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Painting Actuality: Chapter 8

Chapter 8:
Early North American Mammal Hall
and Its Successor

J. A. Allen, curator of the department of mammals and birds, sketched out on paper his ideas for the Hall of North American Mammals the year after Jenness Richardson, the AMNH’s first taxidermist, was hired. The concept of the early North American Mammal Hall was to record all of the species of mammals from North America because it was feared that catastrophic, human-caused extinctions would take place and future generations wouldn’t have the opportunity to view these vanishing species in the wild. Allen wrote in 1887:

In view of the fact that the larger mammals of North America are being rapidly exterminated, the Elk, the Mountain Sheep, and several of the other larger species being as surely doomed as the Bison, now already practically extinct, it seems highly desirable that the friends of the Museum should provide the means for securing groups of these interesting animals, representing both sexes and various ages, before it becomes too late to obtain them. The expedition sent out this year [to Montana] has secured ample and admirable material for the proper representation of the Pronghorn and the Mule Deer. The Elk, the Black-tailed Deer, the Mountain Sheep, the Mountain Goat, the Moose, and Caribous, should be secured first, and about in the order named, to which should be added the Bison, which latter should be obtained without any delay. At present these species are all inadequately represented not only by too few examples, but by, in many cases, poorly preserved and badly mounted specimens, by no means doing credit to an institution which may soon be the leading Natural History museum of America. Such groups, if mounted in natural attitudes and with proper accessories, would prove pleasing to the eye and eminently instructive, and in line with the tendency of museums to break away from the too long time-honored and traditional method of arranging in long, monotonous rows, stiffly and otherwise inartistically, mounted effigies of animals.i

The president of the AMNH, Morris K. Jesup, and Frank Chapman held similar views as Allen about conservation. It inspired their exhibit work. Because of the strength of Jesup’s commitment to conservation, he had the financial backing of wealthy sportsmen who were concerned that their hunting grounds were being depleted. It was clear how these new habitat displays could engage, move, and educate the public about the issues endangering each species. Chapman, Jesup, and Allen had a need for taxidermy mounts and each had a good eye for what denoted quality taxidermy.ii


Before the 1880s taxidermists weren’t employed in museums. Most museums simply bought specimens from Wards Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York or the leading European supplier of taxidermy, Maison Verreaux. William Hornaday, a Wards alumni, was hired at the Smithsonian Institution’s United States National Museum (USNM) in 1882. He was the first American taxidermist to be hired in a museum anywhere in the United States. While at the USNM, Hornaday used his anatomical sculpting methods in 1887 to create a family of bison on simulated grassland that was very popular with the public. On the success of the bison display, other arrangements featuring moose, sheep, goat, and antelope were planned at the USNM. Hornaday’s bison group created waves beyond Washington, D.C., by affecting the course of the natural history museum in New York City. Morris K. Jesup saw the bison group in Washington, D.C., returned to New York, and persuaded the board at the AMNH that the museum must have their own taxidermy department.

Orangutans by Hornaday
William Hornaday’s Orangutan group circa 1880 that led to his employment at the United States National Museum.
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services

Jenness Richardson, who trained with William Hornaday at the USNM, was tapped by the AMNH in 1886 to start the department of taxidermy. Richardson couldn’t have had a better start. Hornaday was leading a wave of great innovation in American taxidermy and the American Museum of Natural History wanted Richardson to continue that trend in New York City. At the same time, President Jesup, with a desire to create the best taxidermy department in the country, hired Mrs. E. S. Mogridge and her brothers Messrs. Mintorn from the British Museum after seeing their habitat displays at the British Museum. They mounted birds in natural poses and placed them on tree limbs rather than on the usual mahogany stands. Perfectly modeled green and brown wax leaves were attached to the branches or strewn over the board to make it resemble the ground. The Mogridge-Mintorn team demonstrated their techniques to the AMNH taxidermists, but their stay was short, only six months. They mounted a nesting robin for one of the exhibit cases and President Jesup liked that the bird was displayed with an indication of its habitat. He ordered the taxidermy department to mount all the birds that nested within a fifty-mile radius of New York City in this new manner. Lifelike taxidermy mounts in an artificial habitat was the first step in the development of dioramas in the museum. These mounts were very popular with the public. The curators of other divisions realized that such displays were a good way to secure new funding sources for their departments. They could use the money to collect specimens for the displays as well as enhance their scientific collections.

Mintorn Robins
Early Robin group at the British Museum,
Reproduced from the Story of Museum Groups, Frederick Lucas, 1925

The American Museum published guides every year to serve as didactic complements to the exhibits. These also serve as an historic record of what was displayed in the museum and specifically, in the North American Mammal Hall. For instance, the 1892 edition of the General Guide to Mammals at the American Museum boasts that the collection was only deficient in mice and shrews. At that time, the in-house taxidermy department was only five years old and was just starting to expand their taxidermist’s art into larger mammals. Thus, in 1892, most of the North American Mammal Hall displays and taxidermy mounts were those purchased from outside taxidermy houses. The AMNH had also been using mounted specimens from the collection of Prince Maximilian, purchased by the museum in 1870. In the earlier quote, Allen gives us a hint as to the inferior quality of those mounts.

Allen looked to Jenness Richardson to create the new displays. Richardson hired a group of taxidermists who had much to do at the new job, starting with birds and small mammals. To create the exhibit of small mammals and birds common within a fifty-mile radius from New York City, Richardson personally mounted fifty-four bird groups, a muskrat, an opossum, and a woodchuck group.iii Soon, the taxidermy department was also honing their skills on larger mammals. By 1890, Richardson tackled a family of bisoniv and at the same time was training a talented apprentice, John Rowley. Rowley started working at the AMNH in 1889, just as Richardson was mounting the bison. The AMNH annual report for 1889 listed Richardson and Rowley as taking a trip to Indian Territory, probably Oklahoma, and north Texas for specimens.v

Richardson Bison group
Bison group by Jenness Richardson, AMNH photo # 33933,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services

Right from the beginning, these early producers of habitat displays were developing aesthetic and conceptual guidelines that would be used in the diorama renaissance of the twentieth century. All these innovations would lead eventually to the diorama halls of Frank Chapman and Carl Akeley. Before Richardson and Rowley, William Hornaday wanted to truthfully reproduce the location where the taxidermy specimens were collected. He removed foreground material, the plants, sod, and trees from the exact site where the animal had been shot. He later realized the limitations of such a procedure and, to add interest and to increase the educational breadth of the diorama, he later resorted to collecting within the general vicinity of the site. Others, such as Jenness Richardson, felt that Hornaday’s original idea of collecting foreground material from the actual site was more truthful and he advocated for its acceptance. Frederic Lucas, a taxidermist and future president of the AMNH, went to the other extreme, writing that the foreground material could be chosen from anywhere, even from another continent, as long as it worked to tell the story. While there are examples of the each of these approaches in existing dioramas, the more practical methods of collecting foreground material from the general vicinity became the norm for most diorama work to come.vi Hornaday also thought that all displays should be beautiful and he made every effort to mount his taxidermy mounts in poses that were dignified and graceful. He felt that the taxidermist should combine both the grandeur of the animal as well as its most characteristic attitude. The specimens taken were to be as close to perfection as could be found, avoiding asymmetry and anatomical anomalies.

William Hornaday wanted to instruct the museum-goer by drawing him in. He hoped the viewer would go beyond seeing to “beholding,” observing nature distilled and preserved in compressed form. Hornaday referred to this as a spiritually enlightening experience. This became a lasting paradigm for diorama composition.

Early Elk group
Early Elk group,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services

Hornaday was a moralist and a romantic as well. He thought that the museum should be a place of peace and restfulness and that the displays should reflect this atmosphere by not having mounted animals engaged in fighting. In fact, he felt even leaping and running animals would set inappropriate examples for children in a well-regulated museum! Some of the popular theatrical mounts of the 1880s such as Jules Verreaux’s “Arab Courier Attacked by Lions” and John Wallace’s “Lions Fighting” were fine for expositions, show windows, fairs, crystal palaces, and the like. For such purposes, the more startling they were, the better. But, according to Hornaday, theatrical, violent mounts were not meant for museums. The mounted animals, in his mind, should depict peaceful home scenes mimicking the peaceful environment found in an orderly museum. Over time, these matters were over-ridden by museum curators’ concern to tell the story of predator/prey relations, competitiveness among males for mates, and the struggle for survival. Museums found these stories had more appeal with the public because of their drama.


Hannah Rose Shell asserts that Hornaday’s aesthetics were founded in other moral lessons of the naturalness of patriarchy:

Although the male and female are both central in the Bison Group, the male specimen is the focus of the display, as well as of the overall project. Hornaday posed the six bison specimens so as to create a bison family portrait in which the male would occupy the highest and most prominent position. He posed the dominant bull so as to exaggerate his size and girth in comparison to the other specimens. Thus, The Washington Star would report, “it is around this great bull that the romance of the group centers.” Modeling the habitat group after an ideal Victorian American family, Hornaday reinforced the very conventions upon which he drew, thereby naturalizing the patriarchal structure of the idealized nuclear family.vii

The depiction of family groupings would become the norm for future dioramas. Family groupings did not necessarily reflect the natural order, but the intention was to show both the male and female of the species including juveniles and babies as well.

Caribou Group
Caribou family group,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services

Jenness Richardson died at age thirty-six in 1893. At his death, John Rowley took over the AMNH taxidermy department. Rowley and his team were prolific. Some of the standout work from this time was a central moose group depicting a second-growth forest in New Brunswick with twenty-two thousand artificial leaves. An elk and Virginia deer were both described in the 1904 General Guide to the Museum as examples of excellent modeling. Other examples of North American mammals that appeared during Rowley’s tenure were: an otter, wildcat, lynx, opossum, raccoon, and red and grey foxes. Rowley, in addition to the mammals, supplied bird mounts for Frank Chapman in the North American Bird Hall.

John Rowley published an article on taxidermy in 1898 in the periodical Osprey. He noted that the generation that “stuffed” taxidermy mounts with fibrous material such as straw, had been largely supplanted by new methods of sculpting the underlying anatomy of the animal with clay under an armature of wood and excelsior (fine wood shavings). The manikin was carefully sculpted, especially in cases where the animal’s hair was short.

Rowley 1898
Zebra manikin by John Rowley,
Reproduced from the Art of Taxidermy, J.Rowley, D. Appleton and co. NY, p. 154, 1898

For his sculpting references, Rowley used living specimens if available, photographs, sketches, or plaster casts taken from the dead specimen. Plaster casts of noses, legs, and feet were hung from the walls of the preparation lab for future reference and, still today, some hang from the walls on the fifth floor of the preparation department at the AMNH.

Death Masks
Death masks hanging in the AMNH exhibition department,
2012 photo M. Anderson

Rowley wrote about the fabrication of foliage and grasses, each being as carefully modeled in wax or fabric as though it, and not the completed group, were the main consideration; shades of dioramas to come! Rowley argued that taxidermy uses the same methods as used in the fine arts of sculpture and painting and that taxidermy should no longer be considered a trade, but an art.viii

In 1902, James L. Clark joined the AMNH as an animal sculptor and he made his start apprenticing with John Rowley. Museum lore holds that Clark traveled to Chicago after he began work at the AMNH to learn from Carl Akeley the revolutionary taxidermy methods that would transform museum taxidermy from that point forward. This is only a partial truth because, as noted, most high quality taxidermists had been sculpting their manikins anatomically since the end of the nineteenth century. Hornaday’s orangutan groups from 1880 certainly predated Akeley on this count and, while Akeley was at the cutting edge of innovations in taxidermy, he cannot be given credit for developing the anatomical methods. Akeley sculpted the animal’s form in the same way that others had done, but his major innovation was to produce a strong, lightweight cast manikin rather than to use the original sculpted form on which to adhere the skin. This added another step of making a plaster mold from the clay sculpture and casting the manikin. The extra time was worth it; taxidermy mounts before Akeley were extremely heavy, often suffering damage when moved or handled. Animals were likely to be mounted statically with all four legs squarely on the ground to provide additional stability. Clark named the lightweight manikin methods “plastic taxidermy” and they provided much more dynamic possibilities for how the animals could be posed.ix Clark certainly soaked up these innovative methods while in Chicago with Akeley, but he was just as likely demonstrating what he knew of the methods developed at the AMNH over twenty years first, by Jenness Richardson, supplemented by the British taxidermists, and furthered by John Rowley. It is of interest, though inexplicable as to why Rowley wasn’t sent to Chicago to work with Akeley. By 1903, Rowley would move to California to assist in building Stanford University’s biological museum and later take a position at the California Academy of Sciences. Throughout their lives, Rowley and Clark remained on friendly terms.

Death Masks
White tailed deer group by John Rowley
California Academy of Sciences group

The City of New York gave to the AMNH a yearly sum slightly under $200,000 to pay for salaries and maintenance. In 1912 the city approved additional money for two new major buildings along Central Park West. The museum desperately needed the extra space for exhibits and work areas. A variety of exhibits generated from other scientific departments were being designed and built, but the AMNH had no place to put them. Other curators wanted to replicate Frank Chapman’s bird habitat groups with their own specimen types because they wanted for their own departments the money and attention it brought to Chapman’s. The North American Mammal Hall was the most conspicuous player with new large mammal groups produced each year for inclusion by the taxidermy department. There were also displays created by herpetology, invertebrate zoology, vertebrate paleontology, and the ichthyology departments. With the overabundance of displays, many exhibits went into storage and others were jumbled together in any available space regardless of whether or not the adjoining displays related each other.

The Financial Panic of 1914

The foundations were dug for the new buildings in 1913, just in time for the financial panic of 1914. The New York Stock Exchange shut its doors for four and a half months, the U.S. Treasury injected hundreds of millions of dollars of emergency currency into the economy, and bankers pooled their resources together to refund New York City’s enormous debt. All building allocations, including those at the AMNH, were stopped. This sent shock waves through the museum. In the 1914 Annual Report the president, Henry Fairfield Osborn wrote:

There has been no provision for the extension of the building since 1905, excepting the excavation for the Southeast Wing and Court Building, whereas in the meantime the Trustees and Members of the institution have expended $1,300,000 in the development of the collections and $500,000 toward the maintenance of the Museum. The exhibition halls are already overcrowded; superb collections, which have cost great sums of money are now in storage cases, invisible to the public and difficult of access even to students. The illumination of the exhibition halls is so defective as to cause the constant and well-merited complaint of visitors. At least one very large collection has been offered to the Museum, the acceptance of which cannot even be considered for want of space. The matter of building and also of equipment, that is, the casing and exhibition of collections, has now reached a very critical point. It must soon appear whether this is to remain a Museum of the people, built and maintained by the people in the spirit of the original Contract of 1878 with the City, or whether it is to develop as a Museum on private foundation chiefly.x

In 1919, the Board of Trustees planned to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the museum with the opening of the two new buildings. This was not to happen because of the continued financial moratorium on new building in New York City. Osborn wrote in the 1919 Annual Report:

It is like a grown man confined in the clothing of a youth . . .This is not said in criticism or complaint of anyone. With all [its] obvious advance, the Museum has certainly come to a full stop in some branches of its educational work, and in many branches it is actually going backward. We are not truthfully presenting the facts about amphibians, reptiles, fishes, birds, or mammals – because of the disorderly arrangement. In hall after hall the arrangement is less truthful than it was twenty years ago, because the collections are jumbled together out of their natural order. Animals, which are not in the least related, are placed side-by-side. Animals of the remote past, in fact of the very dawn of life, crowd the animals of today and yesterday. Small wonder that in the popularized science of the day, which is constantly flowing from Museum sources and finding its way into newspapers all over this continent, dinosaurs are represented as contemporaneous with the Mammoth and the Mastodon. Small wonder that the impressions of the superb succession of life through the Age of Vertebrates – of fishes, of amphibians, of reptiles, of mammals, of the antiquity of man – are completely confused. It is exactly as if some Chippendale furniture and Chinese peachblow vases should be placed in the center of an Egyptian hall among the relics and canopic jars of Queen Thi and the vases of Etruria. This figuratively is the condition of six of our large exhibition halls at the present time.xi

Because of the lack of space and the money to build, the decade between 1913 and 1923, in terms of major work, was a quiet period at the AMNH. Many of the heavyweight preparators, Jenness Richardson, John Rowley, James L. Clark, and J. D. Figgins, had died or had left to work in other museums or as freelancers. The First World War was also a factor, dampening the museum’s ability to find materials, labor, and capital for new construction. Henry Fairfield Osborn was still president and Frederic Lucas had taken over the directorship of the museum. These two men were assertive leaders with strong personalities, but they couldn’t make something happen without money or space to grow. Carl Akeley’s start on the African Hall had just made it under the wire with one of the exhibit halls cleared so he could mount elephants. If the museum administrators knew in 1913 that they wouldn’t have a new building for ten years, it’s doubtful that Akeley would have been granted the valuable space or given the salary to work. Akeley was able to keep busy during this period. He mounted three elephants in all and created a lion habitat group, all for the African Hall.

Lion Diorama
Early Lion group AMNH # 311329
, Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services

Frederic Blaschke was another bright talent working at the AMNH during this time. Blaschke was a gifted Hungarian sculptor with twelve years of training in the leading art schools in Europe, which included two years in Paris working with French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Blaschke learned taxidermy and produced some of the best mounts of this period. His hippopotamus mount was written up in Scientific American in 1910.

Hippo 1910 Blaschke
Hippopotamus mount by Frederic Blaschke, reproduced in Modeling African Mammals,
W. Beasley in Scientific American, 1910

Blaschke was drawn away to the Chicago Field Museum in 1928 where he would sculpt the magnificent prehistoric figures for the History of Man exhibitxii.
While the decade was sleepy, many details relating to dioramas construction were getting worked through. As noted, taxidermy went through a hothouse experience with much innovation and the development of new techniques, expanding greatly the range of what was possible. The vision for future diorama halls was on exhibit in Frank Chapman’s North American Bird Hall. Foreground work progressed with taxidermy advancing new methods for making foliage and landscape details. Akeley is credited with making foliage with paper leaves dipped in colored wax. The wax and fabric leaves from the Mintorns tended to curl over time. Akeley’s waxed paper foliage had a longer life.

Butler Article
Albert Butler making wax leaves

The city loosened the financial deadlock on construction of the new buildings in 1923. Money promised ten years previously began to arrive at the AMNH, so by mid-1924 the Ocean Life Hall was up. By 1926, two more major buildings had been erected. The African Hall would be finished by 1931 and the Roosevelt Memorial entry off Central Park West by 1932. James L. Clark was re-hired in 1921 as the head of the exhibits department. By 1923 he was scouring the countryside, looking for talented artists to create an army of exhibit workers. In addition to hiring new staff, he moved into a new working area, sent out diorama collecting expeditions all over the world, and designed and constructed the exhibits for the new hall. While Clark’s exhibit budget was overflowing, President Osborn declared a moratorium on all scientific travel and publication so as to direct money to outfit the new buildings with exhibits. If the last decade was sleepy, this was the beginning of a very dynamic one for exhibits.


Construction work on the African Hall dioramas began in 1932 and Clark needed to further ramp up his work force. The Southeast Asian Hall was finished and there was already an accomplished exhibit staff, but Clark was still looking for preparators and background painters. In 1934 when James Perry Wilson took his plein air paintings into the museum for an interview, Clark didn’t have much but his intuition to size up this applicant. Solely on the basis of Wilson’s small studies, Clark took a chance and hired this unknown painter with an architectural background and no formal art training or exhibit credentials. Clark had good intuition. Over and over, he found extraordinary artists that could rise to his high standards and, in Wilson’s case, exceed them.

Wilson and North American Mammal Hall
James Perry Wilson had worked four years at the AMNH before he started working on what would become his magnum opus, the new North American Mammal Hall. By 1938 Wilson had painted six dioramas in the African Hall: the Waterhole, Plains, Klipspringer, Impala, White Rhinoceros, and the Okapi. The Roosevelt Bird Sanctuary diorama, in the Roosevelt Memorial Hall, also by Wilson, was finished. He had grappled with the problems inherent in painting on curved backgrounds and had developed the first iteration of his grid system. He had painted in the style of William R. Leigh and was well on his way to establishing his own style, color palette, and system of painting. He had secured his place as one of the AMNH’s best diorama painters. The North American Mammal Hall came right at the moment when Wilson was ready to put all the parts together and paint some of the world’s best diorama backgrounds. They hadn’t seen anything yet!

Of the twenty-nine dioramas in this hall, Wilson would paint nineteen between the years 1938 and 1954. His personal stamp is visible throughout the hall. These are levelheaded, realistic backgrounds, controlled by Wilson to have the greatest effect. There are no flights of fancy, there isn’t a thing painted that wasn’t in his references or empirically available to the eyes of someone at the site. While the realism Wilson brought to the dioramas is on another plane, his colors glow with such luminosity that many visitors have asked whether they are backlit. Wilson imparted a level of three-dimensionality to his backgrounds that had never before been as perfectly realized as this. The remarkable thing is that Wilson somehow grasped the spirit of a place that seemed to come naturally from the rightness of the finished work.
Wilson’s first documentable museum expedition to collect references for the Hall of North American Mammals, came in the summer of 1938. George Petersen, the foreground artist accompanying Wilson on the expedition to the western United States may have noticed that Wilson took more time plotting out his photographic panoramas than any of the other painters with whom he had been on expedition. Essentially he looked like he was doing the same things others had done, taking photos and painting a fully formed color panoramic oil study. In reality, Wilson was, for the first time, quietly trying his own method for collecting references that he had been working out on paper. He wasn’t experimenting with Jaques’ method or with Leigh’s method, or the methods of any of the other background painters. Rather, he was taking well-planned photographs, using his camera to frame the complete scope of the diorama’s composition and then painting a full color oil study of the same site blocked out by the photographic panorama. Petersen may not have been aware that Wilson, unlike his colleagues, would place complete reliance on these panoramic studies, transferring them, as is, when he painted the diorama back in New York.

James Perry Wilson Pete Bison site
James Perry Wilson painting at the Bison site, 1938, AMNH photo # 318283,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services

Before 1938, Wilson may have collected some of the references for the Roosevelt Bird Sanctuary diorama. Several photographs of the Roosevelt gravesite in Long Island were discovered in James L. Clark’s files. These were probably not by Wilson because they weren’t taken with a tripod. Frank Chapman, James L. Clark, and Albert Butler went to the site in 1936. Butler took reference photographs at that time and the ones in Clark’s file are likely his. Butler probably also took a pair of photos mounted on cardboard that Wilson used as a painting reference. Though in his 1937 report summarizing the year’s expeditions, James L. Clark included Wilson as making field studies for the Roosevelt Sanctuary. Neither site photographs nor painted studies by Wilson have been conclusively documented. The Roosevelt diorama has the appearance of being painted from black and white photos and doesn’t have the luminosity of dioramas to come. There is a world of difference between the Roosevelt diorama and his next diorama, the Grizzly Bear. The Roosevelt diorama’s less-than-optimal references likely caused Wilson to think about how to collect references such that he could paint with confidence the color, light, and spirit he experienced at the site.

Roosevelt Bird Sanctuary Group
Roosevelt Sanctuary site photos mounted on cardboard. The photos were taken from different angles without a tripod-not likely by Wilson. The paint smudges on the board indicate Wilson used them while painting the background.
Collection Ruth Morrill

Wilson’s Process for Reference Photos

First, before any photos were taken, the curator of mammals, Harold Anthony, and James L. Clark would consult maps and select the general locale of the site. In the case of the North American Mammal Hall, the sites were usually from national parks or historic sites. An expedition would be dispatched to the site and there, Wilson would visualize the diorama by finding the best view to reproduce. He would set up his camera, setting the lens at 5 feet 2 inches, corresponding to the height of the horizon line in the diorama. He made sure his tripod was level sometimes with a plumb bob and then selected the center of his composition. He would swing the camera to the left and right, looking through the viewfinder to make sure the horizon didn’t deviate from the exact middle of the camera’s frame. He was very careful with this step, checking to make sure the horizon line was even throughout the panorama. He would go through several trial swings before starting to photograph. He would memorize key references at the edges of each frame, planning where to overlap the slides. He would plot out five shots, which he knew comprised exactly 180 degrees. Sometimes he would add a sixth photo for a span of 216 degrees. He started at the left, carefully shooting his premeditated panoramic swing.

He kept a ledger of his color slides, notating the date, location, and exposures. This information would be transferred to his slides after they were developed and returned to him in New York. The ledger numbered his slides chronologically with his first color slide taken in August 1941xiii. The ledger number was also added to the slide label. Wilson used black and white film exclusively before August 1941 when he began shooting Kodachromes. By 1944 he had switched to taking mostly Kodachromes on museum expeditions. Later still, Wilson took stereo photographs that gave him a better sense of the three dimensionality of the scene. The reference photos were important to him to capture detail he couldn’t get on a finished field painting. They also organized the span of his panoramic painting, which he would start after the photographic work was completed.

Panoramic Slides
Five panoramic slides of the Coyote site, 1946
Collection Robert C. Wilson

Wilson had a tripod custom built with a long easel made to hold five canvasboards side-by-side This worked well except when the wind whipped up. He rigged up a guy wire system that he sketched for a friend in a letter.

James Perry Wilson Tripod
James Perry Wilson, Illustration of tripod with guywires
Collection M. Anderson

He also brought a specially made paint box into the field that held his paint, brushes, turpentine, and palette, with enough space to securely hold five 12 x 16 canvasboard panels in such a way that they would not touch each other. This was handy for packing his canvasboards with the wet oil paint after he finished for the day. Wilson could transport this set up into the field by himself though at times, it presented problems. On the Yosemite expedition in 1946, cars were not available, so he and Ray deLucia rode bicycles to explore the park for a suitable diorama site. They found it four and a half miles from their cabin and Wilson, unable to strap the equipment to his bicycle, carried it on foot each way.

James Perry Wilson Paintbox Drawing
James Perry Wilson, drawing of paintbox,
Collection M. Anderson

Wilson’s 1938 collecting expedition to the western United States was the second year that James L. Clark had organized expeditions for the North American Mammal Hall. Clark and Robert McConnell, chairman of the North American Mammal Hall Committee, had secured funds from the first donors and they were anxious to get the hall started. The 1938 expedition was sent out to collect three dioramas, the Grizzly Bear, the Wapiti, and the Bison. Wilson went to photograph and paint studies along with other members of the AMNH: George Petersen, the foreground artist; Gardell Christiansen, a taxidermist; and T. Donald Carter, the mammalogist. George Petersen, while in the field, wrote a synopsis of the trip to James L. Clark. I include it below to give the reader a sense of what transpired on this trip as well as on a typical museum expedition:

On September 3, 1938 Mr. James Perry Wilson, Mr. Gardell Dano Christensen and I left Grand Central Terminal, New York, at 11:15 p.m. arriving at Billings, Montana on Tuesday morning, September 6. We set out at once to purchase the necessary field equipment, which included a used Ford (1937) pick-up truck. The following day we proceeded via truck over the Red Lodge Highway to Yellowstone Park, to collect animals and material for the Grizzly Bear Group. On September 8th, at Mammoth Hot Springs, we met Mr. Rogers, Park Commissioner. He introduced us to Chief Ranger Lenoux, who directed us to the Canyon Ranger Station. Having secured accommodations at the Canyon Tourist Camp, we set out that afternoon to inspect the south rim of the Canyon for a possible Group setting. That evening was spent attending the Grizzly Bear feeding and lectures. Next morning, the 9th, we inspected the north rim of the Canyon and made final choice of the south rim for our site. Each member of the party then started his own work, Wilson painting the background studies, Christensen selecting and preparing the bear, and I collecting accessories, making color notes and taking photographs for the proposed habitat Group of the Grizzly Bear. The female adult was secured on September 11th, the male adult on September 13th and the two cubs (both males) on September 15th.
1938 James Perry Wilson Painting Bear Site
James Perry Wilson painting at Yellowstone Canyon, 1938, James L. Clark files, AMNH,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services
Ranger Lee Coleman was detailed to shoot the animals, which Christensen had selected. On September 17th all field work and crating were completed, and on Sunday, the 18th, we drove to Cody [Wyoming]. On Monday we shipped our collection to the Museum and said “Adieu” to Christensen, who was to return to New York. Wilson and I then started south for Saratoga, Wyoming, by way of the Grand Tetons. We arrived Wftnesday, the 21st, at about 10:30 a.m. and registered at the Sisson Hotel. The afternoon was spent in selecting a site for the Bison Group, which was about 16 miles northwest of Saratoga, near the crossing of the North Platte River by the Overland Trail. Work was begun the next morning on the background and accessories. This work was completed on the morning of the 28th. The collection was shipped that day, and we started that afternoon for Elk Lodge, Colorado.
Having reached Elk Lodge at noon, Tuesday, the 27th, we spent the remainder of the day and the next morning in selecting a site, which was to include Himes Peak and the Chinese Wall. On the afternoon of the 28th we decided on the site. Mr. Honnold arrived on the 30th and approved our selection. He also asked that the studies be given to the Elk Lodge when the Museum has no further use for them. He offered to donate to the Museum for use in the Elk Group an exceptionally fine pair of fifteen-point elk antlers, which he would exchange for those we intended to use. Work on this Group was completed on the morning of October 4. In accordance with a letter from Doctor Clark, we went to Cimarron, New Mexico, to inspect two alternative sites for the Bison Group, which had been suggested by Mr. McConnell. We reached Cimarron on Thursday, October 6th, and met Mr. Waite Phillips, on whose ranch the two sites were located. The following morning Mr. H. Mitchell, the ranch manager, took us to the two sites and we began work immediately on sketches and photographs. We were seriously impeded by bad weather, which made the roads impassable. Mr. McConnell had requested us to obtain an estimate of the weight of an exceptionally large bull bison on Mr. Phillips’ ranch. We were told the weight was probably about 1,300 pounds. Having carried our work at Cimarron as far as our limited time and bad weather would permit, we left there on the morning of October 10th and drove to Denver. I left Wilson there on the 11th, to entrain for New York, and proceeded alone to Billings, arriving there on the 12th. I sold the truck and at 12:40 a.m. on the morning of the 13th, I started for home, arriving in New York on Sunday, October the 16th.

There had been another western expedition the year before, in 1937, but without Wilson. George Petersen, James L. Clark, and the painter, Hanson Puthuff went to collect material for the Roosevelt Ranch diorama. Aside from the Roosevelt Ranch, Clark had Puthuff paint studies for the Bison diorama at Custer’s battlefield, as well as Shoshone Pass near Cody, Wyoming, and the Overland Trail. The expedition also stopped at the Grand Tetons for Puthuff to paint studies for the Elk diorama. On his return to New York, Puthuff painted three of the Roosevelt Memorial dioramas and then, in early 1938, he moved back to his home state of California. Both the Wapiti and Bison sites chosen in 1937 were not considered satisfactory either by Harold Anthony, Clark, or by the donors. William Honnold wanted the Wapiti site changed. His monetary contribution was initially offered without strings attached, but later it became contingent on using his Colorado ranch as the site. This rankled James L. Clark and Harold Anthony, who both felt that Honnold was over-meddling with their scientific authority. Clark and Anthony maintained that the Tetons was a better place to find elk than in Colorado where the elk had been hunted to the point of near-eradication. Also, the American Museum’s intention in the North American Mammal Hall was to highlight national parks and historic sites across the United States. The Grand Tetons fit that criterion and to use a private ranch as a diorama site flew in the face of their stated goals. If they agreed to this request, other donors would ask to have their property featured. The museum had spent over $2,000 on the 1937 expedition and it would mean sending another out the following year at a similar expense. Clark wrote president Davison that “Honnold’s attitude indicates that we shall continue to be impeded with our progress in this group [and that another donor should be found.]” The museum administration balked at turning away $18,000, and Clark and Anthony’s protests went unheeded. One week after Clark’s letter, Robert McConnell wrote Honnold to report that they would use the site of his personal ranch [minus buildings] for the diorama. The donors were neither scientists nor artists and yet they were given a surprising level of authority to dictate where the dioramas would be sited and from what view. Donors even weighed in on how many taxidermied animals were to be in the group and how they would be arranged. McConnell and Honnold requested that James Perry Wilson paint their backgrounds. Wilson may have suggested that better results would be had if he could paint his own studies at the Bison site and not use Puthuff’s studies. He was going to travel west to the Grizzly Bear and Wapiti sites anyway, so it was probably easy to sell his bosses on the idea that he should stop at the Bison site for his own references. Honnold (Wapiti) and Beverly Robinson (Grizzly Bear) mostly bankrolled the second expedition in 1938, with Wilson along to paint the references for the three dioramas. McConnell, who paid the lion’s share of the 1937 expedition, also kicked in more money to have the expedition detour to Cimmaron, New Mexico, to the ranch of his friend Waite Phillips, to serve as a possible Bison site. Finally, the Overland Trail near the crossing of the North Platte River where Wilson painted was chosen.

Wilson wrote about this part of the expedition in a letter to Thanos Johnson:

The scene of the [Wapiti] group is at Elk Lodge, which is a club run like a private dude ranch. A member of the club [Honnold] gave the group to the Museum, and wished that the site be used. While on the expedition we (another man from the Museum and I) were guests of the club, and lived in luxury. We got our meals at the clubhouse, or ranch house, and had a very comfortable furnished cabin to live in. There was even a boy to come in the morning before we got up, to build a fire in the wood-burning stove to warm the place up! (This was around October first.) A photograph taken on the site of the group would show several buildings and roads, which I eliminated in the painting in order to restore the scene to its primitive unspoiled character.
Wapiti Site
Elk diorama site, James L. Clark files, AMNH,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services

Wilson returned to New York and without a chance to unpack his bags, he left for Bear Mountain State Park, New York, to paint and photograph reference studies for the Virginia Deer diorama. It points to the urgency Clark was giving the development of the North American Mammal Hall, not to mention that the New England Fall foliage was peaking. Wilson returned to the museum after five days at Bear Mountain and began construction of scale models for the Grizzly Bear, Wapiti, the Pronghorn/Bison, and Virginia Deer dioramas. The hall was brand new and before Wilson could begin work on the backgrounds, he had to wait until the cases were built, the contours plastered, and the canvas adhered over the plaster. By April of 1938, James L. Clark had donors lined up for ten of the large cases. With money in hand, he sent out other expeditions to collect the Mountain Goat, Alaskan Brown Bear, and the Bighorn Sheep. There were six diorama cases completed by January of 1939, but Clark was strapped for good painters. He asked permission of the North American Mammal Hall committee to let him contact William R. Leigh to come back to paint dioramas. Leigh declined. Carl Rungius was contracted to paint the Moose diorama and Joseph Guerry, a young inexperienced painter, collected background studies for the Mountain Goat, Osborn Caribou, and the Bighorn Sheep.xiv

Bison Model
Scale model bison, AMNH North American Mammal Hall photo file,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services


Mule Deer Model
Scale model mule deer, AMNH North American Mammal Hall photo file,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services

The North American Mammal hall was close to Clark’s heart. He loved setting up the expeditions. He knew many of the ranchers, packhorse leaders, and hunters in the West from his own hunting trips. If he could have had his way, he would have gone on every collecting expedition. As it was, he went out on only a handful of trips, but when he was able to go, he loved the train of pack animals and hunting for specimens. For him, it was all about adventure and roughing it out in the wilderness. He was a member of several outdoor and explorer’s clubs and wrote about his expeditions in Natural History magazine. He worked tirelessly to find donors and the necessary money to complete the hall. While deeply committed to the North American Mammal Hall, Clark also kept other museum projects moving forward. He sent Fred Scherer and Raymond Potter to the Arctic tundra in Churchill, Manitoba, to prepare for another diorama in the Birds of the World Hall. Robert Kane was sent to Africa to collect the studies used to paint the Chimpanzee and Mandrill dioramas needed to complete the mezzanine of the African Hall. A whale skeleton was mounted in the Ocean Life Hall and Jaques was busy painting in the Whitney Bird Hall. Clark was also attending to administrative duties as well, one of which was advocating for a raise for James Perry Wilson. Clark was worried about Wilson leaving for a better paying job. Clark tried clandestinely to make things easier financially for Wilson by helping to sell some of his easel paintings to wealthy businessmen with whom Clark had connections.xv Clark took a chance of being found out and called to task by the AMNH administration for showing favoritism with individuals on his staff. Clark succeeded in getting Wilson a raise in 1940 to $4,200 per year, a salary that was more than twice that of any of the other preparator’s salaries. Wilson continued painting, though not for the money; he could have made a better salary as an architect, but because his heart was in his work.

The Grizzly Bear diorama is one of the few excavated below the floor level to give a greater illusion of depth to Yellowstone Canyon. Wilson prepared the surface of the canvas with several coats of white oil paint. When dry, he made finished preparatory drawings in charcoal. In the Grizzly Bear, Wilson also raised the height of the horizon line 2 inches to 5 feet 4 inches because a good deal of the picture is below eye level and it gives more room for the downward view. Wilson finished off the Wapiti and the Bison dioramas the same way.xvi By mid-May 1940, he had started painting the Grizzly Bear background. In a letter from Roy Chapman Andrews to a board member, Andrews recounts how Wilson was stripped to the waist painting the sky. “He says it’s hotter than Tophid up there, but he is very glad to be there nonetheless.”

Grizzly Bear Canyon Underdrawing I

Grizzly Bear Canyon Underdrawing II
Grizzly Bear preparatory drawings, AMNH #s 121109, 121110,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services

Wilson always painted the sky first. Everything else was painted in relation to the value of the sky. The transition of the color values was the fundamental basis of Wilson’s painting method and how he was able to get the convincing atmospheric perspective in his backgrounds. There is also a subtle intensification of the luminosity of his painting in the North American Mammal Hall not seen in his work previously. Up until this point, Wilson was transcribing other painter’s field studies and painting from black and white photographs. These new dioramas were the first ones in which Wilson had full control of his field references, painting his own studies and taking his own photographs. The oil studies were completed without the use of black paint, but also have Wilson’s signature atmospheric sensitivity. While the value of the transition into deep space is perfect, Wilson’s plein air colors are slightly keyed up, more saturated, slightly more colorful than what is seen in life. Indeed, the colors are found in nature, but it takes eyes trained to see them. In this case, Wilson had forty years to develop this sensitivity. This palette is one that exudes light. These colors reflected Wilson’s experience in the field and I believe he discerned that at a slightly heightened level, they better animated the sense of light he saw in front of him.

This is the one area in which Wilson departed from the exacting empirical rigor he applied to every other area of his painting. The palette is familiar to modern eyes. French and American Nineteenth Century Impressionism brought about this adjustment, so Wilson’s saturated colors don’t stand out to modern sensibilities. Backlit Kodachrome slides may have also contributed to a sense that higher keyed colors are true to life. For many years I looked at Wilson’s paintings and told myself that they looked exactly like what I saw in real life. This combination of empirical realism and enhancement matches how other parts of the dioramas are constructed. Many landscape elements when reproduced in the foreground are a percentage combination of the actual tree, shrub, grass, or flower and artificially fabricated parts. The diorama artists sometimes manipulated the realism to create desired effects. For example, it is well known in museum circles that in some dioramas, mirrors were strategically placed to reflect light into an animal’s eyes. In one instance, the whole side of an animal not seen by the public is painted white to reflect light back into a dark corner of the diorama. Wilson knew that to make the tie-in work between the two-dimensional background and three-dimensional foreground, he had to intensify the colors to make the jump.

When he made his own paintings at the diorama site, he painted in his usual manner and thus imparted more color saturation to his study. These colors were then transferred to his backgrounds and the result was a brighter diorama. The use of Kodachrome color slides has been suggested as a reason for this added luminosity to the North American Mammal Hall paintings, but Wilson didn’t start using them until 1941, three years after the expedition to collect the references for the Grizzly Bear, Bison, and the Elk. If anything, Wilson probably found Kodachromes to parallel what he had already been doing in his painting. Wilson was always looking and studying the colors of the landscape. He saw unusual light reflections in the Yellowstone Canyon and discussed the effect in a letter to Thanos Johnson:

The effect of diffused and reflected light is most noticeable when looking into the light, which gives large shadow areas; and when the objects are light-colored. In my experience, the most conspicuous example was the Canyon of the Yellowstone, where light is intense and the rock very light in color. My first view of the Canyon was looking upstream, into the sun, in the afternoon. The canyon walls are worn into deep gullies, leaving a series of projecting buttresses or fins between them. As I stood on one of these projections I could see several more, one behind another. Each one had the side toward me in shade; but on this shaded surface was reflected a flood of light from the sunlit side of the next buttress. Aided by the yellowish color of the rock, the effect lighted from within. I have never seen anything like it.xvii
Grizzly Bear Canyon

Grizzly Bear Canyon
Grizzly Bear Canyon detail, photo by M. Anderson,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services

Color may be the strongest factor in creating the depth in a painting. It has an immediacy and works viscerally to suggest depth. The Florida Black Bear and Canadian Lynx dioramas are the only Wilson dioramas in which the sky is almost completely covered with clouds. With these dioramas, Wilson departed from the usual sunny, clear skies attempting to depict a grey, cloud-covered setting. Both dioramas appear monochromatic, indeed almost strange, in comparison to other dioramas. Most of the dioramas at the AMNH are portrayed in sunny conditions. The Florida Black Bear depicts a sultry, atmospheric condition. Light grey color dominates the background with the attempt to give the swamp a hot and humid appearance. And even though there is much light and the color is undoubtedly accurate, there is a strange black and white quality to the scene. The color that is in the diorama is muted as indeed it would be in nature. Wilson describes this effect in a letter: “When there is a good deal of moisture in the air, producing soft hazy sunlight, all these effects are diminished. The sunlight is less brilliant, and the shadows less intense. The sky is less blue; consequently the light diffused from the sky is less blue also. Since the sunlight is less strong, the reflected sunlight will be less strong also. As the amount of haze increases, the shadows become fainter, and the whole effect of light may merge by imperceptible gradations into that of a sunless day.”xviii

Black Bear
Florida Black Bear, photo by Nat Chard,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services

The value transitions and all the indicators of perspective are perfect, coaxing the viewer to intellectually accept the depth in the painted landscape, but the color is not there to enhance the illusion. While he completed only a few cloudy dioramas, Wilson loved to paint overcast settings. He traveled to Monhegan Island in Maine for summer painting trips to catch the foggy, stormy weather. Painting under those conditions was a challenge and imparting a sense of depth in the landscape was virtually impossible because of the lack of color and the obscured indicators in the landscape. In contrast, painting at midday when the sun is directly overhead is equally difficult to impart atmospheric depth. Sunrise and sunset are the times of day when the perspectival indicators stand out best and when the majority of dioramas are painted. Wilson used this to great effect in the Libyan Desert diorama where small pebbles send long shadows across the sand. During midday, there would be no shadows on the pebbles and little sense of the depth. At sunset or sunrise, the light of the sun has longer to travel through the Earth’s atmosphere; the range of color in the sky is broader and atmospheric transitions are more easily perceived.

Wilson’s Assistant, Fred Scherer

James Perry Wilson was a busy man in late 1939 through 1940. He had several African Hall dioramas to paint and almost as many in the North American Mammal Hall. He began the year’s chronology by finishing the Desert diorama right at the end of 1939. He jumped to the Bison group and spent eleven days drawing the grid and the underdrawing. He moved immediately to the Hyena-Vulture and finished his part of painting that diorama before going to the Ostrich-Warthog diorama in March. By mid-May he was painting the Grizzly Bear background.xix For Wilson, this is an extraordinary number of dioramas to paint in such a limited time. This was only possible because he had a very talented apprentice, Fred Scherer, working with him. Scherer helped Wilson with the final, time-consuming task of tying-in the backgrounds so Wilson didn’t have to completely finish the job. Scherer would also help block out or underpaint some areas so Wilson could come back later and paint detail on top. In the Hyena-Vulture group, Scherer painted many, if not all, of the vultures with great proficiency.xx Wilson was able to meet his tight schedule and be assured that Scherer would handle the final details with sensitivity and skill.

James Perry Wilson, George Mason and Fred Scherer in Bison Group
James Perry Wilson, George Mason, and Fred Scherer in the Bison group, AMNH photo# 296655,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services

In 1934, Fred Scherer took a small polar bear sculpture into the American Museum of Natural History when he came for a job interview. He was nineteen years old. James L. Clark interviewed him and offered him a one-year internship that started in October 1934. For the first year he was paid through a government rehabilitation program as a result of his disability from polio. He wore a steel brace on his leg and for that year only received lunch money and carfare. After the first year, he alone, got hired from the pool of other interns at seventeen dollars per week. His first job was making dock plants, wild celery, and blackberry bushes in the Gorilla diorama under the supervision of George Petersen. Scherer worked several years with Petersen making rocks, trees, and plants for the African Hall habitat groups before he started painting. He worked up the courage to ask Clark to give him a chance to paint and Clark agreed. He got a break because Francis Lee Jaques was scheduled to go to Churchill Bay to paint the Tundra diorama for the Birds of the World Hall, but came into conflict with Frank Chapman when he announced he planned to take his wife on the expedition.xxi Scherer was sent in his place in June 1938. Upon his return, Scherer painted the full scale Tundra group. This group was his first and was painted with very little experience. It is beautifully painted, but doesn’t have the light that would later come into his painting after he had apprenticed with James Perry Wilson. Scherer and Wilson painted side-by-side in the Nile River diorama in late 1939 and then Scherer followed him to the Ostrich-Warthog and the Hyena/Vulture groups in the African Hall.

Wilson took him on as a student and taught him how to paint. He taught Scherer how to study nature and understand what he was seeing. Scherer considered Wilson to be an outstanding mentor. They would take walks across the park during lunch breaks and Wilson would talk to him about how light interacted with objects in the landscape. These lessons became hard-wired in Scherer’s brain.xxii He would later teach the same things to his own apprentices. Scherer learned how to lay out Wilson’s palette and how to paint values to get the aerial perspective and a realistic atmosphere like Wilson. Scherer was a quick study and within a short period of time was tying in backgrounds and painting some of the details like the aforementioned vultures in the African Hall. Scherer would be sent to a diorama before Wilson to draw in the background and underpaint areas in preparation for Wilson. Clark noted Scherer’s importance painting with Wilson and Scherer worked less and less on foreground plants and rock fabrication. In fact, Clark used Scherer to tie in one of Jaques’ backgrounds while he was on leave in 1940.

Tundra Group
Tundra group,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services

In 1941, Clark knew he had to lighten the load on Wilson and he gave Scherer the Virginia Deer background to paint. Wilson had made all the photographic and painted reference studies and had made the scale model, but Scherer laid out the grid on the background wall, painted the background, and even made much of the foreground material as well. Barring the reference material, this diorama was almost completely Fred Scherer’s work! And Scherer hit a home run. The Virginia Deer diorama sits in space perfectly and the aerial perspective is as good as anything Wilson could have done. The colors are directly from Wilson’s palette, so there is a feeling of light suffusing the scene. Scherer was probably getting daily critiques from Wilson, but even so, his talent is evident. Clark was probably greatly heartened to see he had another painter if he was needed and, even though he painted a bit more loosely than Wilson, he could paint backgrounds with the same excellence of perspective and atmosphere.

Clark, At Full Capacity, 1939-1941

Beyond Wilson’s and Scherer’s work, 1939 to 1941 was a time of great activity in the AMNH. James L. Clark was juggling the North American Mammal Hall and all of his other museum responsibilities. Letters in the AMNH archives show him pushing the in-house construction department to build the new diorama shells at an accelerated pace. He sent out legions of preparators and taxidermists on collecting expeditions. He had pinned down donors for the larger groups and was now actively selling the smaller groups in the corridors. One area that Clark didn’t need to worry about was his budget. Robert McConnell, the chairman of the North American Mammal Hall committee, had made sure that donors were paying what they had pledged and extra money was accumulating in the so called “Cushion Fund.”. Clark worked hard to insure that the North American Mammal Hall animals were big, robust, and if possible, sported trophy-sized antlers. He negotiated with the Works Project Administration to have a map of North America painted. Clark exchanged letters with Belmore Brown to paint the White Sheep, Mountain Goat, and the Alaskan Brown Bear diorama backgrounds. Carl Rungius painted the Moose group. Francis Lee Jaques and Charles Chapman were enlisted to paint a diorama each.

James L. Clark tried out Joseph Guerry with hopes that he could become another one of his background painters, but Guerry wasn’t up to Clark’s or the donor’s standards. Clark had Guerry paint the Bighorn Sheep, the Osborn Caribou, and the Mountain Goat backgrounds. Belmore Browne repainted all three: the Bighorn Sheep (1941), the Osborn Caribou (1942), and the Mountain Goat (1946). Clark spent an inordinate amount of time in the middle of the fight over Wilson’s schedule, caught between angry donors and micromanaging administrators about whether Wilson would paint in the African Hall or the North American Hall.

Wilson spent five months working on the Grizzly Bear after Clark had estimated six weeks for its completion. The background was stunning, but Clark was feeling pinched for time. Wilson couldn’t be rushed and the donors were clamoring to have Wilson paint their backgrounds. This was a period when Clark felt squeezed into the “neck of the bottle” by his inability to get good painters. Jaques and Scherer could have been given other dioramas to paint, but for some reason, Clark would not do this. At this very time, Jaques requested a leave of absence to paint a diorama at the Bell Museum in Minneapolis and Clark granted it. He later extended it an additional six months.

Wilson moved from the Grizzly Bear to the Wapiti at the beginning of 1941. Then his schedule became highly irregular because the African Hall donors, waiting for the last African Hall diorama to be finished, pulled Wilson one way, the North American Mammal hall donors, expecting an earlier date to open the North American Mammal Hall, pulled him another way. Two uncoordinated arms of the museum administration tried to placate both sets of donors. Clark reported that Wilson spent seventy-five days in the Wapiti diorama in 1941, most likely early in the year. In June 1941, he spent a week on the Cheetah scale model and three days in August sketching out the background. Daniel Pomeroy, Chairman of African Hall, wrote an angry letter in August complaining that Wilson was back in the North American Mammal Hall. Director Andrews with instructions from Daniel Pomeroy (who was backed by President Davison) told Clark that the African Hall always must have preference over the North American Hall because it was started first. This infuriated the North American donors who retaliated by flexing their power on the Board and successfully demanding Roy Chapman Andrews’ dismissal.

Wilson At Peak Performance

In August 1941, Wilson, maybe sensing this was a good time to get away from the museum, combined a month’s painting vacation with a museum collecting expedition. He spent several vacation weeks in the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone Park painting en plein air.

James Perry Wilson Teton
Teton study, 12”X16”, oil on canvasboard,
coll. Frederic Van Duyne

As part of the expedition, he and Ray deLucia collected foreground grass for the Bison diorama in Hayes, Kansas and also went to Devil’s Tower, Wyoming, in late September 1941 to get photographic references, painted studies, and foreground material for the Mule Deer diorama.

James Perry Wilson painting Mule Deer
James Perry Wilson painting at Devil’s Tower, photo by Ray deLucia,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services

While the two men were working at Devil’s Tower, a stunt parachutist, George Hopkins, on a $50 bet, jumped from a plane and landed on top of Devil’s Tower. Hopkins had a 1,000 foot length of rope dropped from the plane from which he planned to rappel down the mountain. Fortunately, the rope drop missed the mark because it turned out the rope wouldn’t have been long enough to get him down. Hopkins was stranded on top of the mountain. The next day, food, water, fuel and another rope were dropped from a plane. The fuel can burst when it hit the ground and the rope got hopelessly tangled. That night, fog, sleet and snow covered the Tower and Hopkins was unable to get down. By this time, Hopkin’s stunt had become national news and the photographs Ray deLucia took were run on the newsreels. Bad weather hampered all rescue efforts. Rescue plans were considered that ranged from Hopkins parachuting by himself off the Tower, to having a blimp flown in from the Midwest, to landing on top with a ski-equipped plane, to bringing in a helicopter which had only recently been developed. Seven days later, nine rock climbers scaled the Tower and rescued Hopkins.

Ray deLucia was also called up for active military service while on this expedition. As a result, the Mule Deer foreground was held up for years. When Wilson returned to New York, he was put to work on the Cheetah Group background. Wilson painted the Cheetah background from William R. Leigh’s African studies, but this diorama reveals he was relying more on his own color sense. The trees clearly reflect Leigh’s linear quality, but the color looks more like Wilson’s. There is more tonal and value variation than in previous African dioramas. Wilson used his more luminous color palette to create the atmospheric perspective. Together the color and values enhance the three-dimensionality of the scene. The African Hall quietly opened to the public with James Perry Wilson’s completion of the Cheetah group.

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

While Clark was not terribly happy with the time it took Wilson to finish his work, he was happy with the results and with Wilson’s amiable nature. Clark got Wilson promoted to staff associate in January 1942. From now on, Wilson’s name appeared on Exhibits Department letterhead under Clark’s and Albert Butler’s names.

Wilson would return to the Wapiti in February 1942 to complete the tie-in. This diorama took half the time it took to finish the Grizzly Bear and yet the Wapiti has all of the spectacular light and color of his best dioramas. Harold Anthony, the curator of the North American Mammal Hall gave the donor, William Honnold a photograph of the Wapiti with a note that said, “No photograph can do adequate justice to [the background]. The atmospheric quality of the late afternoon setting has subtle qualities which cannot be put down on paper.”xxiii The light in this background was changed to sunset after Wilson had returned to New York City. The photographs and field study were made at four in the afternoon. Wilson worked out the new lighting scheme with considerable care and he felt sure that it was accurate. The rising moon was another detail that received the most intensive study and about which he felt entirely confident in regard to its accuracy.

James Perry Wilson Painting Wapiti group
James Perry Wilson painting in the Wapiti group, AMNH photo# 293631,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services

Surprisingly, the moon was painted one and a half times larger than what would be expected of the size of the moon’s diameter calculated at the distance of the background wall to the viewing point. This increase is exactly how much larger the moon appears to the human eye when seen low in the sky near the horizon than as it appears at the zenith. This phenomenon is referred to as the “moon illusion.” The moon illusion doesn’t appear in photographs of the moon near the horizon. In fact, the moon photographed at the horizon will be slightly smaller because it is physically farther from the Earth than the moon at the zenith. It is a curious illusion that researchers have been able to quantify though not completely understand or simply explain. Wilson’s breadth of astronomical knowledge shows itself in the painted moon. He researched every diorama to make sure the sun was in the correct position, casting the correct shadows, and reflecting light from the correct angle. In his more rare dusk and evening dioramas, the position and phase of the moon was fully researched. If there were stars, they were in the correct position in the night sky for the time of year and time of the night. Beyond the accuracy and in some ways tempering it, is his priority to paint what the human eye perceives versus how the camera records nature is seen dramatically in this detail in this diorama background.

Harold Anthony proudly opened the first ten dioramas of the North American Mammal Hall on April 8, 1942. Nine of the ten included: The Alaskan Brown Bear, Moose, Mountain Lion, Grizzly Bear, White Sheep, Musk Ox, Mountain Goat, Grant Caribou, and the Bighorn Sheep. The Osborn Caribou was nearly complete and Wilson was in the middle of painting the Bison/Pronghorn. The Bison scale model was shown with the other nine in the Guide Leaflet that was produced for the opening and the Osborn Caribou wasn’t, so it appears that the unfinished Bison diorama was the tenth diorama. Wilson finished painting the Bison in September 1942 and the glass was installed in November.

Harold Anthony’s opening remarks tell much about how this hall was conceived and even more telling, his thoughts about how the dioramas function beyond their didactic mission. There were the remarks about the museum’s attempt to show North American landscapes in their pre-contact state. The types of animals picked for the groups were to some extent, based on those that interested visitors. Because of this, the selection of large animals tended to be game animals. National Parks and other places of tourism were given priority as the location for the groups if they met the museum’s overriding criteria of conservation and education.

Anthony emphasized the educational mission by saying,

The new hall is more than the Hall of North American Mammals. It is a hall of North American geography in a broad sense, a hall of North American ecology, with botany and all of the other environmental factors receiving the utmost attention…[As in the Mountain Lion diorama sited in the Grand Canyon], the casual visitor views the background in terms of enjoyment and entertainment, but the geologist sees in it a marvelous example of stratigraphy and of erosion on a stupendous scale. A student of botany or ecology…sees other things. He sees the flower known as the cliff rose growing out of the rock in the foreground, the cactus near at hand, the arid aspects of the landscape, and the lack of any vegetation on many of the slopes demonstrating that erosion of the land proceeds, unabated when there is no ground cover to check it.xxiv

Anthony saw the dioramas as places to rest from the “war-mad world with daily press and radio continually impressing one with Man’s destructive powers and when there are so few releases from the war psychology.” He saw the dioramas as an art form that can hold out hope and provide spiritual sustenance. He wrote that in the dioramas, “the sun still [shines], the plants and trees [are] still green or budded with promise, and the animal life [is] still pursuing the same pattern of life as times of peace.” To preserve the contemplative quality, he felt that “labels must be restricted to a size and prominence that will not compete with the group itself and act as a distracting influence in the hall.xxv The beauty and the illusion of reality are lost if large, conspicuous labels catch the eye at every turn.” He went on to say “if exhibits are openly displayed as lessons, many visitors will turn aside because they are not in the mood.... The education and inspiration is there for those who seek them, for in these exhibits the visitor ‘Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in the stones.’” It is remarkable for a man representing a natural history museum, someone steeped in science, to bring such poetic and inspirational observations to the fore in the opening remarks.

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

By now, Roy Chapman Andrews had stepped down under pressure as director and Albert Parr, hired from Peabody Museum at Yale University, replaced him. Wilson, with the help of Fred Scherer finished the Bison diorama by September 1942. It is one of two large dioramas in the hall and Wilson brings all he can to it to generate interest in the background painting in what is a fairly open and featureless landscape. There are distant mountains and some low riverbeds. The clouds are used to great purpose to enhance the aerial perspective. Wilson wrote that the cloud color subtly changes from warm yellows and oranges in the clouds nearest the viewer to cooler pink as they recede back. Bright, ultraviolet lights, over time, have bleached out these subtle colors in the clouds and the effect is no longer visible.xxvi He used William R. Leigh’s illusion-enhancing ploy of painting the line of animals, in this case a herd of bison running out into the distance at the right side. This is the same place that Wilson used anamorphic perspective to paint the bison on the side wall. The animal looks correct when viewed from the front of the diorama, but when seen head on, it looks stretched as if painted on rubber. All this was accomplished with grids and from Wilson’s intellectual breadth. I have written about Wilson’s humility and lack of ego. There were times like this, when his ego showed itself. The “rubber bison” is a flashy signal inviting his colleagues and maybe some astute viewers to take notice. With this parlor trick, he could expound about the centuries’ old tradition of anamorphism to anyone who might be curious, but maybe more importantly, it called attention to the sides of his dioramas; it called attention to the fact that Wilson didn’t try to hide the sides of his dioramas. He was quietly proving that all areas of the background could be as correct visually as the front no matter at what angle it was from the viewer. He wouldn’t promote his method or debate with any of the other painters the superiority of his method, but he wanted them to take note that he had found the solution to the vexing problems of painting on a curved surface.

Rubber Buffalo
Bison diorama, Anamorphic buffalo detail
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services
Bison - American Museum of Natural History
Bison diorama,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services

Wartime Production

By the end of October, 1942, Wilson had finished the Bison diorama and moved to the Jaguar. The Wapiti, Bison-Pronghorn Antelope, and the Virginia Deer had their final photographs taken and glass installed between October and December. Many museum employees were joining the Armed Forces and building and artist’s materials were scarce, making continuous diorama work increasingly difficult. Wilson had to switch to Devoe paint since the Winsor Newton paint he was used to was not available. Even James L. Clark left the museum to work as a civilian with the Army. Bernard Chapman made the studies for the Jaguar in Mexico in the western Sonora, but before he could paint the diorama background, he left the museum to take a teaching job in Maine. Wilson used Chapman’s studies, but didn’t think the early morning setting of the site was as strong as it might be. A black and white photograph in James L. Clark’s files may have influenced Wilson to consider changing the time of day. The sunset was caught on film just as it slipped over the mountains at the site. The light caught the clouds creating dramatic highlights while crepuscular rays gave great theatrical appeal.

Jaguar Sunset
Photo of sunset at the Jaguar site, James L. Clark files, AMNH,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services

A photograph with Paul Wright sketching in the Jaguar background is intriguing because there are three references: Chapman’s painted study of the site at morning, the panoramic photo, also at morning, and Wilson’s scale model with the time of day changed to dusk. Oddly, Chapman’s panoramic photograph is gridded with wrapped string, which indicates that Wilson, in this diorama, relied on the photograph for the transfer to the background. This predated the photographic grid method Wilson would eventually switch to in 1947. It begs the question as to why Wilson chose the panoramic photo over Chapman’s study, especially since Chapman’s study appears to be of high quality. By this time Wilson had produced his own studies and photos for five dioramas. He carefully worked both the painted and photographic references together so the pan was the same, the angle of view of each was very close, and the contours of the landscape accurate. Wilson may have seen flaws in Chapman’s references and decided the photographs were going to give him the best transfer.

Jaguar  with sketch in background
Paul Wright in Jaguar group,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services

The Jaguar Group is painted just at sunset with the light coming over the mountains, glowing through the valley. Many viewers have wondered whether the background was painted on a transparent surface with a light illuminating it from behind. Wilson described his technique in the Jaguar group. He began with Kranzmeir white, which was only used when extreme brilliance was needed. (Because Kranzmeir white reacted with other colors over the years it fell out of use.) After the white dried, he scumbled cadmium yellow deep and light cadmium yellow over the white and then glazed over that with alizarin crimson.xxvii Scumbling is a dry brush technique where a granular trace of the pigment is left behind by lightly dragging paint over the canvas. Wilson used this technique often in his skies to add a color to the horizon or create wispy clouds. Directing spotlights on the sun was also key to creating the sunburst effect. There are five incandescent spotlights in this diorama with the bottom half of the bulb blacked out to keep the light lower on the foreground and to direct the light to the sun. Spot lighting such as this had been used effectively in Robert Kane’s Hunting Dogs and Chimpanzee dioramas in the African Hall. A fascinating discovery was made in the recent cleaning and renovation of the North American Mammal Hall. The jaguar mounts have oil color painted directly on the fur. There is color painted on the muzzle, feet, forelegs, and small areas scattered about the body. According to George Dante, the taxidermist hired for the renovation, “it works so well, the viewer would most likely mistake it for light.”xxviii

Wilson finished the Jaguar in early 1943 and started the Mule Deer drawing. For the past four years, he had been on a very tight schedule and even though the ability to work was getting more difficult because of the war, Wilson was asked not to take his vacation presumably to get the diorama finished for the Boone and Crocket Club dinner on December 16, 1943. Wilson was the sole artist in the Mule Deer. He had no one working in front of him or alongside, only another foreground artist, Paul Wright. Even with the deadline, Wilson preferred the simpler schedule on just one diorama.

James Perry Wilson painting mule deer
James Perry Wilson in the Mule Deer, photo by Thanos Johnson,
Collection M. Anderson

He finished the drawing in April 1943 and started to paint. It is at this time that a young soldier on leave, stuck his head into the Mule Deer enclosure and introduced himself to Wilson. His name was Thanos Johnson, a second generation Greek, with a passion for art. Johnson impetuously exclaimed how much he loved what he saw and asked Wilson to teach him everything about how it was done. Wilson responded to this young man’s artistic spirit right away and they met for tea that very day. Over the next four years, what started as a mentorship developed into a strong friendship between the two men. Beyond painting and museum work, they found there were other areas of commonality, such as music, photography, and even astronomy. Johnson, hungry for knowledge and lonely in his new position in the Army, at times wrote daily. Wilson responded in kind, sending some 88 letters, a total of 424 pages, noting details about his museum work and the various painting methods he used in his dioramas, as well as discussions about their other shared interests. There was an exchange of slides and from Wilson, gifts of a paint box, a tripod, and even a wooden recorder complete with Wilson’s handwritten music from the Ring Cycle by Wagner. And Thanos sent Wilson reference photographs that were useful in the painting of the Cacomistle diorama as well as trail directions to an overlook at the Delaware Water Gap that would become the site for the Skunk group.

They wrote each other on special paper that fit in a small, three-ring binder and Johnson filled two binders with Wilson’s letters. Thankfully, Johnson saved the binders filled with Wilson’s letters and has generously shared them. James Perry Wilson was an articulate teacher, the letters contain eloquent descriptions of his methods, everything from how to mix paint, to how he painted skies, to lessons on tonality and atmospheric perspective. Wilson had never written his methods down as thoroughly as he did in these letters. The letters span the period when Wilson was working on nine of the nineteen dioramas he would paint in the North American Mammal Hall in New York, encompassing six of his twelve collecting expeditions for the American Museum, and the beginning of his work at the Peabody Museum, which set a standard there for every new display to come. Additionally, his photographic experimentation is documented, which led to the development of the second version of his gridding method. In short, this was one of the most fertile and productive times in Wilson’s career, when his skills and painting acumen were at their peak and when the museums were in a “golden period” of full-scale diorama production. Palpable warmth emanates from the letters and ultimately, what is revealed about Wilson is the broad range of his interests, his highly organized and meticulous intellect, and his rich personality. A few letters also give rare insight into Wilson’s very private emotional life, proclaiming the depth of Wilson’s affection for Johnson.xxix

Wilson wrote Thanos on October 20, 1943, that the whole of the right half of the Mule Deer background was finished except for the tie-up. Paul Wright was installing the left side so Wilson felt he could finish the diorama in a month. The last month before the opening, Wilson and Wright worked together in the diorama trying to stay out of each other’s way. There were alleys left in the foreground so Wilson could walk up to the background to paint, but even when all of the foreground was in, Wilson, while standing outside the diorama, would make changes with his brush affixed to a long bamboo pole.

The Boone and Crocket Club was a group of wealthy hunters and adventurers, who were very interested in the development of the North American Mammal Hall. James L. Clark, as a member, asked for the club’s support early on as the Hall was being planned. He got it in a variety of ways; most directly, the club sponsored the Alaskan Brown Bear diorama. Many of the club members clamored to go on the expeditions to collect the animals. The Boone and Crocket Club maintained a scoring and data collection system by which all North American big game animals could be objectively measured and tracked. Clark was influenced by these records and sought to include several trophy-sized antlers to the taxidermy mounts in the hall. Some of the members owned trophy size taxidermy mounts and Clark solicited their donation to the museum for inclusion in the dioramas. He felt that if he were to produce the best displays of North American Mammals, the taxidermy mounts should unquestionably have the biggest antler racks if he could get them.

Colonel Richard K. Mellon was the donor for the White Sheep and the Mule Deer dioramas, as well as a member of the Boone and Crocket Club. Mellon, one of America’s most wealthy men, funded the Osborn Caribou expedition as well as the Mule Deer. Wilson and Wright finished the Mule Deer diorama in time for the Boone and Crocket Club dinner on December 16, 1943. Colonel Mellon switched on the lights to illuminate the new diorama as part of the dinner. He was also presented with Wilson’s framed study from Devil’s Tower.

The Mule Deer diorama was the last large diorama that Wilson would paint at the American Museum of Natural History until he returned to paint one last sizeable diorama in the Forestry Hall in 1955. The Peabody Museum dioramas and the smaller corridor dioramas on either side of the North American Mammal Hall would occupy Wilson for the next ten years.


i American Museum of Natural History Annual Report of the Trustees, 1887.

ii J.A. Allen was one of the judges for the first three taxidermy competitions of the Society of American Taxidermists in 1880, 1881, and 1883. In William Hornaday, Masterpieces of American Taxidermy, Scribner’s vol. 72, no. 1, 1922.

iii Auk, July 1893, p.308.

iv Richardson’s bison mounts were displayed until the 1930s when they were removed from public exhibition. In 1945, the AMNH donated three of them to the Peabody Museum of Natural History to use in their Bison diorama.

v Steven Rogers e-mail message, 3-18-12

vi The norms for diorama design were codified in a paper titled: “Factors Considered in the Planning of a Habitat Group of Mammals in the North American Mammal Hall” Dec 1955, AMNH Mammalogy archives.

vii Hanna Rose Shell, Skin Deep, Taxidermy, Embodiment, and Extinction in W.T. Hornaday’s Buffalo Group, Proceedings of the CA Acad of Sciences, Oct 18, 2004, p.101.

viii John Rowley, Taxidermy as an Art, The Osprey, Vol 3, no.1, 1889, p. 4.

ix Anonymous, Plastic Taxidermy: A New Method of Mounting Animals Which Insures a Close Presentation of Life, and Which Is At Once an Art and a Craft., Craftsman, 1909, pp. 580-584.

x American Museum of Natural History Annual Report of the Trustees, 1914.

xi American Museum of Natural History Annual Report of the Trustees, 1919.

xii The History of Man exhibit was dismantled in 1994 because of inaccuracies.

xiii One slide from the first series of color slides was discovered in a box of slides. The slide was labeled: 1-12 Wyoming plains (Overland Trail) 1/30 @ f/11 Aug 1941.

xiv All of Guerry’s dioramas were repainted by Belmore Browne.

xv Gary Hoyle, e-mail message, 8-22-12.

xvi Robert MCConnell report to NAMH committee, Papers of Preparation, Sept 6, 1939, AMNH archives.

xvii James Perry Wilson Letter to Thanos A. Johnson, July 2, 1944.

xviii Ibid.

xix Wilson painted for 154 days on the Grizzly Bear in 1940, James L/ Clark to Roy Chapman Andrews, Memo, Oct 14, 1941.

xx Fred Scherer, personal conversation, Nov. 25, 1997: “ I painted the vultures here. I think I painted those on the bottom-I know I did. I'm not sure about the ones up in the tree. I did the tie-up too. [The vultures] all look similar and I had lots of models, so I wasn't scared doing it.”

xxi Jaques had another story. He lived with a resentment that Frank Chapman had manipulated his schedule in such a way that made it impossible for him to combine both his vacation and go on the Tundra expedition. Instead he had to choose one or the other and Jaques took his vacation.

xxii In Scherer’s later years, painting-related information such as how to mix paint for certain effects and how the dioramas were painted were some of his last fully coherent memories.

xxiii Harold Anthony to William Honnold, Memo dated October 15, 1942, Mammalogy archives, AMNH.

xxiv Harold Anthony, Opening Address, April 8, 1942, Mammalogy archives.

xxv Anthony’s proscription for labels in the North American Mammal Hall is currently under revision by a less sensitive museum administration who plans larger, backlit labels for the recently renovated hall.

xxvi This effect can still be seen in the Ostrich/Warthog diorama in the mezzanine of the African Hall and may be due to the fact that Wilson had better quality oil paints available in pre-war New York.

xxvii Interview with Ralph and Ruth Morrill August 29, 1994 at the Peabody Museum of Natural History.

xxviii George Dante, e-mail, September 21, 2012.

xix When interviewed, Thanos said that Wilson never overtly tried to make the relationship sexual. Thanos was not homosexual and thought of him like a beloved uncle. Interview by author, December 1996.