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Painting Actuality: Chapter 9: The War Slowdown and the Pea

Chapter 9:
The War Slowdown and the Peabody Museum of Natural History

Shoreline Diorama
Shoreline diorama, Peabody Museum of Natural History,
photos courtesy of Peabody Museum

The lion's share of this chapter's quotes by James Perry Wilson are from his letters written to Thanos Johnson between July 1944 to June 1945. The quotes will be identified only by their dates.

The Second World War saw much of the staff of the American Museum disappear into the armed services. James Perry Wilson was in his mid fifties and remained employed at the museum. Fred Scherer also stayed behind because his bout with polio as a child made him ineligible for the military. George Adams was the taxidermist and, together, they pushed work forward in the corridor groups after the larger central groups were finished. The first dioramas, the Jackrabbit and Cacomistle/Spotted Skunk both had backgrounds with locales in the Southwest. Wilson had not been sent on expeditions to either spot to make his panoramic photos and painted color studies. He only had enlarged color photos sent by park rangers from both sites which Wilson felt were "deficient in color". Both diorama cases are small, only 62 inches wide by 38 inches deep and Wilson painted them quickly. He said of the Cacomistle/Spotted Skunk group in a letter dated April 30, 1944, that despite its small size and inferior references, it was going to be one of his best backgrounds. Indeed, the sky is a tour de force. The stippled pink glow of the horizon transitions through oranges and blues creating a sky with great luminousity. The intense sunlight catching the vertical shaft of Shiprock adds to the drama. Fred Scherer worked on the foreground and painted the tie up, though the Cacomistle/Spotted Skunk group wasn't fully finished until 1947 when plant specimens and rocks were received from the National Park Service. Ray deLucia would do this final work.

Cacomistle diorama
Cacomistle/Spotted Skunk diorama,
Photo courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services

Wilson moved to paint the Cottontail diorama in early May 1944. There is no mention of any trips to the site in Ithaca, NY to make photographs or to paint a study for this background. It is likely that he didn't need extensive color notes because it is the exact type of landscape he painted en plein aire in New England for years. The sky that he painted is exactly like some of his landscape paintings. He described it as such:

3rd of June 1944: " The sky is a soft blue at the top and becoming slightly (very subtly) greenish in the #5 band, and below that merging into a violet haze at the horizon. No clouds. A typical eastern sky. Along the right hand side of the cornfield runs an old stump fence with a wild grapevine running along it-yellow leaves-and at the far end of the field is a hedgerow of sumac-red—and beyond that trees, including maples, pines, and others. Colorful, but it must all be mellow; not gaudy."

The Cottontail diorama was unusual that the site was in a cultivated field. Evidence of human presence was not a common occurrence in the American Museum diorama halls at the AMNH. Most backgrounds were landscapes untouched by humans. Surprisingly, Wilson's next diorama, the Striped Skunk, also had evidence in the background of human activity. Wilson wrote:

21 June 1944: "Don [Carter] felt that to make a plausible setting for a skunk group, we should have some suggestion of human habitation in the foreground. Accordingly, we went to this other spot, where I painted a grassy field in place of the slate dump. The slopes of the ground were rather similar in both places. In each case the ground dropped away steeply below you into a valley, beyond which rose a tree-covered slope. But from the second site, this wooded slope was interrupted by fields, and I took the liberty of putting a field down below in the picture. It might puzzle the Scouts who are familiar with their camp!"

By mid 1944, staying busy at the AMNH was increasingly difficult. James L. Clark wrote to a friend that work was slow. Construction of new diorama cases for the North American Mammals Hall had bogged down. Clark thought the skunk group, another small corridor group, could be collected without too much difficulty since the site at Delaware Water Gap was close to New York City. On June 19, Don Carter, Fred Scherer, and Wilson left to do this work. In deference to the nocturnal habits of the skunk, Wilson proposed that this diorama be set at twilight. Wilson had the diorama mentally planned before he left for the Water Gap. He mentioned a 12"X16" canvas previously painted of leafless trees silhouetted against an afterglow sky as his idea to represent in the diorama. This painting was blue-grey at the zenith and yellowish at the horizon, with a slender crescent moon that he thought would make a good addition to the scene. The moon would prove to be a difficult inclusion.

James Perry Wilson Twilight
Castor and Pollux-Mercury-the Moon, Pelham Manor 14 June 1934, 12X16, oil on canvasboard,
Boston Museum of Science

29 June 1944: "Getting back to that crescent moon (skunk group)-I haven't painted it yet, but I'm going to. It has been decided, everyone agreeing, that it would be a good thing to include in the background. I may have to cheat a little to get it in, but I can assume that the group represents one of those years such as 1932 or 1950, recurring at 18 year intervals, when the moon's ascending node is near the vernal equinox, making possible a northerly declination as great as 28 1/2º. The Water Gap study was received with approval by Dr. Clark and Dr. Anthony.".....

Skunk Moon
Skunk moon, Photo by Michael Anderson,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services

The studies Wilson painted at the Delaware Water Gap demonstrate his ability to change time of day in his paintings. In this case, he painted the study during daylight hours, but painted it as he supposed the light would look at twilight. As mentioned before, Wilson had studied the effects of sunset on the landscape and he had other plein aire paintings at twilight that he could use as references. These were not guesses, he knew what to expect and some of the special characteristics of light at this time of day. In particular, he mentions the phenomenon "afterglow" This is the effect of sunlight reflecting back from one mountain to impart a rosy luminesence to another. He had studied this effect in life and in books and was drawn to paint it when he could. The features of the landscape at the Water Gap made painting this effect plausible.

Del Water Gap
Striped Skunk study,
Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History Library Services

After the study was painted, Wilson found time to go out at twilight to test what he had painted. He discovered that the sky was lighter than he had anticipated and he went back and repainted the sky. This kind of variation in what he saw vs. what his educated guess was furthered his commitment to try to paint at the very time being depicted.

Finally, the flow of work on the dioramas was interrupted enough for the Peabody Museum to negotiate a contract with Wilson to paint the first diorama in the Connecticut Hall, the large Shoreline group. Wilson applied for and was granted a five-month leave of absence to go to New Haven. Wilson did more than just paint the background, as can be seen in the following letters. His knowledge was respected at the Peabody and Dr. Dunbar sought his advice on all aspects of how to create a high-quality display, incorporating the latest methods from the American Museum.

The Connecticut Hall of dioramas in the Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Connecticut, was the result of an evolution of ideas initiated by Albert E. Parr, while director of the museum, and carried forward by his successor, Carl O. Dunbar. The curator of zoology, Stanley C. Ball, was responsible for determining the diorama's functions, scope and general plan, and of obtaining specimens. Visits to other museums, especially the American Museum of Natural History, greatly enhanced the planning stage and provided information about methods used in production work. These men also were able to see the extraordinary backgrounds by James Perry Wilson and to request his services at the Peabody.i

An early visit and Wilson's preliminary impressions of the Peabody are recorded in the following letter:

Sept. 26, 1944-"I went through the museum in the afternoon. They have a number of small habitat groups, mixed in with other exhibits. The backgrounds and lighting arrangements are pretty primitive compared to the AMNH. It is up to us to set a standard! Everyone there seems to have high respect for what we have done in New York, and I think they will be very satisfactory people to work for."

To start, the general location of the site was planned before Wilson embarked on the field trip, but the exact locale was chosen in the field as a collaboration between the zoologist, Dr. Ball, the foreground artist, Ralph Morrill, and Wilson. Dr. Ball made a preliminary pencil sketch of what he wanted to see. Wilson used vacation days and travelled to New Haven before his leave was granted. He was in Connecticut on June 15, 1944 to take his site photographs of the beach and marshlands. His eye and experience was a dynamic part of the collaboration and essential in choosing sites that would work well as a diorama setting. He could visualize the entire composition while he was in the field and, with that image firmly in mind, make specific documentation of the site. The Peabody Museum's shoreline diorama however, is unusual in Wilson's diorama production, in that it is a composite of three different local habitats that were photographed, painted, and then merged into a single composition. Wilson had to find good references to be able to stitch the sites together so they would appear continuous. According to Ralph Morrill,

"Perry, Dr. Ball, and I went out to the [Milford Point]area and photographed it many many times from different angles to get the proper set up for the background. Perry was instrumental in getting this set up the way it is. We made miniature models of [different] sections so we could determine what to use and what not to useii . "

Prior to this, Wilson had painted his diorama backgrounds from references taken from just one site. With every diorama on which he had worked, Wilson meticulously gathered reference material taking a series of panoramic, overlapping slides of the site, and then painting a fully-realized oil painting of the same locale, though in this case, no paintings have been identified or found. Joining three separate photographic references from three separate sites into one continuous background was a new challenge. In the case of the Shoreline diorama, the left side references were taken from Milford Point, CT, a spit of sand reaching out into the mouth of the Housatonic River. The village of Stratford, CT can be seen in the distance. The middle view is of the marshes, probably at Milford Point as well, but distant from the sandy beach view. The right, upland farm site is partially a mystery. The distant hills do not appear in his scale model painting and were inserted later, probably as a request from Dr. Ball. They have not been located and don't appear to be from the New Haven area. The barn was painted from photos taken of a barn in Sachem's Head in Guilford, CT.

July 15, 1944-"I finally got from Rochester the finished Kodachromes that I took on my second visit to New Haven. They came out satisfactorily, as did the first set; so that now I have a good collection of material, and can start sketching a layout for the composition of the background."

Oct. 2, 1944-"My first day at work was largely in getting things started. As I think I told you, this background is to be assembled from Kodachromes taken in a variety of places. Consequently, the question of composition is important. I am starting by planning the layout in a small model-scale 1 inch to the foot. The shape of the group may be somewhat troublesome. It is as long as the Bison group, but owing to exigencies of space, it is much shallower. It is like this:"

Shoreline Plan

The long straight back worries me somewhat, for from the opposite end of the group it will be seen very much foreshortened. Fortunately the landscape is open and mostly rather flat. If it contained steep hills or tall trees, the problem would indeed be difficult. I want to get the whole thing planned in the model, so I need to do as little altering as possible on the actual wall. I don't want to touch the wall until next week, for a coat of Permalba was put on a week ago today, and it is barely dry yet."

Shoreline Diorama Site
Photographic reference for the Shoreline diorama.
Photo by J.P. Wilson

The scale model was an important step in the process of diorama construction. It was a forum for the interested parties to work out as many of the problems as possible on a miniature scale before attempting the full-scale diorama. James Perry Wilson took this developmental stage as seriously as any diorama painter, if not more so. His finished models are all but exact replicas of the full-scale dioramas

James Perry Wilson Painting Scale Model
James Perry Wilson painting scale model, 1967,
Boston Museum of Science

Initially a box was constructed out of plywood. This would have the exact dimensions, in scale, of the diorama and would include the viewing window and a light source at the top front of the box. The background was made of a thin, flexible matte board that could be pinned or blocked up to the correct curve. In the case of the Shoreline diorama, the miniature-scale model was a dynamic work. To begin, the photos, field sketches, and Dr. Ball's preliminary sketch were on hand and Wilson and Morrill collaborated to compose the group. Dr. Ball and the Director, in the case of the Peabody, were nearby to offer suggestions. Wilson honed the three part composition at the miniature scale so each part would blend uniformly. Dr. Ball used the model to add and change elements of the environment. He initially wanted to put a harbor seal on the sand spit, but Ralph Morrill, who had hunted in this area, knew that seals were seen only on rocks in deep water, so the seals were left out. Then Dr. Ball conferred with Wilson, making suggestions and requesting changes to the composition. Morril constructed a miniature landscape using mache and plaster. Twigs and other organic material simulated trees, shrubs, marshland. Animals were sculpted in clay and painted or sometimes cast in a more permanent material and then painted. Birds, reptiles and amphibians were cut out of heavy paper and painted and then glued into place. After final approval was given by Stanley Ball and Carl Dunbar, Wilson painted the background of the model to give the most realistic impression but also to plan his painting methods. The few extant models done by James Perry Wilson are treasures of artistic quality and illuminating records of the process undertaken that produced the final works.

Oct. 6, 1944-"Today I finish a week's work in New Haven. It has been devoted to the development of the composition of the group in a miniature model at the scale of 1 inch to the foot. think I have the scheme pretty well formulated now, to the satisfaction of Dr. Dunbar (the director) and Dr. Ball (Curator of Zoology). Many adjustments have been made in arrangement, proportion, etc., but now we seem to have arrived at some definite conclusions. I have been working in charcoal, but now I am going to paint the model before touching the actual group.."

Painted Study Shoreline
Gridded study used to transfer to full scale diorama

Oct 10, 1944-I'm starting my second week's work at Peabody. All last week I spent on a charcoal drawing of the miniature background, since there was much to decide in regard to composition, etc. Now I am beginning to paint the small background, and next week should see me at work on the big one."

The part of the model that was not a collaboration, but 100% James Perry Wilson, was the grid used to transfer references. And, the Shoreline model had a unique grid. Owing to the long, shallow configuration of the case of the Shoreline diorama, Wilson had to grid it differently than most of his other dioramas. The only diorama with similar dimensions was the aforementioned Bison group at the AMNH. The Bison case was 35' long, similar in length to the Shoreline, but twice as deep. The Bison diorama was photographed before it was painted with the grid lines and under-drawing visible. The Bison grid give us a good indication of how Wilson gridded the Shoreline background. The long flat area is gridded with a uniform grid. The squares are a consistent 12 X 12". The long, flat section, Wilson decided, would not need the gridding method he had devised for the other dioramas. In the Bison layout, the viewer could stroll back and forth along a 27' wide viewing area making a central viewing point for this area unnecessary. It is only at the wings that Wilson used his signature "unsquare square" grid and picked two central viewing points, one for each of the sides, from which to lay out his curved grid. Here, the curve requires a typical Wilson grid, but he only used a portion of it at the wings. The grid merged into the square grid at the transition from the curved wall to the straight wall.

Shoreline Grid
Grid suggested for the Shoreline group by the author

Unfortunately, the Shoreline model has been lost. Only the painted background is known to us from a photograph of Wilson painting in the group . The photograph is slightly out of focus and the painting is difficult to see, but you can make out that the reference is painted on thin, flexible cardboard that needed numerous thumbtacks to hold it flat. The clipped corners and the thin cardboard both suggest that this was the background painting used to fit into a scale model. Typically, Wilson used painted studies comprised of three to five rigid canvasboards held together in a frame, that is, if they were painted from only one site. In this case where three separate shoreline sites were combined, it makes sense that the scale model background was used. Rather than go through the lengthy process of stitching the parts together again on the large scale background, Wilson used the painted background of the scale model. It was removed from the model, rolled flat, and gridded at one inch intervals to transfer to the full scale diorama. Since the landscape had already been projected onto the correctly scaled curve in the model, Wilson was able to grid the entire span of the full-scale background with square squares at exactly 12" X 12". Each square inch was transferred and enlarged to each of the corresponding 12" X 12" squares on the diorama background using charcoal. Wilson would repeat this method of using the scale model background as his primary reference with his next diorama, the Forest Margin. To my knowledge, he never used this method again, even with other dioramas constructed from composite references such as the Florida Black Bear group at the AMNH.

The construction of the full-scale Shoreline diorama shell with its gentle curves at the sides and overhead involved the substantial skills of welders, carpenters, and plasterers. The front of the case was constructed in steel. The viewing window (24 feet in length) was built to frame three large panes of glass. A light box overhead, spanning the length of the diorama had to withstand the weight of several men installing and replacing light fixtures.

Shoreline Ironwork
Shoreline Ironwork
Shoreline diorama ironwork,
Peabody Museum of Natural History archives.

The shell of the full-scale diorama had to be sturdy enough to support only the surface weight of the plaster, and therefore was made of wooden 2X4's. These were spaced approximately 18" apart with no horizontal spanning struts. The structure was meant to flex such that the plaster was less likely to crack. A wire mesh covered the 2X4's as a plastering surface. The plasterers applied three coats of plaster, a scratch coat, a browning coat, and a finish coat; troweling the surface so skillfully that sanding was unnecessary.iii Then Wilson's directions for preparing the smooth plaster surface were followed closely.

July 15, 1944 (J.P.Wilson to Dr. Dunbar)-"As you know, the method that we use is the covering of the plaster with canvas, set in white lead; but as an alternative to this, which is much cheaper, and...considered satisfactory, (is using) unbleached muslin sheeting, applied to the plaster wall with paperhanger's paste...The plaster is first given a coat of glue size; then the muslin is pasted on. The important thing here is the forming of close butted joints in the cloth. The muslin is laid on with an inch or two of overlap; then a sharp knife is passed along the seam, cutting both thicknesses. The two cut edges are peeled off, and the muslin is then given three coats of white lead in linseed oil...As a final coat before starting the background, I have found it desirable to cover the surface with Permalba (the white that I use in the background work) thinned with turpentine only. The commercial grade of linseed oil gives a decidedly yellow cast to the paint, whereas the final coat of Permalba gives a brilliant white surface, which greatly enhances the brilliance and luminosity of the color applied over it. It makes it possible to use a thin transparent color where desired, taking advantage of the reflecting power of the white ground beneath. This is especially helpful in skies and distances. Like the last coat of white lead, this coat is stippled."

The lighting was installed at this stage as well so Wilson could paint under the same lights as would be in the final display. Dr. Dunbar at the Peabody Museum in collaboration with Wilson had much to do with the innovation of fluorescent/incandescent mix in the dioramas at Peabody and the AMNH. Dr. Dunbar attended the New England branch of the American Association of Museums meeting in Worcester in December of 1943. At this meeting, fluorescent lights, a new arrival on the market, were displayed as an example of new exhibit lighting. A combination of fluorescent and incandescent lights were also displayed; general agreement was that this combination was superior to any other. Dunbar returned to the Peabody with the idea that fluorescent lights may solve the problem in diorama lighting of incandescent fixtures generating too much heat. James Perry Wilson was in New Haven in May of 1944, to discuss the Shoreline diorama painting. It is probable that Dr. Dunbar introduced the idea to Wilson. Wilson knew immediately from his knowledge of the physics of light that the fluorescents would be good for illuminating the sky and the background, but incandescents would still be needed to light the foreground, that this combination would mimic outdoor light better than anything used previously.

Wilson recounted in an interview with Rudolph Freund and Rudolph Zallinger the transition from incandescent to fluorescent lights at the AMNH:

Wilson: "I remember when fluorescent lighting was first introduced in the museum groups in New York. It was in the North American Hall. Previous to that we had used various colored incandescent lights, daylight lamps to simulate the cool light of the sky, plus some so-called whites which really were quite yellow to simulate sunshine. Still the sky light was not cool enough and it took some urging before we were permitted to use fluorescent light. The Museum engineer didn't want to bother with it.

Freund: " Weren't those the days of D.C. current?"

Wilson: "That was the bother. D.C. fluorescent lights are more troublesome to install. We finally got permission and Arty Scharf, the electrician who succeeded Bill Turner, the lighting expert on the groups, and I put our heads together and introduced an experiment in the North American Hall. We relit one of the groups."

Freund: "Which one?"

Wilson: "The Mule Deer group which I thought was not nearly as good as it might be. It was such an outstanding success and made all the others look sick, that Clark gave permission to relight the whole hall. Fluorescent lighting cut down on wattage tremendously and reduced the temperature in the light box. So today we use daylight fluorescent tubes to simulate the cool light from the sky and in case of a sunlit group, incandescent flood lights to simulate sunshine."

Zallinger: "Don't the flood lights cause shadows to be cast on the wall?"

Wilson: " Any shadows which fall on the foreground are cool in color because they pick up the cool light from the fluorescent tubes. It gives them the same bluish tone which shadows in sunlight have, out of doors.iv "

With the diorama shell completed and the lighting installed, James Perry Wilson was ready to start laying in the background in charcoal. As described, he started with a regular 12" X 12" square grid over the entire background wall. Then with the one inch string grid on the painted study, Wilson started to transfer the images in charcoal, square by square, to the full-sized background wall. The charcoal drawing was important, not only to locate the objects in the landscape, but to establish the range of the dark and light values in the painting. Wilson would paint over the drawing using the charcoal value scale as the basis against which to match his color values. Before painting, the charcoal had to be "fixed" or sprayed with a solution of resin in alcohol ("fixatif") that would coat the drawing with a clear film so the charcoal would not run when paint was applied..

Oct. 30, 1944-"It's amazing how time flies! I am starting my fifth week in New Haven. Of this time, almost three weeks were occupied with the miniature model of the group, since the composition had to be assembled from numerous elements. I have now spent seven working days on the full-size drawing, and you can begin to see what the group will be like."

James Perry Wilson Underdrawing Shore
James Perry Wilson starting the Shoreline underdrawing-note grid,
Peabody Museum of Natural History archives.

Nov. 10, 1944-"The work is going nicely and everyone seems pleased. This afternoon (it is Friday night) the Museum trustees held a meeting in Dr. Dunbar's office, and at the close of the meeting he brought them around to inspect the new work. I was introduced to them and shook hands with, among others, the President of the University. I shall probably spend most of next week completing the charcoal drawing. Then will come mixing quantities of paint, and painting the sky. Owing to the size of this background, and to the lack of a helper, it will probably take me more than a week to paint it. That means I'll have to stay here over a weekend, for I can't let an unfinished sky stand over Sunday. It would get tacky, and then when I started in again on Monday, I'd get a shiny streak. I'll have to plan my schedule so I won't be in the middle of the sky when Thanksgiving comes around."

Shoreline Underdrawing
Shoreline Underdrawing
Shoreline underdrawing,
Peabody Museum of Natural History archives.

Dec. 4, 1944-"I thought I'd have the charcoal drawing finished today, but Dr. Ball would like a tupelo (sour gum) tree in the background, and I'll have to find a place for one tomorrow. Then out with the "Flit-gun" and fixatif! Then out with the pencil and paper to calculate the amount of paint required for each of the 13 bands in the sky! Then out with scales to weigh out pounds and ounces of white! Then out with paintbrush and stippler to paint the sky! Then out!"

Dec. 6, 1944-"My charcoal work on the wall is finished at last, and today I sprayed three and a half quarts of fixatif on it. The smell of alcohol spread all around, even reaching the basement by way of the elavator shaft! I wonder what the visitors thought. I'll be giving the place a bad name!"

The first area to be painted in a Wilson background was the sky. It was to the sky that he would relate the colors and values of the rest of the painting. The sky, planned with typical care, was built with 13 bands of color. These colors were pre-mixed to the determined quantity so there would be no color matching midway through the painting of the sky. The square footage of each band was calculated giving Wilson an accurate estimate of how much paint he would need to cover each surface, allowing one ounce of paint to one square foot.

August 29, 1944-"A typical fair-weather sky, especially at high altitudes, graduates smoothly and evenly from a deep blue (cobalt or ultramarine) overhead, to a clear and much lighter blue, usually a turquoise hue, at perhaps one quarter of the distance from the horizon to the zenith. Below this level the tone usually lightens still more, but the blue color is modified by ground haze. The hue may be somewhat greenish, in very clear weather, or purplish, on hazy days, especially at low altitude. These three tones-upper part of the sky, clear turquoise band and horizon color-may be considered as the key colors for the entire sky. If they are carefully prepared, all the intermediate tones may be obtained automatically by mixing these. This will insure a smooth, even gradation. The process of repeated subdivision naturally results in 13 bands, as the following diagram will indicate."

Bands Diagram
Paint mixing diagram for the sky by James Perry Wilson

Nov. 28, 1945"-When I am mixing batches of color for big skies in backgrounds, and put the paint up in jars for later use, I use no medium whatever in mixing the color; but when I fill the jars, unless each jar is full to the very brim so that there is no air space, I pour Poppy Oil over the color to keep it soft. The reason I use Poppy Oil is that it is very slow-drying. Also, it is very pale in color, so that if it soaks into the paint, it will not affect its hue. But the sole purpose of this oil is to keep the paint soft. When I am ready to use the color on the sky, I carefully pour the oil off and save it. Then I use the color as it was mixed, without any medium. I never have occasion to use Poppy Oil in painting pictures, where it is not necessary to prepare quantities of color in advance. Incidentally, many of the better paint manufacturers grind their whites in Poppy Oil instead of Linseed, because of its pale color which will not turn the white yellow. I believe that this is why Permalba is so slow-drying. As you know, it is unusually soft, which means a considerable quantity of oil; and if that oil is Poppy Oil, it would account for the slow-drying characteristic, which is very desirable in painting big background skies which require several days, as it permits you to work back into yesterday's color which is still soft. "

Each band would be painted and carefully "feathered" into the next band using a large stipple brush to blend the colors. Ruth Morrill describes this stage as tricky; you have to feather down and feather up just enough, because if too much paint overlaps, a dark band results. Careful planning and careful painting produce a seamless blending of the sky.

Dec. 11, 1944-"Today I started mass production of sky color, having tried out various samples on the wall and modified them until I was satisfied. The sky is going to require 30 lbs. of paint! I mixed the first batch of 7 lbs. this afternoon."

Dec. 14, 1944-"Yesterday I finished mixing 30lbs 10oz. of paint for the sky, and today I started putting it on. At quitting time I had covered 102 of the 404 square feet. At that rate three days more should finish it; however the lower part is bound to go slower, because of the narrower bands are more blendings (sic), and the necessity of care in painting around trees, etc. So it will probably take four more days instead of three. In any case I shall have to work right through Sunday, for I don't dare let it stand longer than overnight, or it will get tacky, and then I can't get fresh paint on to it without causing a shiny streak. I'll take my weekend in the middle of the week."

Dec. 17-"Today I put in a busy day on the background sky, working from 9:15 a.m. to 6:15 p.m. with half an hour for lunch (painted 85 sq. ft.-75 to go)."

Jan 1, 1945-"Last week was a short one for me in New Haven, thanks to the generosity of the Museum administration, which gave everyone Tuesday and Wednesday off. Returning to New Haven Thursday morning, I spent two days painting cirrus clouds in my sky, which by that time was well dried."

Jan.3, 1945-"Do you remember the cirrus clouds in the Mule Deer sky? Well, I am now at work on cirrus clouds designed to make those look childish. I really think they are going to have better character. Having tried painting them over the blue with color thinned way down with turpentine, I have given that method up in favor of using the color full strength, but with very little on the brush. By rubbing this over the stippled sky, you get a light scumble, almost a dusting, of color on the high spots, with the blue showing through in between. You can control the density very exactly, and can get effects of extreme delicacy and subtlety."

Cirrus Clouds Detail
Cirrus Cloud detail

For color I am using the sky color mixed with white. Even the densest part of the cirrus cloud is so thin that you can feel a lot of blue through it. Owing to the great width of the group, and comparative lowness of the ceiling (12 feet), I have had to watch my drawing carefully and check its appearance from various points of view. For example: one particular cloud from the left hand end of the group looks like this: but from the right hand it looks like this:"

Cirrus Clouds Diagram

Jan 4, 1945-"The cirrus clouds are nearly finished now, and the first part of next week will see me back to earth again, painting on the landscape. I already have a small section done, the distant hills and the town of Stratford; for after the sky was painted I had to wait for it to dry before I could start the clouds, and I utilized the time of waiting by working on the landscape."

Shoreline Painting In Progress
James Perry Wilson Painting Shore Diorama
Shoreline painting in progress,
Peabody Museum of Natural History archives.

Wilson would start the landscape at the horizon and work forward, in spatial terms, so that the values of the distant landscape would be in harmony with his sky; then the next distance would be in relation to the far distance, and so on. Thanos Johnson noted that this also meant that Wilson could avoid having to paint around objects, the foreground objects would lay over the midground if the midground were painted first.v Simultaneously Wilson would be working toward the tie-up, that is, the region where the background painting merges with the three-dimensional foreground. Samples of the foreground material were brought to the diorama early in the painting process for reference. Wilson worked the painting toward the value and color saturation of the foreground material until the two were indistinguishable. Final touch-ups were done after the foreground was in place; then, since reaching the painting was difficult, he used a long pole with a brush attached to the end to paint the final effects. The Shoreline diorama is a remarkable example of this technique and is especially noteworthy in the area of the mud flat where the foreground slopes down to the background. Because there is no rock or tree to break the line where the foreground meets background, the masterly painting alone creates the illusion at this transition.

Jan. 11, 1945-"The background is now really beginning to go places. The long point of land, all the way out to the lighthouse is finished and today I started on the water and the beach. Neither of them is finished, but enough is laid in of each of them to indicate the effect. For the beach, I got some of the actual sand and spread it out on a board at the correct level above the floor. Then I painted a bit of the tie-up to match this, and worked back from there to the end of the sand spit. That was the only way I could get the color and value of the painted sand correct. I also put in a small sample of marsh grass. The green of this pushes the trees and hills beyond it way back. When I was painting the sky everyone was surprised that I was making it so dark. But now that I am getting some masses of tone under it, it keeps looking lighter. I've done backgrounds before, and I knew what to expect."

Jan. 22, 1945-"I have just finished painting Long Island Sound* (in Margin: *Could the background now be described as a sound picture? Ouch!) in the background, with the wet sand along the beach, littered with stones, shells, bits of seaweed and grass stalks. I think it looks convincing. Now I'm moving over to the bay and the salt marsh, and the dry sand on the spit above tide-mark. As I get more color on, the sky keeps appearing lighter all the time, just as I prophesied to the people who expressed surprise at its darkness when I painted it."

Jan 29, 1945-"After a period when it seemed to be going slowly, it has now reached a stage of rapid spurts of progress. The water in the salt marsh is finished, except for the near parts, and enough of an area of grass to gauge the effect. Today I followed the distant hills all the way around. Tomorrow morning should see them completed.

James Perry Wilson Painting Shoreline
Shoreline painting in progress,
Peabody Museum of Natural History archives

Dr. Dunbar is now laying plans to try to make it possible to engage me to paint the second background, if AMNH doesn't want me back in April, which it has shown no signs of doing."

Feb. 1, 1945-"The background has been going great guns of late. The time I spent on the charcoal drawing is now paying dividends. Also, this is the type of landscape I have been painting for years, which helps speed it up. With the exception of very small quantities of other colors, the entire distance, and a good deal of the nearer planes as well, has been painted with three colors-ultramarine (blue), light red, and yellow ochre! It is astonishing what variety you can get with these three, especially since both the red and the yellow are rather subdued colors...(They) impart a mellow quality to the greens, which is a good thing."

Feb. 7, 1945-"Today I started painting the barn and by tomorrow night I hope to finish it and also the farmhouse. This afternoon Rudy [Zallinger] covered the last bit of white on his [Age of Reptiles] mural, so that now he is entering the home stretch."

Feb. 13, 1945-"In reading over what I wrote last Wednesday, I note that I was over optimistic in regard to the length of time it would take to finish the barn and the farmhouse. Any architectural subject takes time because the drawing has to be done carefully. It was not until yesterday that the house was finished with its sugar maple behind it, lilac bush in the dooryard, and rambler roses (pink) blooming on the kitchen porch. I made it a white house. The end is in shade, a light cool blue-grey. Today I've been working on the barnyard."

Mar. 30, 1945-"After struggling all winter to keep warm on the third floor of the Peabody, it seemed strange suddenly to be trying to keep cool instead. (In New York the thermometer touched 84, breaking all records for the entire month of March) For the past two days I've been painting the pond, and everyone says it looks very inviting, with the water faintly stirred by a touch of air. Perhaps we should install a diving board."

Apr. 10, 1945-"The pond in the Peabody background is now completed, so we are all ready, in time for the opening of the warm season, for both fresh and salt-water bathing."

Anecdotes About the Painting of the Shoreline Diorama

Thanos Johnson describes how Wilson went about the painting of the concentric ripples in the pond.
"I would stand there and throw pebbles in water so he could get the water right. It isn't a complete circle, if you see a complete circle in the reflection you know the person never did it from nature. Its 180 degrees (and) coming across the corners they disappear. The corners disappear."vi


The late Ralph Morrill recalls a very warm day while working on the Shoreline group: "It's hot in here, said Perry, Guess I'll open a window." And he did: there's an open window in the old farm house beyond the pond.vii

Shoreline House James Perry Wilson


Ralph Morrill also remembers seeing Wilson paint the cattle in the distance on the side of the hill. On close inspection Morrill realized that the cows had no legs, only bodies. When questioned about it, Wilson replied that there was no reason to paint them since you couldn't see legs on cows at that distance.viii


Apr. 18, 1945-"On Sunday afternoon, May 13, at 5 pm., the Peabody Museum Auxillary will hold a meeting in the museum, in the hall where the Connecticut Shore group is located, and I am to give a talk on methods and problems of background painting. Dr. Dunbar will give a general discussion of the plans for the hall, and Ralph Morrill will explain the work involved in the taxidermy and accessories. "

Apr. 23, 1945-"I am now painting the willow tree to the left of the pond. This is the nearest tree in the picture so that the leaves have to be painted in considerable detail. In a tree seen under these conditions, each leaf on the surface of the tree appears as a spot of light against the shadowed background of the interior. Consequently, I started by painting the entire tree a dark shadow tone. It was a horrible looking mess! A great dark blob that threw the values off in everything around it....I left the eyesore untouched for three days (besides the weekend) [to dry] while I painted the grass in the salt marsh. I don't know what the visitors thought. To the uninitiated eye it must have looked as if I had gone completely haywire. But today the underpainting was in condition to work it over, and tonight the mess is beginning to look like a willow tree. The visitors will now probably decide that my insanity was only temporary, and that I recovered before it was too late to repair the damage."

May 5, 1945-"My next weekend will be a short one, as I have to return to New Haven Sunday noon, May 13, to address the meeting of the Peabody Museum Auxillary. I seem to be getting a lot more publicity in New Haven than I ever did in New York. The old story of the large frog in a small puddle, who'd be a small frog in a large puddle!"

In 1945, Rudy Zallinger was at work at the Peabody Museum on his egg-tempra painting "The Age of Reptiles", that would later win a Pulitzer Prize. Wilson and Zallinger found each other kindred spirits. They formed a friendship, not only in respect for each other's artistic skills, but also they shared an interest in classical music and attended several of Yale's classical concerts together.

Jan. 3, 1945- "…tempra has intriguing possibilities for certain types of painting, and I'd be foolish not to take advantage of an excellent chance to learn something about it [from Rudy Zallinger]. Furthermore working in tempra would be good discipline for anybody; for it simply cannot be done hit-or-miss; every step has to be carefully planned and exactly executed. In this connection, Rudy was much interested in my method of preparing 13 graded tones for my sky. That is analogous to the sort of thing you have to do in tempra-careful planning in advance."

May 22, 1945-"Today I took some shots of two finished sections of the background, the pond and farm on the right and part of the salt marsh on the left."

June 6,1945-"Work is about to begin on building the groundwork in the shore group, and I'll be starting the model for the second background (The Forest Margin). Then I can go back and tie-up no. one.

Meanwhile Ralph Morrill and his preparation department had been hard at work building the three dimensional foreground. This included a beach plum tree, a red osier shrub, and a large willow branch, all with thousands of hand made leaves of paper and wax. The cattails were hewn from long strips of wood and painted. The flat marsh grass didn't dry well and was prepared from the tightly rolled beach grass which were individually unrolled and ironed flat. Birds and mammals were taxidermied. Snakes and turtles were molded and cast in latex rubber and then painted. Even with much of this material prefabricated, installation of the foreground would take another 13 months and Wilson would spend a full month painting the tie-up and putting on the final touches. The finished diorama was completed in October of 1946.

Ralph Morril Constructing Shoreline Foreground
Ralph Morrill constructing the Shoreline foreground,
Peabody Museum of Natural History archives

The Shoreline diorama stands as one of the outstanding achievements in the field of diorama art. Its quality reflects the painstaking methods the artists used to produce it. This diorama, by itself, would insure a place for Wilson in the Hall of Fame for Diorama painters. But this was one of 56 diorama backgrounds Wilson would paint over 35 years. Thirty-seven were completed at the American Museum in New York, seven at the Peabody Museum, seven at the Boston Museum of Science, four at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottowa and one at the White Memorial Foundation in Litchfield, Connecticut.

i Stanley Ball, "Habitat Groups in the Peabody Museum" CT. Woodlands, Vol XII, #3, September, 1947, p. 39 Francis Lee Jaques and Belmore Brown were also hired to work on Peabody dioramas in the mid 1950's

ii Ralph Morrill interview, Peabody Museum, August 29, 1994.

iii Personal conversation with retired plasterer, Ray Kennedy, April 7, 1995 and June 21, 1996

iv James Perry Wilson, Unpublished interview with Rudolph Freund and Rudolph Zallinger at the Peabody Museum of Natural History, circa 1958, AMNH Archives and Manuscripts.

v Thanos Johnson, interview with the author, December 16, 1997

vi Thanos Johnson personal conversation with author December 16, 1996

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

viii Ralph Morrill, personal conversation with author, January 1991