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Conclusion: James Perry Wilson, Painting Light

James Perry Wilson, Painting Light

Wilson was an empiricist. He devised methods and techniques to transmit what he saw to the diorama backgrounds. He used photographs to make sure his landscape contours were correct, but he modulated them with great sensitivity so his paintings would only show those details the eye could see. His dual grid system was grounded in mathematics and Ptolmaic perspective codes. From the very beginning of his painting career, he was documenting as best as possible within the limits of his medium, the eye’s ability to take in actual perceptual data. His plein air paintings were so accurate that the exact spots can be found where he painted, the lines of the distant hills lock into place, foreground rocks can be found, many times, unchanged. These paintings begin to creep into one’s perception. I have said many times, this is a James Perry Wilson sunset, or this is a haze I have seen before in a Wilson painting, there is the sky gradation that transitions from cool to warm and light to dark.

In addition to this exactitude, Wilson wanted to express his emotional reactions to how light and color continually changes the landscape. There is an undeniable life in his paintings. I have reported the hypothesis that he was a spiritualist, similar to the early New England Hudson River school painters, that he primarily, was quietly painting God’s divinity in his landscapes. The paintings exude light and Wilson loved to paint scenes where light is the subject and pushes forward through fog and humidity. I have been criticized for presenting this. Ruth Morrill, who knew him well, acknowledges that he was a religious man who went to Episcopal services every week, but the painting had nothing to do with that devotional exercise. Wilson, she claims was a traditional religious man and any thought of extending that into a pantheism of God imbued in the landscape is just plain wrong. I take this criticism seriously. I think Morrill is right and that there was no crossover between the Sunday services and the Sunday painting.

I believe that Wilson’s paintings were done to forefront light and color vibrancy. He over-stated the colors just slightly, especially seen in his early paintings. His painting palette without black helps to make colors brighter, but when he painted reflected light, the blue from the sky reflected on leaves of trees, for example, was exaggerated just slightly so as to be visible to the viewer. He wasn’t beyond a restrained theatricality (the moon in the Wapiti is just slightly larger than what the moon illusion should be). In the diorama work, the colors at the tie-in were enhanced to help make the jump from two dimensions to three dimensions. The landscape is rendered in such a way that the value relations and atmospheric perspective are correct, but the color is a bit more saturated and the illusion of depth is that much more effective...

And James Perry Wilson loved to paint. He loved to try to paint his impressions of the land and he loved to explore why he was seeing certain phenomena. Fred Scherer said that when he painted waves, he spent more time watching the waves than painting them. The ripple in the Peabody’s Shoreline diorama was photographed and studied with several of his colleagues until he understood why he was seeing what he saw. He had a visceral connection to his painting. His joke about being hot while working on the Shoreline diorama and painting an open window is a funny example of a corporeal connection. I maintain that he liked to paint without clothes to engage in a most intimate physicality with his subject. His passion for painting could not be contained.

The goal of every diorama painter was to realistically portray the landscape, although reliance on scientific data, photographic references, and mechanical copying of nature was believed by most, to undermine the spontaneity and mood created by an artist’s subjective interpretation. In contrast, Wilson never wavered in his attempts to match his painting methods to the optical nature of how we see, He tried to be as objective as possible. His understanding of the science behind optical phenomenon, combined with his thorough documentation of the site, gave him a high level of confidence in what he was painting. Wilson used both perspective and photographs as well as a formula for painting skies and he had recipes for color mixing for certain types of objects in specific conditions. Atmospheric perspective was painted by using certain colors with controlled color temperatures and values, all graded and interlocked in sections. He painted his canvases from top to bottom, or if you will, from the distance to the close-up. Each section was finished without any need to return for changes. He started his paintings from the skies, moved to the far distance, then to the middle-distance, and finally to the foreground. For traditionally trained artists, this was an eccentric method. Most artists worked the canvas all over and painting formulas were disparaged. Wilson was unflappable though. To his mind, his methods produced the best results and he didn’t care if others didn’t like or respect it or if painting traditions were undermined. Wilson wouldn’t engage in a polemic about methods with other artists. This may be because he too, understood how feelings, intuitions or impressions enhanced his work. He was trying in his own way, to capture the same emotional response to the landscape as other artists. Though when he finished, he was satisfied that the painting mimicked the atmosphere and light of real life.

The American Museum administration and many of the powerful trustees considered Wilson “one of their top artists" (Roy Chapman Andrews in a letter to trustee William L. Honnold, 1941). Oddly, other diorama painters made little effort to learn his methods. Technical information, such as oil painting techniques, field methods, and scale model making techniques, were shared freely, but Wilson's transfer methods were either not completely understood or dismissed. An indication of this lies in a misconception, voiced by another diorama painter that Wilson was creating giant Kodachromes, inferring that because he relied heavily on photographs, he was merely a technician rather than a true artist. When asked about this, Wilson replied:

It isn't a photographic rendering at all. To reproduce a photograph would be absolutely useless. You have to make endless adjustments not only in the drawing but also in the tone of your painting. With a photograph you couldn't do it. There isn't the depth, the very quality most needed. (Freund-Zallinger interview)

There may have been a social reason for his methods not being used by other artists. Wilson wasn’t the most gregarious member of the Exhibits Department. He was polite and formal in his dealings with colleagues and kept above the workday politics. His best friends at the AMNH were members of the curatorial staff. The other diorama artists worked on outside jobs together and socialized with each other’s families. Wilson rarely did so. As seen by how much effort Ruth Morrill expended to understand his grid methods, getting the information from him was an extended undertaking. His death underlines how much he was on his own. Obviously, he had a big role in pushing people away at the end of his life, telling them to not worry about him. But there were no close friends or family that knew him well enough to know that he was dying. Most of his friends were surprised when they heard he had died and very few were in close enough contact to know about his funeral.

Nevertheless, Wilson worked right up until the end. If he wasn’t painting, he was investigating a mathematical problem or reading about recent updates in physics or astronomy or sitting back listening to a favorite Wagner opera with every fiber of his being. He was a man singularly devoted to his work with few distractions. This was the way Wilson did what he did. He learned how to put in the time needed to create beautiful work as an architect. He took his work home with him and came up with innovations that solved the pesky problems that had bedeviled diorama painters before him. He analyzed and looked closely and brought his intelligence and observations to his painting. Without fanfare, Wilson produced a body of work that was as rigorous as the science that informed the displays. No one before or after in the world of natural history dioramas, has ever reached the level of quality he set.




Are they art? Of course, Moreover diorama painting is a dying art, dioramas being relics from the days when verisimilitude was a necessary skill among painters, and artists were the ones who provided the world with pictures from abroad. Dioramas descend from the old curiosity cabinets that mixed paintings and stuffed birds. You might go so far as to call dioramists the original installation artists if you were stretching for a link to contemporary art.

Michael Kimmelman, "Trompe l’Oeil on Natures Behalf,"
New York Times, January 7, 2000

The 2003 grant from the Getty to conserve the African Hall dioramas at the AMNH was a major turning point for the dioramas being seen as art works deserving conservation and restoration rather than educational props that can be changed or discarded at will.  The Getty Foundation funds art, conservation, and art historical projects throughout the world. While many considered dioramas to be extraordinary works of art and science, it was a long road for the world outside of the natural history museums to embrace them. Judith Levenson, a principal investigator of the grant, thought that the significance was certainly felt by those in charge at the American Museum of Natural History.

But there were events that preceded the Getty grant. In the early 1970’s, interns were hired with money from, not insignificantly, the New York State Council on the Arts. One of these new interns was Stephen Quinn. Quinn wrote down stories and formulas and adventures that he heard in the preparation department and he started keeping files on all the background painters, foreground artists, and taxidermists. He compiled this information into a booklet guide to all the background and mural painters that were on public view. He circulated the booklet to the upper administration with a cover letter that pointed out the value of the museum’s exhibits and that, some of the museum’s collection was deteriorating, even some items stored in the archives.

Tom Nicholson, the director, contacted Quinn immediately and asked him to work with the AMNH’s development office to apply for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for funding to properly inventory, catalog, condition report, and store the smaller diorama artifacts. Kevin Avery, associate curator in the American Paintings department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote the supporting document justifying the application of NEA funds to care for what he described as one of the greatest collections of Natural History Art in the world. He included the dioramas in this statement. The grant application was successful and the American Museum was able to hire someone through this grant whose sole responsibility was to inventory and document all the “art” at the museum.

Another significant factor occurred when the first conservator was hired in the early 1980’s. The focus was preserving anthropological artifacts, but her influence extended out into the museum. More conservators were hired with a wider focus and museum employees became more attentive to the need for conservation in their workplace. Objects of remarkable quality, but past their prime were typically discarded, but now they were seen in a different light. Historical material was saved from the incinerator and the role of the archives was strengthened. Murals and paintings by Charles R. Knight, discovered stored in less than optimal conditions, were restored and put on display. Carl Akeley sculptures, found falling to pieces were recovered and reconditioned. These are a few examples of the scientific art, photographic and film documents, and exhibit models that were coming to the light of day and given the care of historically significant, archival material.

Karen Wonders published Habitat Dioramas: Illusions of Wilderness In Museums of Natural History in 1993. Wonders, an art historian, studied the historical context for the rise of natural history dioramas in Sweeden and the United States at the turn-of-the-century. She wrote about many of the innovators, artists, and taxidermists who played a role. These previously defined educational exhibits and their painted backgrounds and illusionistic trompe l’oeil effects were now defined more broadly to be included in the genre of American realism. Wonders articulated the diorama’s unique place in American and European history; the diorama’s significance extended beyond their educational role.

Penelope Bodry-Sanders finished African Obsession, a biography of Carl Akeley in 1991. Akeley is considered to be the most influential innovator of habitat dioramas in the United States. Bodry-Sanders’ book helped to extend his influence beyond the natural history museum.

Steve Quinn published his influential book, Windows On Nature in 2006. The chairman of the board, Lewis Bernard read Quinn’s manuscript and lit a fire within the museum to get it published. Quinn’s book illuminated such little known topics as: that many of the dioramas where site specific, the ornithologist, Frank Chapman played a significant role with Theodore Roosevelt to create the first Federal Bird Reserve, Carl Akeley’s role in the creation of the first national park in all of Africa. Few know the significance of the Cuthbert Rookery diorama, created shortly after the murder of Guy Bradley, the young warden hired to protect herons from plume hunters. The public had never heard any of this and learning it made the dioramas more valuable and relevant today.

One of the dioramas was opened in the African hall by the Exhibition and Conservation departments to study and repair some on-going deterioration. Lewis Bernard visited the diorama and was fascinated by the diorama artistry and its conservation. Unknown to the staff, Bernard had connections with the Getty Foundation and he urged the museum to apply for funding to carry out a full conservation survey of the Akeley Hall of African Mammals. The application was made and $175,000 was secured to undertake a survey to determine the condition of the dioramas. This included assessing the paintings, botanicals, taxidermy, the central elephants, the over-all climate and it’s impacts on the exhibits. Further, it identified eventual treatments, their cost, and a time schedule to get them done.

New York Times, June 4, 2004, Glenn Collins:

"To generations of visitors, these elephants have conveyed the power and scale of the natural world in a very visceral way," said Ellen V. Futter, president of the museum. "It is essential to preserve this signature hall for future generations.'' This is entirely appropriate, said Dr. Deborah Marrow, director of the Getty Grant Program, the philanthropic division of the J. Paul Getty Trust, which financed the study. The exhibitions, she said, "are works of art."

Given AMNH’s seminal role in the development of dioramas from the turn-of-the-century through the 1960’s, and Albert Parr’s strong-handed guidance of displays at the AMNH in the 1970’s. Parr’s writing in museum journals also had the effect of chilling diorama construction, not only at the AMNH, but across the country. Therefore, it is not unreasonable that a change in how habitat dioramas were viewed as articulated in the Getty grant, had a profound effect on how dioramas were seen across the country.

Previous examples of the AMNH’s influence on the museum community was seen in the AMNH’s seminal role in the development of dioramas from the turn-of-the-century through the 1960s, and Albert Parr’s strong-handed guidance of displays at the AMNH in the 1970s. Parr’s writing in museum journals also had the effect of chilling diorama construction, not only at the AMNH, but also across the country. Therefore, it is not unreasonable that a change in how habitat dioramas were viewed as articulated in the Getty grant, had a profound effect on how dioramas were seen across the country.

Still the dioramas at the AMNH are under siege. An active debate is still taking place about whether the dioramas are worth precious museum space. As of 2014 at the AMNH, the Southern Asiatic Hall is looking quite worn with cracked background paintings, dirty windows, and missing tiles in the flooring. The “temporary” butterfly exhibit continues to restrict viewing of most of the Whitney Bird Hall dioramas. Both the Warburg hall and the North American Forests need a full cleaning and renovation. Within the high-level ranks of the administration, there has been a request to choose which halls could be considered “heritage” halls, presumably because those halls would be saved and conserved for the future. Most likely the two floors of the African Hall, the North American Mammal Hall with possibly the Ocean Life Hall might make the cut. The North American Bird Hall, the Whitney Bird Hall, the North American Forests, and the Birds of the World halls all are questionable.

As I write, the Bell Museum of Natural History is undertaking a project to move their dioramas painted by Francis Lee Jaques out of the Bell museum building to a new one on the University of Minnesota campus. Many in the museum community are distressed by this and think that there will surely be losses incurred to the dioramas. Jaques originally designed the interior of the Bell museum for his dioramas. Several of the older dioramas are not going to make the move and will be destroyed.

While there has been much progress concerning the status of dioramas, there is a continuing threat to their existence, because of an ambivalence toward them that has no easy solution. There is ambivalence about how the taxidermied animals were collected. A visitor referred to a hall of dioramas as a “dead animal zoo.” There is ambivalence within the educational museum community about whether any visitor learns anything standing in front of a diorama. Some museum educators believe much more text has to go on the walls to help support the educational function. Halls of dioramas take up a great deal of floor space in a museum, space needed for other purposes.

On the other hand, the dioramas offer the visitor with an uncommon way to learn. They have to slow down, to look closely, and to contemplate the scene in silence. This has been proven to be a very effective and long-lasting way to learn. In high quality dioramas, the odd illusion of reality with three dimensional foregrounds and taxidermied animals merging with a painted background draws visitors in. In a world where natural resources are disappearing, animals are going extinct, and climate change threatens the entire world population, compelling displays like dioramas increase in importance.

Text-heavy education has become the norm for twenty-first century museum exhibits. Designers default to technology to make the text more engaging to the public. There are a variety of talking heads or even animated figures placed in exhibits that “speak” to visitors. Everywhere the ubiquitous video screens and interactive games are available for kids to play. For the proponents of diorama education, an alternative beckons in response to the commonplace “bells and whistles” style of exhibits. I envision a sanctuary-like exhibit that experiments with content that comes across quietly while one stands in silence taking in the displays, an exhibit that has minimal text and video displays. This is what Harold Anthony proposed at the AMNH for the North American Mammal Hall. He proposed the hall as a sanctuary from the war-mad world. Today, the pace of life and the global consequences of that pace, call museums to offer the same kind of sanctuary for their visitors to slow their pace, where cell phones are turned off, and all visual and aural clutter ends as the visitor enters the exhibit. Is there a place in modern natural history museums for such a sanctuary? I believe there is, that dioramas have the power to inspire and inform about the anthropogenic extinction, climate change, and habitat loss, the pressing issues facing our planet.


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