of the group to see what I had drawn.  Finally I got the hang of it, but I think that Leigh purposely gave me that to do.xi  



Waterhole Diorama Closeup: Palm Tree
Waterhole diorama, detail: palm tree,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History


Wilson passed the test admirably; the palm tree spreads without effort over an abrupt ceiling and stands out as a stunning element in the Waterhole background.  Wilson would have started to think about how to draw or paint on curved surfaces from this experience.  Shortly thereafter, he suggested to Leigh that they use a more formal grid system to transfer his reference material.  Leigh dismissed Wilson’s idea as taking too much time, since Leigh felt confident in his ability to manipulate things by eye to look right.  This implies that Leigh didn’t intimidate Wilson, even though Leigh was more than twenty years older, had more than six years of working seniority, and had traveled to Africa with Akeley.  He was a large man with a large voice and a huge ego.  Ray deLucia recounts an experience he had with Leigh:

Leigh was very profane.  He was up painting on the 3rd floor corridor and he was talking with someone.  He was really mad-you could hear him saying goddamn this and fuck this and that.  He had this stentorian voice and it traveled.  I was up on the 3rd floor and I peeked over the edge just to see if anyone visiting the museum was listening.  There was a crowd below looking up-they must have thought it was me!xii


Leigh was not someone to tangle with.  That Wilson would suggest changes in his supervisor’s methods indicates the confidence Wilson had in his ideas.  Wilson’s ideas were not guesses; they were well thought out and justifiable, mathematically and phenomenologically.  He had good reason to be confident.  He recounts his experience:

Mr. Leigh used a system of squaring off his field studies and then squaring off the background.  He took no direct account of the distortion from the curved surface.  He more or less adjusted it by feel as he went along.  The second background that I worked on under his supervision was the Plains group.  That was one of those corner backgrounds which are extremely lopsided.  It was obvious that the wall on the left was just about twice as far away from the eye of the spectator as that on the right.  I suggested to Mr. Leigh that it might be advisable to adjust the size of the squares but he felt it would take too much time and that it would be better to fudge it as we went along.  The result was that it took a lot more time to correct the perspective.xiii


Many of the trade secrets of diorama painting, such as they were, were passed from Leigh to Wilson.  Painting convincingly on a large scale and on a curve is not an easy task, but by 1934 a lot of the experimentation at the AMNH had been tried and a method that produced good results was more or less in place and used by all the artists.  For example, there were formulas for making a convincing tie-in by separating the foreground from the background with a gap so as not to create a shadow. The artists found that any foreground material, even blades of grass, leaning against the background wall created illusion-destroying shadows.  Since a seamless transition from three-dimensional foreground to two-dimensional painting was difficult to pull off, a small strip of foreground material was provided at the tie-in for the artist to match.  Often big rocks or shrubbery were placed to block any viewpoint of the tie-in. The side wings of the diorama, as mentioned, were also typically blocked off with cliffs, large rocks, trees, or dense underbrush to mask the areas with problematic distortion. Some artists claimed that any horizontal lines on the sides would distort unnaturally.  A corridor was commonly produced with a view to deep space confined to the center. Matte surfaces were better for creating the illusion of space, especially in the skies. A dilute solution of buttermilk was sometimes used to dull glossy paint. Glossy oil medium could be used to deepen dark colors under the horizon. Background painters were experimenting and critiquing the use of impasto paint, thick paint used sculpturally to mimic grasses at the tie-in.  In fact, in some dioramas thick paint was used right to the horizon to indicate three-dimensional forms.  From the horizon up, most artists used a stipple brush to rid the surface of any brushmarks whatsoever. Akeley’s vision and his high standards were evolving and slowly coming to life.


Textural Tie-In
Paint texture at the tie-in, Lesser Kudu diorama, American Museum of Natural History,
photo Michael Anderson with permission courtesy of the AMNH library Services.


Leigh was a master at collecting reference studies for his dioramas.   Wilson found Leigh’s reference collecting methods to be exceptional.  He describes it in an interview with Rudolph Zallinger and Rudolph  Freund:

Wilson:  I usually do one carefully finished background study or panoramic study...I try to visualize the complete composition while I am still in the field.

Freund:  You got this procedure from Leigh when you were working with him, didn't you?  Isn't that the way he worked too?

Wilson:  That's the way Leigh worked, yes.  He would bring back a careful panoramic piece, including the whole background, and he would also bring back a lot of other studies-incidental studies-also very carefully finished, which proved of great use in addition to the primary panoramas. No one could have asked for better background studies to work from than Leigh's.  They were marvelously done.

Zallinger:  As I remember, and I am curious, because I never really knew, when Leigh worked on his African lions, did he work through a pair of binoculars?

Wilson:  He probably did in some of them, although I doubt whether he did generally.  I recall, for instance, that in painting the studies for the Klipspringer group, he included a detailed study of the mountain which was almost a hundred miles away, which he couldn’t possibly have done without binoculars.


Leigh Athi Plains
William R. Leigh, Athi Plains, painting with binoculars (note the mountain looming over the horizon)
Private Collection. Photo courtesy Gerald Peters Gallery, New York



James L. Clark Athu Plains Photograph
Athi Plains photograph, James L. Clark files,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services


Zallinger:  Another question, Perry.  Did the person who made the field sketches always do the finished background?

Wilson:  In the case of the Klipspringer group, no.  It is always most desirable that the same painter do both, but Leigh had severed his connection with the museum by the time the group was ready to be painted...The ideal arrangement is for the same person who did the background studies in the field to do the finished background.  I always remember something Mr. Leigh said to me:  "The most valuable things that a painter brings back from the field are in his mind."
I worked on backgrounds with several different people in the museum, when I first went there.  The first background was the African Waterhole scene and in that both Bob Kane and I worked with and under the direction of Leigh.  He was responsible for the background and we worked as he directed.  We were able to approximate his style enough, or he was able to work over ours, so that the whole thing was quite pulled together. 

Freund:  Was this process a matter of your laying in the primary tones and his going back over it or was it a matter of you actually completing all sections of it?

Wilson:  In many cases it worked both ways.  In many cases I completed both sections but always under his watchful eye.  Leigh might give suggestions but he would let me go right ahead to finish, in many cases without touching the work afterwards.


It is very difficult to determine what James Perry Wilson really learned from his seven-month apprenticeship with William R. Leigh.xiv  Wilson listened carefully to all Leigh had to offer about diorama painting and there is evidence that he used some of the “tricks” Leigh put forward.  One example is using a perspectival device in the wings of the diorama to contradict the physical curve of the diorama shell.  Leigh uses this device in the Waterhole diorama with a line of zebras diminishing into the distance on the extreme right hand corner.  Wilson uses the same device in the Impala group with corridors of receding trees spanning the full extent of the background, effectively reducing the impact of the viewer’s awareness of the physical curve of the diorama background. But Wilson was already thinking about and planning a more systematic way to create this same effect with grids, one on the background wall and another on his reference.   Wilson undoubtedly would have been quietly assessing Leigh’s painting methods.  Wilson would have seen that the base of Leigh’s clouds in the Waterhole diorama were not horizontal, but because of the irregular curve of the background, appear to lift on a diagonal.  Oddly, Leigh, who was so savvy about contradicting the curve below the horizon, painted the shapes of his clouds on the sides of the Buffalo and Waterhole groups such that they accentuate the curve of the background more than contradict it. There is no evidence that Wilson used finished value studies in charcoal on his easel paintings before he came to the AMNH, so his adoption of these preparatory drawings in the dioramas probably came from Leigh’s practice. The value transition from the horizon to midground to foreground was worked out more easily in black and white.  The value of the paint was then related to the charcoal value study as he painted.  This method insured a tight control of this important aspect for creating a convincing illusion of deep space over a large surface area and may be the key to Wilson’s magnificent renderings of atmospheric perspective in the dioramas.  But as to painting methods, I am confident Wilson changed his own painting methods little, if at all, from watching Leigh paint.

Leigh’s palette has a touch of the surreal, which was questioned by an occasional critic who didn’t like that Leigh’s palette leaned heavily toward purple in certain light and shadows.  Leigh retaliated by explaining that in certain light shadows truly do contain much purple.  He could also have pointed out that during most of the day, pastels, gold, and purple dominate the scene in Navaho, Hopi, and Zuni country (as well as in Africa.)    Leigh would have agreed with the following by L. Guptill, artist and editor of American Artist:


[Does] the artist really sees all the purple shadows, etc. which he paints.  Of course not!  Naturally with his trained eye he sees more color than the layman, but this doesn’t wholly explain the matter.  Yet he has sound reasons for “all these queer, impossible hues.”   First remember he frequently desires to represent dazzling surfaces in bright sunlight.  As his pigments and even the whitest papers are dull compared with actual light, he has to force his color, taking advantage of his knowledge of simultaneous contrast: such problems as this account for many of his somewhat artificial hues.  So far as truthful impressions are concerned he is actually being more honest, many times in making these readjustments than he would be if he matched his subject as well as he could hue to hue.  ….If one’s problem is to catch the impression of bright sunlight and the yellow and orange pigments customarily used for such a purpose prove inadequate, it is logical to force them to appear all the more brilliant by contrasting them with blues and violets. xv


Sean Murtha, who has distinguished himself as a diorama painter at the AMNH, acknowledges that Leigh’s Gorilla group is a masterpiece and the Koodoo with its fantastic colors, is also superb.  He’s judicious when critiquing Leigh’s dioramas. “We must realize that Leigh was given the job of painting these backgrounds because of his skill and experience, and he did a remarkable job within the expectations of his time.”  Murtha points out that Leigh’s reliance on artistic conventions, at times, produce unnatural results:


What I remember in the Waterhole diorama are the “hot” shadows, Leigh’s convention of pushing the warm reflected tones into the darks.  It is a common artistic convention with some basis in observed reality but I think he over-stresses this effect, here and elsewhere, not only in warmth but raising the value of the reflected light to a point where form dissolves into an unnatural glow—this is especially apparent on his animals.  The African Buffalo and the Greater Koodoo are perfect examples of Leigh’s reliance on artistic conventions, specifically the use of complimentary colors.  Both of these have a dramatic yellowish light, and therefore deep purple darks.  While there is some truth to this in nature, as in everything else it is overstated in Leigh’s work, relying more on style and theory than in observed reality.  That being said I admire them both, but as PAINTINGS,  I’m not convinced by them at all.  I recall the tones in the sky are not blended, but are made of overlapping brushstrokes of close colors.xvi


It is worth critiquing Leigh’s artistry further with an eye to how well his background paintings function as purveyors of realism in his dioramas.  I will focus on a few of his dioramas.
Waterhole Diorama
This diorama has a “pearly” look that is a signature quality for all of Leigh’s paintings.  Robert Kane told Steve Quinn, senior project manager at the AMNH, that Leigh used Mars red for the underpainting and that is why his backgrounds have a rosy look.  His skies are typically painted monochromatically, shifting only from darker blue to lighter; sometimes they tend toward yellow.  The shadows under palm trees are chalky blue.  The rocks look “soggy” as if made of chewing gum, resembling clouds a bit.  This is surprising since Leigh’s studies made in Africa are strongly rendered from what he observed in front of him.  Wilson commented that Leigh made a lot of high quality studies of details; reference photos taken on-site would also have been available.  There was (and still is) a strong artistic bias not to transcribe nature directly.  Leigh may have had all his studies and photographs at his disposal, but made artistic decisions based on his memory or what he felt captured the essence of the landscape better.


Waterhole Diorama
Waterhole diorama,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services


African Buffalo
Mount Kenya, forty-five miles in the distance, looms in the diorama approximately twenty-four to thirty inches above the horizon.  This scale seems to match his on-site study.  The discussion about Leigh’s use of binoculars to paint his studies is most appropriate here. It is clear he was adjusting the scale of the mountain to be more spectacular.  The mountain at forty-five miles away should be only eighteen to twenty inches above the horizon.  Leigh has painted the mountain one and a half times what should be seen on the site.  Nevertheless, this is a dramatic composition and the tie-in is extraordinary.  It shows Leigh had a good handle on the jump from three-dimensions to two in his dioramas.  The pool with reflections is beautifully painted and a precursor to magnificent pools by Wilson in the White Rhino and Coyote dioramas.


African Buffalo Diorama
African Buffalo diorama,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services


Greater Koodoo
This background painting is Leigh at his most surreal!  The purples, ochres, and mars red coloration comes more from the realm of magic than of reality.  He writes about being on site at sunset the same way he paints:
The exquisite island of magical pink, swimming in an opalescent ocean of delicate tones, appeared at the appropriate hour, as if intentionally arranged just to suit me.  Below it everything was in shadow-the luminous crepuscule of a world, which had just turned from the sun, but was still bathed in light reflected from the sky.xvii
He goes on to write about this site:
The fantasies of poets or painters become pale and arid when compared with the reality of such a place.  No human imagination can suggest its strange allure, its inexpressible loveliness.  The painter, or any artist in any medium, finds himself totally bankrupt­­-totally inadequate.  He feels like creeping into a hole.  All that saves him is the reflection that, inadequate as he is and his pigments are, no mere man is any better off.xviii
The composition of taxidermy mounts, foreground plants and Leigh’s background painting puts this diorama right up with the best in the museum.  When it comes to drama, the Alaskan Brown Bear by Belmore Brown may be its closest rival.


African Buffalo Diorama
Greater Koodoo diorama,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services


Writing from the point of view of James Perry Wilson’s painting to critique Leigh’s or any other diorama artists’ work is to use unequal criteria.  In some ways, I have thought a comparison between Wilson and Leigh would illuminate the superiority of one over another, but it’s not a fair fight, they are from different painting paradigms.  Wilson probably knew many of the academic methods in which Leigh was trained, but because his main purpose was fidelity to nature, he rejected most of it to record as directly and as honestly as he could the actual appearance of nature.  Maybe the most significant difference that separates Wilson from the others is that he painted in order to learn about nature.  He painted clouds to understand clouds, he painted trees to understand trees, he painted light effects to understand light.  He wasn't that interested in people so he didn't paint them.  It is telling that he never seems to have pursued painting as a career, or showing in galleries.  Leigh on the other hand painted to make finished fine art paintings; clouds and trees were design props; light effects were harnessed to create mood or drama.  As was stated earlier, Leigh’s focus was “subtlety of tone, color and line, the massing of light and shade, the catching of character in forms, the rendering textures”.  He did not feel the need to understand natural phenomena.  Most artists, even such greats as Albert Beirstadt and Thomas Moran, used the landscape as a source for grand paintings.  They were interested in art, not geology and meteorology.

Leigh submitted his resignation letter in February 1935.  He would finish out his work on the two dioramas he had contracts for (the Waterhole and the Lion) before severing his connection with the museum.  D. Duane Cummings, in his biography about Leigh, cites “difficulties with the young artists and with the lighting engineers, who were unable to simulate sunlight satisfactorily, caused Leigh to withdraw.”xix  Leigh’s letters in the archives of the American Museum tell a somewhat different story.  Leigh was indeed upset that the lighting he had approved two years earlier had never been installed, but there was also a matter of pay.  Leigh was angry that the AMNH had suspended, without explanation, their promise to pay a $50 per week retainer in addition to his salary for training the apprentice artists.xx Most importantly though he found out that the expected contract for the next diorama was not forthcoming.   Clark had told him years earlier that he would be in charge of all of the African Hall dioramas but, for some unexplained reason, Clark changed his mind.  The contract for the Plains diorama had already been prepared for Leigh’s signature and a memo from Clark was sent to Vice Director Wayne Faunce that it not be delivered.  Leigh was, in essence, given his walking papers.  There is no mention of Leigh’s resignation letter from the administration at the AMNH, nor was there a reply.  He quietly disappears from the salary ledgers in 1935.

Clark, at the end of 1935, submitted accounts for each artist’s time; Wilson was in the Waterhole diorama only three and a half weeks, he painted in the Plains diorama for nine months, and started the Klipspringer background in the final two months. The nine months spent painting the Plains diorama may have been tense for Wilson and for Robert Kane who assisted Wilson.  Leigh was still finishing up the Waterhole and the Lion dioramas and Wilson and Kane would have crossed paths with him in the museum halls.  It must have pained Leigh greatly not to be given the contract (and the expected salary of $2,000).  Now Leigh’s apprentices, who had never been to Africa, were working from Leigh’s very own African studies on a diorama he should have painted himself.   It is possible, indeed likely, that given Leigh’s surly temperament, Wilson and Kane would have been the targets of Leigh’s hostility.  However, there is no question that, even in the face of abusive statements, Wilson would have turned his cheek and never replied in kind.  In fact, Wilson’s close transcription of Leigh’s study may have been his way of showing his respect.  Certain details such as the overall color, the shape of the trees, the saturated color in the bark of the trees, and the textured tie-in all have Leigh’s fingerprint.  Leigh would have received respectful treatment no matter what he threw at Wilson.   Kane was easy going and may have emulated his older colleague, letting any comments slide off his back.

It appears that Wilson and Leigh started the Plains group before Leigh resigned.  Wilson suggested adjusting the grid size on this background to Leigh. Wilson’s statement indicates that Leigh and Wilson worked on the preliminary underdrawing together before Leigh had been apprised that the contract was not forthcoming.  And while Wilson may have disarmed Leigh with his praise, deference, and ability not to return hostility, it seems highly unlikely that a working relationship between the two would have remained intact.  Leigh had no further contractual commitments to Wilson, so it’s doubtful, for instance, whether Wilson would be able to discuss with Leigh the African landscape studies while he was painting in the Plains group.  That said, there is visible evidence that there was an on-going influence back-and-forth between Wilson and Leigh.  The Lion diorama has aspects of Wilson's techniques not seen before in any of the previous dioramas by Leigh and the result is a stronger background painting. The sky, though less chromatic than one Wilson would paint, is more so than all of Leigh’s earlier painting. The sky transits from dark blue to light blue at the horizon and also from cool to warm as well.  Leigh has painted blue reflected sky on the upper surfaces of the foliage, making the illusion of space and light more powerful.  Whether Leigh picked this up from conversations with Wilson or just noticed it on the Waterhole palm is not known.  The atmospheric perspective is stronger and it appears that Leigh has adopted some of Wilson’s palette; for instance, the trees in the distance are less purple and have a similar bluish coloration as Wilson’s.  There are also “stained glass” effects in the foliage to the right by the reddish gully.  This was not seen in other backgrounds by Leigh and is strongly characteristic of Wilson’s work.
Similarly, Leigh’s influence is evident in Wilson’s painting of the Plains diorama.  The Plains background is a very close copy of Leigh’s painted study.  The two-panel study is still extant and hangs on a wall in the Explorer’s Club.  In the diorama, the central tree is exactly rendered from Leigh’s study.  Much of Leigh’s color palette was reproduced, almost as if Wilson were honoring Leigh.  The only change Wilson seems to have made is in the sky.  It has a brightness and luminescence that characterizes Wilson skies. Not much time would pass before Leigh’s influence would drop away from Wilson’s painting, but throughout his lifetime, Wilson would praise Leigh’s artistic abilities.  Also, now that Leigh was out, Wilson was free to begin developing his grid system.

There seemed to be no apparent reason why Clark changed his mind about Leigh.  Clark had written glowingly of him in the foreword of Leigh’s book, Western Pony published in 1933.  Clark refers to Leigh as a keen observer and an artist with remarkable abilities.  He said, “it was his great fortune to have Mr. Leigh [with him] on an expedition to Africa and he stands alone as the one [artist] that can be absolutely depended upon to observe and accurately depict those exquisite details of color and form in nature.”xxi  Clark wrote this in November 1932 and by October 1934, he rescinded Leigh’s contracts for further diorama work.  This turn of events happened at a remarkable speed, given that Clark deferred to Leigh in hiring James Perry Wilson in June 1934.


Clark and Leigh Camp in Africa
James L. Clark, William R. Leigh and Richard Radatz in Africa,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services


Why would Clark fire Leigh when it made his already burdened work schedule that much more hectic?  Clark had relied on Leigh to take full responsibility for the quality of the dioramas as well as to hire and assess all new artists.  And why would Clark release an artist handpicked by Akeley himself, who wrote in no uncertain terms from Africa in 1926 that Leigh was the best investment on the expedition?xxii  One answer may lie in a series of memos from June and July 1933 that indicate that the most powerful man in the museum, Henry Fairfield Osborn, was calling into question Clark’s supervision of the first stages of the African Hall in 1933.  Osborn had recently stepped down as the president of the board after twenty-five years of service, but was still actively concentrating his efforts on the exhibits in the museum.  Now that Osborn had no further worries about the finances and operations of the museum, he could concentrate on the parts of the job he enjoyed.  He and Akeley had conceived of the African Hall together.  Osborn had an investment in its creation and that its quality be first rate.   But Osborn wasn’t entirely happy with what he was seeing in the early work. Osborn wrote to Clark that, “several of the murals in the world bird hall groups and the African Hall are far too intense.  They lack perspective and the sense of distance.  The artist appears too much interested in his own work and not sufficiently interested in the group as a whole or in the subordination of the background.” xxiii  The recently finished diorama backgrounds from this time are the Eland, Buffalo, and the Koodoo by Leigh in the African Hall, the Congo Bird group by Jaques, and the Giant Sable by Rosenkranz.


Francis Lee Jaques Painting Belgian Congo
Francis Lee Jaques in the Congo group, AMNH photo # 313924,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services



Clarence Rosenkranz Painting 1933
Clarence Rosenkranz in the Giant Sable diorama, AMNH photo # 314206,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services


Osborn had been board president since 1908 and had done much to usher in the diorama era at the AMNH.  Clark would have been much distressed by his comments.   Osborn elected to use a rarely exercised power vested in the Board Committee on Buildings and Plans (B & P) to approve these mural backgrounds.  Chairman Osborn insisted on personally inspecting the unfinished murals on behalf of B & P and he would approve those, which complied with certain aesthetic conditions.  The dioramas had never been micro-managed by the board of trustees in this manner.  Clark replies to Osborn: “We have, as you know, problems with our various artists, whose tendency is to work rather independently and along the lines that seem to suit their fancy.  Further we have the technical problem of making the transition from the real to the sharply defined accessories in the group foreground join the foreground of the painting.  However, after this is done, there is no reason why the distance can’t be more diffused.  I believe you are right in your principle and shall do everything possible to carry out your wishes.”xxiv

While Osborn’s critique of the dioramas in June 1933 is significant, a full sixteen months pass before Leigh was let go.  The two other artists implicated in Osborn’s critique, Rosenkranz and Jaques, continued unimpeded, working at the AMNH.  During those sixteen months Clark advocated for an increase in Leigh’s salary in November 1933.  Leigh signed the Gorilla and Lion contracts in January 1934 and the Waterhole contract in July of 1934. This does not appear to be an employee with his head on the block.  Later, in December 1938 minutes of the North American Hall committee, Clark reported that he was having trouble finding proper background artists.  He referred to it as the “neck of the bottle” in proceeding apace.  He asked permission to contact, none other than, William R. Leigh.  This implies that Clark deflected any personal blame in terminating Leigh.  If Clark suggested rehiring Leigh, there apparently were no hard feelings between the two men.   Osborn died in November 1935 and the B&P critiques died with him.   While Clark rose to attention to respond to Osborn, it appears there was no substantial threat leveled at Clark by the past board president. 

The fatal blow to Leigh appears to have come from a letter written by Daniel Pomeroy, a trustee and chairman of the African Hall committee, to Trubee Davison, the museum president.   The Great Depression and the financial toll it took on the AMNH is the backdrop for this letter.  The city of New York had cut their contribution by $150,000 in 1932 and Osborn had asked the curators and staff for 5% of their salaries.  The next year many of the museum’s railroad bonds defaulted and the trustees faced even larger deficits.  The trustees, because their own income had been greatly diminished by the collapse of the national economy, chose not to make up the deficit.  Trubee Davison had just recently succeeded Osborn as president and he insisted that the scientific departments live within the museum’s income.  The museum director, George H. Sherwood had to make deep cuts in the budgets of the scientific departments, dismissing some of the scientific assistants.  Publication funds were curtailed; many articles and monographs remained in manuscript form for years.  The director was even forced to suggest to several of the curators that they not write very much for the next few years.  The museum also abandoned all fieldwork after 1932 except for those privately sponsored.
Throughout 1934-5 the Museum’s income continued to drop.  Over half of the Museum’s endowment was invested in railroad bonds and there were more defaults by railroads in 1934 and 1935.  By the end of 1935, the Museum’s income from investments was only 85% of what it had been in 1930.   Grants from wealthy people for special projects had almost ceased.xxv

In Pomeroy’s letter dated August 21, 1934, he stated that he had contacted seven natural history museums across the country to compare the costs of diorama construction.   He found that the American Museum’s dioramas were  “out of all proportion higher than those throughout the country.”  He continued:
In our defense it might be urged that work done by museum employees would of necessity prove more satisfactory and lasting.  On the other hand, where so many of the other museums have their work done outside, it is not possible that they would all continue to do so if they were not satisfied with the results.  This should be particularly carefully taken into consideration in the case of tanning and study skins.  In view of the great necessity for economy, it would seem clear that the American Museum cannot continue to shoulder such heavy costs in its preparation department.  If such is the case, there are obviously only two courses open.  The first and best would be for the preparation department to recognize itself in such a manner as to reduce its costs and fall in line with those obtaining elsewhere.  If this proves impossible, the Committee can only recommend that the work be let outside on contract.
Clark must have seen this coming.  He had built an empire around the preparation of the museum dioramas and his department had garnered the lion’s share of the AMNH budget for many years.  Pomeroy’s letter was an immediate threat to Clark’s future and he moved quickly to cut his costs. His hand was forced; he had to cut back on the costs of the diorama construction or the trustees were threatening to outsource the work.  His job was ultimately threatened.  It was under this kind of pressure that Clark laid off William R. Leigh.  This was not what Clark desired.  Leigh had been chosen by Carl Akeley and had been to Africa twice.  Clark would have preferred to have Leigh, with his experience of Africa, paint the diorama backgrounds from his painted studies.  Nevertheless, Clark couldn’t hide the contractor’s fees paid to Leigh; they came directly out of the African Hall budget. But with his in-house painters and preparators, there were at least two budgets he could draw from, the African Hall budget and the General Preparation budget.  By using the General Preparation budget for some of the work, it could be made to appear that the costs had been lowered significantly.  James Perry Wilson spent three quarters of a year painting the Plains diorama.  The cost of Wilson’s work would have come to $2,700 compared to the $2000 that Leigh was charging, but with a budgetary sleight of hand, Clark could make this difference disappear.

This plan worked financially, but it forced Clark to have to take a significant leap of confidence in his in-house diorama painters.  Now, he had to rely on several of his untested rookie painters to finish the twenty remaining African Hall dioramas. In the case of James Perry Wilson, Clark had seen him paint for just four months, painting the palm tree in the Waterhole diorama and laying out the drawing in the Plains group.   Surprisingly, Clark, with little to go on to make a solid appraisal, put Wilson in charge of one of the four large corner groups, the Serengeti Plains for his first test as a solo background painter.  It seems improbable that Clark had seen enough from Wilson to have confidence to do this and more likely, he was leaping into the void with his eyes shut, hoping for the best.  He also made a snap decision to have Robert Kane assist Wilson and not the other way around.  It is clear that events were proceeding at an electric pace at the end of 1934.  Clark must have felt, with his back against the wall, the need to make dramatic and immediate budget cuts.  Clark had to rescind Leigh’s contract in October 1934 or his contract might be next.  It is apparent that Clark was making big decisions on his gut-level instincts.

Clark must have breathed a deep sigh of relief as he watched Wilson’s work unfold in the Plains diorama. Clark had a very good eye and he must have seen that he had hired an excellent painter, maybe a bit slow, but someone with the level of talent he was aiming for.  Daniel Pomeroy, the donor for the Plains diorama and also the author of the letter proposing cost cutting measures, must have been pleased with Wilson’s painting and the apparent lower costs.  Of the stable of artists at his command, Clark would have Wilson paint the greatest number of the remaining African Hall dioramas (eight).  Robert Kane would paint five and then numbers drop off:  Francis Lee Jaques would paint two, Dudley Blakely two, Joseph Guerry one, Fred Scherer one, and Arthur Jansson one.   Wilson had made an immediate impression. 


Plains diorama,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services


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En Plein Air Paintings
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i Fred Scherer, Interview, October 9, 1998

ii Dean Krakel, Conrad Schwiering, Painting on the Square, National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center, 1981

iii Dorcas McClintock, interview, 1994

iv Ray deLucia, personal interview, January 31, 1997

v Penelope Bodry-Sanders, African Obsession, Batax Museum Pub. Jacksonville, FL,1991, pp140-142.

vi John Michael Kennedy, "Philanthropy and Science in New York City, The American Museum of Natural History", 1968, Yale University unpublished dissertation, pp. 201-3

vii D.R.Barton, “An Artist Explorer”, Natural History Magazine, January 1942, p.52.

viii James Perry Wilson, Unpublished interview at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, circa 1958, American Museum of Natural History Archives.

ix W. R. Leigh, Frontiers of Enchantment, Harrap & Co. 1939, p.49.

x W. R. Leigh, “Painting the Backgrounds for the African Hall Groups”, Natural History Magazine, 1927, p. 575

xi James Perry Wilson, Unpublished interview at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, circa 1958, American Museum of Natural History Archives.

xii Ray deLucia, interview, January 31, 1997

xiii James Perry Wilson, Unpublished interview at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, circa 1958, American Museum of Natural History Archives.

xiv Wilson had even less time with Leigh.  Leigh took a six week vacation from mid-August to October, 1934 and when at the museum, he only worked four days a week.

xv June duBois, William R. Leigh, The Definitive Biography, Lowell Press, Kansas City, MO, 1977, 117-19

xvi Sean Murtha, e-mail message, August 27, 2010

xvii W. R. Leigh, Frontiers of Enchantment, Harrap & Co. 1939, p.279.

xviii ibid. p. 284

xix D. Duane Cummings, William Robinson Leigh, Western Artist,  University of Oklahoma Press and The Gilcrease Institute of American History  and Art, Norman OK.,p.119

xx It appears to have been a misunderstanding.  Clark had allocated $1,800 for Leigh’s training of apprentices for the year to be paid in weekly sums of $50.  By mid October all of that money had been depleted.  It appears Leigh didn’t understand these terms.

xxi James L. Clark in foreword to William R. Leigh, Western Pony , Huntington Press, 1933:

xxii Carl Akeley to George Sherwood, letter May 2, 1926, AMNH archives.

xxiii Memo, Henry Fairfield Osborn to George Sherwood, June 26, 1933, AMNH archives, file # 1178.4.

xxiv Memo James L. Clark to Osborn June 20, 1933, AMNH archives, file # 1178.4.

xv Kennedy, 1968. 224-7.